Engraving – The Golden Age

The art of engraving has experienced a large rise starting in 1470. The period between 1470 and 1530 is better known as the Golden Age of engraving. Engravers such as Albrecht Dürer, Martin Schongauer and Lucas Von Leiden emerged, changing engraving from simply a means for mass production to an art form. German and Italian engravers were mostly the ones contributing to the evolution of engraving. High-quality woodblocks of Albert Dürer  revolutionized the potential of that medium. Therefore, they became the first of their kind in the history of engraving. Gothic style was typical for the woodcuts such as the Apocalypse series. However, his later engravings such as  The Knight, Death, and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his Study  and Melencolia I caused some dose of controversy and led to different interpretations. Dürer’s  watercolors also marked him as one of the first European landscape artists.

Duhrer – The Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, Woodblock print.

The other artists at that time, such as Schongauer and Von Leiden were expressing their art through printmaking. That’s the key difference comparing to the earlier period, when goldsmiths produced engravings. This explains why many of the early engravers came from a goldsmithing background.

15th Century

At the early 15th century, Italian goldsmiths were the ones who started experimenting with the printing techniques. Giorgio Vasari, the painter and chronicler of Renaissance artists credited Italian goldsmith, Maso Finiguerra, for the invention of printed engraving. However, it had been gradually realized that Vasari’s view could not be sustained.

Although Vasari’s theory about invention of engraving technique is not reliable, the engravers of metals were certainly the first ones to develop the copperplate technique. Early Renaissance Italian artists often used  copperplate technique. Some of them are Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea Mantegna.

Pollaiuolo was Florentine painter, sculptor and architect. His reputation as one of the most distinguished engravers of the 15th century is based on his one authenticated print, The Battle of the Nudes (c. 1470).  Andrea Mantegna, his contemporary, worked in Mantua and his work marked him as the most eminent Italian print maker. Mantegna produced approximately 20 plates, all line engravings in the broad manner. One of the most famous is Bachanal Festival (c. 1475).

Bachanals Festival.jpg
Mantegna – Bachanal Festival 1473, copperplate engraving.

16th Century

In the 16th century etching spread throughout Europe, and its great variety of effects were experimented on by artists like Parmigianino and Barocci, followed by Reni, Guercino and S. Della Bella in the 17th century. Etching reached its full potential with Rembrandt. In France, after a hesitant beginning, engraving reached its full glory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the works of Jacques Callot and portraits by Gerard Audran.

17th Century

In the 17th century Italy, the engraving genre flourished in Rome and in Venice. The fantasy views reached an unsurpassed height with the works of Piranesi. In England, the original engraving had its major representatives in Hogarth, Rolandson and Blake. Bewick revived the woodcut technique by inventing wood-engraving, which incorporated a block of wood sawn across the grain, giving a harder and smoother surface that yielded a finer-detailed results. The prevalent technique used by the English school in the eighteenth century was mezzotint.

Romein de Hooge, Pierre Lapautre – Le Triomphe des Chrestiens, 1689. Copperplate engraving made in honor of the capture of Belgrade by the Holy League under Maximilian II and the expulsion of the Ottoman occupier.

Etching and aquatint were used by the great painter Goya at the end of the 18th century. So, etching has later become the technique used by nineteenth century artists for preparing matrices. The original etching was considered an artistic expression of its own,  thus experiencing a revival.

Nearly all great modern artists experimented with this technique- Chagal, Kokoschka, Picasso, Mirò and Dalì. It it is impossible to separate the history of etching from its cultural period and from the overall activity of the artists who practiced it. More  on the topic in our next article!


Check engravings from this period at our store!

Le Triomphe des Chrestiens photo from private collection.


Miloš Stanković
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