Detail. The Judgment of Paris. "Unknown date." 
This copy is at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.


Vasari's Lives of the Artists

SEEING THAT IN THE Treatise on the Technique of Painting there was little said of copper plate engraving, since it was enough at that time to describe the method of engraving silver with the burin, which is a square tool of iron, cut on the slant, with a sharp point, I shall use the occasion of this Life to say as much on that subject as I may consider to be sufficient. The beginning of print engraving, then, came from the Florentine Maso Finiguerra, about the year of our salvation 1460; for of all the works which that master engraved in silver with designs to be filled up with niello, he took impressions in clay, over which he poured melted sulphur, which reproduced the lines of the design; and these, when filled with smoke-black mixed with oil, produced the same effect as the silver. He also did the same with damped paper and with the same tint, going over the whole with a round and smooth roller, which not only gave the designs the appearance of prints, but they also came out as if drawn with the pen. This master was followed by Baccio Baldini, a goldsmith of Florence, who, not having much power of design, took all that he did from the invention and design of Sandro Botticelli. And this method, coming to the knowledge of Andrea Mantegna in Rome, was the reason that he made a beginning with engraving many of his works, as was said in his Life.

This invention having afterwards passed into Flanders, a certain Martin, who was held to be an excellent painter in Antwerp at that time, executed many works, and sent to Italy a great number of printed designs, which were all signed in the following manner: "M.C." The first of these were the Five Foolish Virgins with their lamps extinguished, the Five Wise Virgins with their lamps burning, and a Christ Crucified, with S. John and the Madonna at the foot of the Cross, which was so good an engraving, that Gherardo, the Florentine illuminator, set himself to copy it with the burin, and succeeded very well; but he went no further with this, for he did not live long. Martin then published four round engravings of the four Evangelists, and Jesus Christ with the twelve Apostles, in small sheets, Veronica with six Saints, of the same size, and some coats of arms of German noblemen, supported by men, both naked and clothed, and also by women. He published, likewise, a S. George slaying the Dragon, a Christ standing before Pilate, who is washing his hands, and a Passing of Our Lady, with all the Apostles, a work of some size, which was one of the best designs that this master ever engraved. In another he represented S. Anthony beaten by Devils, and carried through the air by a vast number of them in the most varied and bizarre forms that could possibly be imagined; which sheet so pleased Michelagnolo, when he was a mere lad, that he set himself to color it.

After this Martin, Albrecht Duerer began to give attention to prints of the same kind at Antwerp, but with more design and better judgment, and with more beautiful invention, seeking to imitate the life and to draw near to the Italian manners, which he always held in much account. And thus, while still quite young, he executed many works which were considered as beautiful as those of Martin; and he engraved them with his own hand, signing them with his name. In the year 1503 he published a little Madonna, in which he surpassed both Martin and his own self; and afterwards many other sheets with horses, two in each sheet, taken from nature and very beautiful. In another he depicted the Prodigal Son, in the guise of a peasant, kneeling with his hands clasped and gazing up to Heaven, while some swine are eating from a trough; and in this work are some most beautiful huts after the manner of German cottages. He engraved a little S. Sebastian, bound, with the arms upraised; and a Madonna seated with the Child in her arms, with the light from a window falling upon her, a small work, than which there is nothing better to be seen. He also made a Flemish woman on horseback, with a groom at her feet; and on a larger copper-plate he engraved a nymph being carried away by a sea-monster, while some other nymphs are bathing. On a plate of the same size he engraved with supreme delicacy of workmanship, attaining to the final perfection of this art, a Diana beating a nymph, who has fled for protection to the bosom of a satyr; in which sheet Albrecht sought to prove that he was able to make nudes.

But although those masters were extolled at that time in those countries, in ours their works are commended only for the diligent execution of the engraving. I am willing, indeed, to believe that Albrecht was perhaps not able to do better because, not having any better models, he drew, when he had to make nudes, from one or other of his assistants, who must have had bad figures, as Germans generally have when naked, although one sees many from those parts who are fine men when in their clothes. In various little printed sheets he executed figures of peasant men and women in different Flemish costumes, some playing on the bagpipes and dancing, some selling fowls and suchlike things, and others in many other attitudes. He also drew a man sleeping in a bathroom who has Venus near him, leading him into temptation in a dream, while Love is diverting himself by mounting on stilts, and the Devil blows into his ears with a pair of bellows. And he engraved two different figures of S. Christopher carrying the Infant Christ, both very beautiful, and executed with much diligence in the close detail of the hair and in every other respect.

