Renaissance and Baroque Color: Researching Chiaroscuro Woodcuts at the Library of Congress

The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division.

Among the Library’s treasures is a special collection of Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts made during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by such master artists as Domenico Beccafumi, Ugo da Carpi, Bartolomeo Coriolano, and Niccolò Vicentino.

Apostle with a Book. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 4 blocks by Domenico Beccafumii, circa 1540s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.15542

Apostle with a Book. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 4 blocks by Domenico Beccafumi, circa 1540s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.15542

Sibyl Reading. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, circa 1517-18. Attributed to Ugo da Carpi. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18658

Sibyl Reading. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, attributed to Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael, circa 1517-18. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18658

<em>Circe Giving Drink</em>. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, attributed to Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino, circa 1540s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18707

Circe Giving Drink. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, attributed to Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino, circa 1540s. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18707

Although the chiaroscuro technique was developed in Germany in the first decade of the 1500s, it flourished in the hands of Italian artists beginning around 1516 and came to be identified by the Italian word combining chiaro for light and scuro for shade. This early color printing process involved creating images from multiple woodblocks, using layers of color tone blocks and often a black or dark “key block” outlining the main, linear structure of the composition.

Three cherry woodblocks carved by printmaker Margaret Adams Parker, used to make recreations modeled on the Library of Congress impression of Saints Peter and John, c. 1540s, attributed to Niccolò Vicentino, after Parmigianino. Shown from right to left, below a palette knife, are the key block, the mid-tone block, and the light-tone block, each measuring 6 x 4 inches (15.3 x 10.1 cm). Photo by Katherine Blood, 2009.

Most of the Library’s chiaroscuro prints were collected by English collectors Philip and Thomas Herbert, the 5th and 8th Earls of Pembroke, and assembled by the latter between 1683 and 1733 into an album that was purchased by the Library in 1918.

Sixteen stellar examples from the Library’s collection, were the focus of an in-depth research project, carried out by Library of Congress former senior paper conservator (current Special Assistant) Linda Stiber Morenus and by Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) curator Naoko Takahatake. Stiber Morenus led an effort to study and re-enact the Renaissance system of creating chiaroscuros in order to better understand aesthetic results of printing variables that shed new light on the history of this art form. Collaborating artist/printmakers included Margaret Adams Parker who carved the blocks, Albert (Scip) Barnart who taught us how to mull inks at Georgetown University, and Tru Ludwig who printed the blocks at Pyramid Atlantic studio with the assistance of Ryan Ives. Dan De Simone, Alan Fern, and Peter Parshall were among scholar advisors for the project.

Linda Stiber Morenus using a glass muller to hand-mix dry red-ochre pigment into linseed oil; making ink based on historical recipes to print Renaissance-style chiaroscuro woodcut recreations. Photo by Katherine Blood, 2018.

Linda Stiber Morenus using a glass muller to hand-mix dry red-ochre pigment into linseed oil; making ink based on historical recipes to print Renaissance-style chiaroscuro woodcut recreations. Photo by Katherine Blood, 2008.

Pulling an impression from the red-ochre mid-tone block, which was printed over the yellow-ochre ink from the light-tone block. The final, key block has yet to be printed in lamp black to provide the linear outlines of the composition. Photo by Katherine Blood, 2018.

Pulling an impression from the red-ochre mid-tone block, which was printed over the yellow-ochre ink from the light-tone block. The final, key block has yet to be printed in lamp black to provide the linear outlines of the composition. Photo by Katherine Blood, 2009.

Linda notes: “Recreating Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts informs our interpretation of historic impressions by demonstrating the relationships between materials, techniques, and visual effects. From inks and papers to woodblocks, ink balls, and platen presses, the materials and tools employed to print chiaroscuro woodcuts produced wide-ranging results. The recreations demonstrate why impressions printed from the same woodblocks can look so different. Moreover, distinguishing the printing procedures typically followed in a particular workshop can help to establish its ‘signature.’ Taken with other art historical evidence, these characteristics can clarify the workshop origin of impressions with questioned attributions.”

The results of this research, including Linda’s findings and essay about her re-creations and Renaissance printing methods, are presented in an exhibition and companion catalogue The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, edited by Takahatake with further essays by Peter Parshall, Antony Griffiths, and others. Through January 20th, 2019, you can visit the exhibition itself (which opened earlier at LACMA) at Washington’s National Gallery of Art where the Library’s chiaroscuros are featured alongside over 100 exceptional examples from nineteen different collections in America and Britain.

Learn More:

Poet and the Siren. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks by anonymous Venetian, after Titian, circa 1537. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18730

Poet and the Siren. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks by anonymous Venetian, after Titian, circa 1537. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18730

  • Read more about the chiaroscuro prints in the Pembroke Album Collection Overview.
  • View over 100 examples of chiaroscuro woodcuts in the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division.
  • Enjoy learning more about the Library of Congress’ collections of works of art on paper: “Collections of Works of Art on Paper in the Library of Congress.” Edited by Katherine Blood, special issue, Washington Print Club Quarterly 47, no. 4 (Winter 2011-2012):2-28. Online, //www.loc.gov/rr/print/resource/Washington-Print-Club-Quarterly-Winter-2011-2012.pdf [PDF]
  • Read more about the ‘Pembroke’ Album in these publications:
    • Fern, Alan M., and Karen F. Beall. “The ‘Pembroke’ Album of Chiaroscuros.” In Graphic Sampler, compiled by Renata V. Shaw, 10-28. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1979. Online, https://archive.org/details/graphicsampler00unse/page/10
    • Griffiths, Antony. “Print Collecting in Rome, Paris, and London in the Early Eighteenth Century.” Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin (Spring, 1994): 37-59.
  • Explore the project to recreate Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts:
    • Stiber Morenus, Linda. “Recreating the Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcut.” In The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy by Naoko Takahatake (Editor), with contributions by Jonathan Bober, Jamie Gabbarelli, Antony Griffiths, Peter Parshall, and Linda Stiber Morenus. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Munich; New York, NY: DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel, 2018. [catalog record]

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