Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Antiques And Arts News Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Prints: Italian Line Engravers

( Original Published 1903 )



As one of the chief reasons for the composition of the present volume is that the collector, whether a beginner or more advanced, may have ready access to a little book which supplements to some extent, but does not attempt to supersede, any one amongst the labours of earlier students-and which treats often with especial prominence themes which it seems lay scarcely at all within the range of their inquiriesit will hardly be expected that much shall be said here on the various departments of Italian Engraving. Italian Engraving, from the nielli of Florentine goldsmiths to the larger method and selected line of Marc Antonio, has for generations occupied the leisure and been the subject of the investigations of many studious men. Volumes have been written about it: treatises, articles, catalogues, correspondence innumerable. About Italian Engraving-in any one of its branches-it would be as easy, or as difficult, to say something now, and at the same time to the point, as it would be to write with freshness about the decorations of the Sistine Chapel or such an accepted masterpiece as the Madonna di San Sisto. The few words I shall write upon the subject will be of a wholly rudimentary character. If the reader wishes to go into this subject elaborately, I refer him at once to experts. No one is less an expert upon it than I am; but partly that all sense of balance shall not be wanting to this book, and partly that the beginner, even with this book alone, shall not grope wholly in the dark, the place of the Italians must be briefly recognised. In recognising it, I do not claim to do more, of my own proper knowledge, than bring to bear upon the question the results of some more general studies, and perhaps the sidelights thrown from more particular investigations into other branches of the engraver's achievement.

The nielli-those things wrought so minutely by the early goldsmiths, Maso da Finiguerra and the restwhich are the very foundations of Engraving, are, to begin with, introuvable. To the practical collector then, it cannot be pretended that they appeal, though they may engage the attention of the student. Then again, in fine condition, not spoilt by the retouching nay, re-working-of the plate, or the wear of the particular impression through its long life of more than three hundred years, the somewhat maturer work of the great Primitives, or of those who, like Mantegna himself, stands, a link upon a borderland, is scarcely within the region of practical commerce. The finer work of the line-engravers upon copper, of the earlier Renaissance in Italy, does not, save on the rarest occasions, appear in Sotheby's auction-room. Perhaps its very scarcity, its gradual absorption during more than one generation, into such great private collections as are not likely to be dispersed, and, yet more, into national, or university, or municipal collections, into which everything entering takes at once, and with no period of novitiate, the black veil-perhaps this very scarcity is accountable for the lack of vivid interest in such work on the part of the collector of modern mind. After all, even masterpieces have their day: much more those things of which it must be said, that though endowed with a great vigour of conception and executed often in trenchant, if not persuasive, form, they do not in execution reach the standards set up for us-and passing now almost into the position of "precedents" -by the later technique.

If, of the work of the greatest master of the German Renaissance-of the greatest, most original, most comprehensive mind in the whole of German Artit is possible to speak as that very fair and penetrating critic, Mr P. G. Hamerton speaks, in his general essay on Engraving, which appears in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," what is to be said of the earlier Italians? Why, in the very passage in which Mr Hamerton-far too intelligent, of course, to deny the greatness of his qualities-devotes to Durer, they, by something more than implication, are to take their share of the dispraise. After telling us that Martin Schongauer's art is a stride in advance of that of "The Master of 1466," Mr Hamerton adds, " Outline and shade, in Schongauer, are not nearly so much separated as in Baccio Baldini, and the shading, generally in curved lines, is far more masterly than the straight shading of Mantegna. Durer continued Schongaurer's curved shading with increasing manual dexterity and skill; and as he found himself able to perform feats with the burin which amused both himself and his buyers, he overloaded his plates,"--" some" of his plates, would here have been a reasonable qualification-" with details, each of which he finished with as much care as if it were the most important thing in the composition." The engravers of those days "-it is said further" had no conception of any necessity for subordinating one part of their work to another. In Durer, all objects are on the same plane." Here Mr Hamerton generalises far too much; but a strong, exaggerated statement on the matter directs at all events our attention to it.