After these works, perceiving how much time he consumed in engraving on copper, and happening to have in his possession a great abundance of subjects drawn in various ways, he set himself to making woodcuts, a method of working in which those who have the greatest powers of design find the widest field wherein to display their ability in its perfection. And in the year 1510 he published two little prints in this manner, in one of which is the Beheading of S. John, and in the other the scene of the head of the same S. John being presented in a charger to Herod, who is seated at table; with other sheets of S. Christopher, S. Sixtus the Pope, S. Stephen, and S. Laurence. Then, having seen that this method of working was much easier than engraving on copper, he pursued it and executed a S. Gregory chanting the Mass, accompanied by the deacon and sub-deacon. And, growing in courage, in the year 1510 he represented on a sheet of royal folio part of the Passion of Christ-- that is, he executed four pieces, with the intention of afterwards finishing the whole, these four being the Last Supper, the Taking of Christ by Night in the Garden, His Descent into the Limbo of Hell in order to deliver the Holy Fathers, and His glorious Resurrection. That second piece he also painted in a very beautiful little picture in oils, which is now at Florence, in the possession of Signor Bernardetto de' Medici. As for the eight other parts, although they were afterwards executed and printed with the signature of Albrecht, to us it does not seem probable that they are the work of his hand, seeing that they are poor stuff, and bear no resemblance to his manner, either in the heads, or in the draperies, or in any other respect. Wherefore it is believed that they were executed after his death, for the sake of gain, by other persons, who did not scruple to father them on Albrecht. That this is true is also proved by the circumstance that in the year 1511 he represented the whole life of Our Lady in twenty sheets of the same size, executing it so well that it would not be possible, whether in invention, in the composition of the perspective views, in the buildings, in the costumes, or in the heads of old and young, to do better.

Of a truth, if this man, so able, so diligent, and so versatile, had had Tuscany instead of Flanders for his country, and had been able to study the treasures of Rome, as we ourselves have done, he would have been the best painter of our land, even as he was the rarest and most celebrated that has ever appeared among the Flemings. In the same year, continuing to give expression to his fantasies, Albrecht resolved to execute fifteen woodcuts of the same size, representing the terrible vision that S. John the Evangelist described in his Apocalypse on the Isle of Patmos. And so, setting his hand to the work, with his extravagant imagination, so well suited to such a subject, he depicted all those things both of heaven and of earth so beautifully, that it was a marvel, and with such a variety of forms in those animals and monsters, that it was a great light to many of our craftsmen, who have since availed themselves of the vast abundance of his beautiful fantasies and inventions. By the hand of the same master, also, is a woodcut that is to be seen of a nude Christ, who has round Him the Mysteries of His Passion, and is weeping for our sins, with His hands to His face; and this, for a small work, is not otherwise than worthy of praise.

Then, having grown both in power and in courage, as he saw that his works were prized, Albrecht executed some copper-plates that astonished the world. He also set himself to make an engraving, for printing on a sheet of half-folio, of a figure of Melancholy, with all the instruments that reduce those who use them, or rather, all mankind, to a melancholy humor; and in this he succeeded so well, that it would not be possible to do more delicate engraving with the burin. He executed three small plates of Our Lady, all different one from another, and most subtle in engraving. But it would take too long if I were to try to enumerate all the works that issued from Albrecht's hand; let it be enough for the present to tell that, having drawn a Passion of Christ in thirty-six parts, and having engraved these, he made an agreement with Marc' Antonio Bolognese that they should publish the sheets in company; and thus, arriving in Venice, this work was the reason that marvellous prints of the same kind were afterwards executed in Italy, as will be related below.

While Francesco Francia was working at his painting in Bologna, there was among his many disciples a young man called Marc' Antonio, who, being more gifted than the others, was much brought forward by him, and, from having been many years with Francia and greatly beloved by him, acquired the surname of De' Franci. This Marc' Antonio, who was more able in design than his master, handled the burin with facility and grace, and executed in niello girdles and many other things much in favor at that time, which were very beautiful, for the reason that he was indeed most excellent in that profession. Having then been seized, as happens to many, with a desire to go about the world and see new things and the methods of other craftsmen, with the gracious leave of Francia he went off to Venice, where he was well received by the craftsmen of that city. About the same time there arrived in Venice some Flemings with many copper plate engravings and woodcuts by Albrecht Duerer, which were seen by Marc' Antonio on the Piazza di S. Marco; and he was so amazed at the manner and method of the work of Albrecht, that he spent on those sheets almost all the money that he had brought from Bologna. Among other things, he bought the Passion of Jesus Christ, which had been engraved on thirty-six woodblocks and printed not long before on sheets of quarter-folio by the same Albrecht. This work began with the Sin of Adam and the scene of the Angel expelling him from Paradise, and continued down to the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Continue to Part 2

Return to Vasari's Lives of the Artists

This Web Site Created and Maintained by Adrienne DeAngelis