A like criticism could be passed on some, though, it must needs be said, on less, of the Italian work of the earlier time.As a rule, when the pure Primitives had passed, Italian work was less complicated. In Mantegna himself, an immense energy in the figure-the completeness with which the artist was charged with the need of expressing action, and, it may be, the sentiment besides, in which the action had its source-restrained him. stayed his hand, diverted his attention from inappropriate or superfluous detail. And there were other Italian artists of the burin in whom a rising feeling for large and decorative grace had something of the same effect. And when we come to Marc Antonio himself-trained though he was as a copyist of Northern Schools-we see him able, when addressing himself to render the compositions of Raphael, to subordinate everything to the attainment of noble and elegant contour. The finest Marc Antonios-the Saint Cecilia and the Lucretia, to name but two of them (respectively 25 and 170 in a great Sale three years ago) -were wrought under Raphael's immediate influence; were sculpturesque and simple, never elaborately pictorial-the result, no doubt, in part, of the circumstance that Raphael as well as his engraver recognised that if designs (drawings, not pictures) were the objects of copy, they could be interpreted without going outside the proper art of the engraver. Whatever be the fashions of the moment-and Marc Antonio's prices, notwithstanding an exceptional sum for an exceptional print, are, in the main, low-it must be remembered that, even with his limitations, it was in him and in his School that real pure line-engraving reached maturity. "He retained," says Mr Hamerton, summarising well enough the situation in a sentence--" he retained much of the early Italian manner in his backgrounds, where its simplicity gives a desirable sobriety; but his figures are boldly modelled in curved lines, crossing each other in the darker shades, but left single in the passages from (lark to light, and breaking away in fine dots as they approach the light itself, which is of pure white paper." As general description, this is excellent; but if the new collector, taking to Marc Antonio, and buying him at a time when, if I may adopt the phraseology of Capel Court, his stock is quoted below par, wishes the opportunity of guidance in the study of the development of his art, let him take up almost the latest book that deals with the subject with minuteness and suggestiveness, if it may not be invariably accurate or systematically arranged -I mean the "Early History of Engraving in North Italy," by the late Richard Fisher, whose name as a collector and connoisseur I do not mention now for the first time. Very interesting too is all that Mr Fisher has to say about " the Master of the Caduceus," Durer's friend and instructor, Jacopo de' Barbarj, who, known as Jacob Walsh, was supposed to be German, although practising much at Venice. Passavant, who admits some thirty pieces by him, considers him of German birth-a thing allowed neither by Fisher nor Duplessis. " In single figures "-writes Mr Fisher"we have the best illustration of his talent-Judith with the head of Holofernes and a young woman looking at herself in a mirror." At the British Museum a bust portrait of a young woman, catalogued by Bartsch as amongst the anonymous Italians, has been given to Barbarj. M. Galichon considers him eminently Pagan in sentiment. Nor is this incompatible with Richard Fisher's statement that in style his Holy Families are completely Italian.

" La Gravure en Italic avant Marc Antoine "-a substantial work by Delaborde-is a book that will not pass unnoticed by those whose choice is for the earlier members of the Italian School. Campagnola, it may be-whose chief piece, the Assumption, fetched more than 50 at the Durazzo Sale, and whose Dance of Cupids reach 50 at the Marochetti-he will find adequately treated there; and there too are made in compact form certain instructive comparisons between Mantegna's work and that of Zoan Andrea and Antonio da Brescia whose labours have their likeness to Mantegna'a own. In the rare, splendid Dance of Damsels"Dance of Four Women," it ought rather to be, for in one of its little-draped figures the gravity and fadedness of middle age is well contrasted with the firm and fresh contour and gay alacrity of youth-Zoan Andrea, whose prints are generalement preferables" to those of Da Brescia, shows finely not only Mantegna's design, but that something of his own which the great Mantuan's design did not give him. Many people have written well on Mantegna; he provokes people, he stimulates them; and Mr Sidney Colvin, on the so-called " Mantegna Playing-Cards," has written learnedly as an investigator, giving to designs misnamed and misunderstood their right significance. But it is from Delaborde that I will allow myself to quote one brief passage, which is full at least of personal conviction. What more especially characterises-so he puts it-Andrea Mantegna's engraved work, is that it is "un melange singulier d'ardeur et de patience, de sentiment spontane et d'intentions systematiques : c'est enfin dans 1'execution materielle, le calme d'une volont6 sure d'elle-meme et linquietude d'une main irrite par sa lutte avee le moyen." Zoan Andrea's prints do not present these contrasts. "Tout y resulte d'un travail poursuivi avec une parfaite egalite d'humeur ; tout y respire la meme confiance tranquille dans 1'autorite des enseignements requs, le meme besoin de s'en tenir aux conquetes deja faites et aux traditions deja consacrees." By Mantegna, about twenty-five accepted plates have reached our time. By Zoan Andrea, a larger number have at least been catalogued, and it is argued by some that the least authentic, as well as the least creditable, are sometimes those which bear his signature.

Did I desire to manufacture "padding," nothing would be easier than for me to extend to a long chapter this summary assemblage of brief and almost incidental notes on the Italian Line-Engraving of the remote Past. But as the subject itself is one to which I have never yet been fortunate enough to devote such a measure of study as might entitle me to claim to be heard when speaking of it, and as the literature of the subject exists in such abundance for the curious, I can afford to be short. It may, however, be of some little interest to the collector, if, before passing on to the discussion of another branch of Print-Collecting in which I have ventured to take my own line, and am willing on all occasions to back my own opinion, we look a little into such records of the Sale-room as throw light upon the changing money values of the engravings by Italian masters.

Mr Julian Marshall, now with us in his middle age, began collecting when he was so young that his great sale occurred as long ago as 1864. Values have changed since that day, very much. Of his four prints by Mantegna, only one-The Flagellation-fetched more than 12. That one reached 21-an early perfect state of The Entombment going for 111, 10s., and Christ descending into Hell for 9. Domenico Campagnola's Descent of the Holy Ghost then fetched 2, 2s. At the Sykes Sale the same impression had fetched L3; at the Harford, 1, 15s.At the Marochetti Sale in 1868, not a single Mantegna, unless Christ risen from the Dead, fetched a price of importance, and this only ten guineas; but among the Marc Antonios the Adam and Eve in Paradise sold to Mr Colnaghi for 136, and The Massacre of the Innocents to Mr Holloway for 40. The Two Fauns carrying a Child in a Basket-engraved by Marc Antonio, in his finest manner, after an antique-realised 56, and the Saint Cecilia 51. In the Bale collection, in 1881, the St Cecilia fetched 40, and Mariette's impression of the extraordinarily rare Dance of Cupids 241. That was borne off by M. Clement, who was then what M. Bouillon is now -" marcha,nd d'estampes de la Bibliotheque Nationale." In the Holford Sale, twelve years afterwards, Marc Antonio's Adam and Eve sold to M. Danlos for L180; the Massacre of the Innocents (from the Lely Collection) to the same dealer for 1190; and the St Cecilia and Lucretia both to Mr Gutekunst -the first for 31; the second for 66. The great price fetched by a Marc Antonio at this Sale was, however, that paid for The Plague a print which M. Danlos acquired for 370. Taking note of such a sum, one could hardly believe perhaps that Marc Antonios were not rising; but when a master falls, it is in the minor, not the more eminent pieces-or, at least, in average, not exceptional impressions-that we trace most certainly a decline of value. And, taking the St Cecilia alone-one of the most charming of the subjects, as I have said before, though not one of the rarest-we find, on the three occasions of its sale that I have cited, a high price, one less high, and then again a lower. We find, indeed, comparing the prices that were fetched by two impressions not presumably very different-for both were in great Sales-that in 1893 a St Cecilia brought little more than half of what it brought in 1868. The question now for the collector's judgment, as far as money is concerned, is, Is it safe or unsafe for him to buy at just the present stage of a "falling market"? Have Marc Antonios touched bottom? If he buys them now, will he-in the phrase of sprightly ladies "fluttering" in "South Africans"will he be "getting in on the ground floor"

The collector has a right to ask himself these seemingly irreverent questions. Nor will he love Art less, or have an eye less delicate, because he is obliged to ask them. I do not know that the possessions of a prudent collector should-taking things all roundbring him, if he desires to sell, much less than he gave for them. It may be quite enough that as long as he keeps and enjoys them, he shall lose the interest of his money. If, in the interval, the value of his prints happens to increase, so much the better for him -obviously. But he enjoys the things themselves, and can scarcely exact that increase.