Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, blue/black
Hercules and the Nemean Lion depicts man and beast wrestling before a rocky escarpment. The immediate design source, which relates to the ancient marble relief then in Palazzo della Valle (now Villa Medici, Rome) that was widely copied by artists in the sixteenth century, is not known. The composition is generally associated with Raphael or Giulio Romano (c. 1499–1546), who operated within Raphael's circle before moving to Mantua in 1524 (for a discussion of the design source, see most recently Previdi in Ugo da Carpi 2009, and Gnann 2013, n. 33. See also cat. 39). Though the print is unsigned,2 the attribution to Ugo da Carpi is unquestioned, as it is similar in subject, style, cutting technique, materials, and format to the signed Hercules and Antaeus (Trotter 1974; Johnson 1982; T. Previdi in Ugo da Carpi 2009. A Crossbow in a Circle Surmounted by a Star watermark, commonly found on Ugo's early Roman prints, is recorded on two impressions of Hercules and the Nemean Lion (Albertina DG2002/312; Harvard M9810). Other impressions of this print are listed below).
Hercules and the Nemean Lion is a two-block composition. The line block holds most of the design, except for the mountainous horizon and clouds that are delineated by the tone block. In the impression shown here, the tone block is printed in a thin, translucent film of blue ink. Blue hues were favored by Ugo. The colorant in the British Museum impression was likely indigo. Two separate technical investigations of the pigments in Italian Renaissance chiaroscuro woodcut inks found indigo in the blue ink of fifteen prints, four of which are by Ugo (technical investigation of seventy-two sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts found indigo in the blue inks of fourteen prints and in the green inks of fourteen prints; Stiber Morenus et al. 2015, 243–54. A separate investigation found indigo in the blue and green inks of four Ugo woodcuts; Price et al. 2015). None of the blue inks examined contained alternative blue pigments such as smalt, azurite, or ultramarine. Indigo also was identified in the green inks of seventeen chiaroscuro woodcuts, including five by Ugo. Indigo was popular with Italian oil painters of the period because it could be ground into an extremely fine powder and easily dispersed in oil, and furthermore had strong tinting power. As such it was considered an economical blue pigment (Van Eikema Hommes 2004, p. 125). These characteristics also made for ideal printing ink capable of good color depth in a sheer layer.
The blue ink in the British Museum impression of Hercules and the Nemean Lion appears to be in a fine state of preservation. Indigo is susceptible to light fading, a degradation phenomenon that is accelerated when it is mixed with lead white as a drier or to tint a colorant. In addition to fading through extended exposure to light, changes in color appearance can also occur, since indigo is a natural product that may contain widely different types and percentages of organic and inorganic impurities (for a thorough characterization of indigo deterioration, including fading in chiaroscuro woodcuts, see Stiber Morenus et al. 2015, 257–58. At the time of manufacture, the colorant could be adulterated with various materials that might discolor over time, including ashes, soot, sand, blue wool and silk, starch, resin, and rust; see Van Eikema Hommes 2004, 100). Notably, the degradation of ink containing indigo can alter the color harmonies of a chiaroscuro woodcut to varying degrees. In the British Museum impression, because the blue retains its cool, saturated hue, it provides a balanced mid-tone between the black shading and white highlights of the paper.
Naoko Takahatake, The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June-September 2018, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C, October 2018-January 2019, DelMonico Books/Prestel, Munich-London-New York, 2018, pp. 78-79.
-Albertina DG2002/312: yellow-brown/black (wmk: crossbow in circle surmounted by a star): https://www.graphikportal.org/document/gpo00080117
-Albertina DG879: yellow-brown/black https://www.graphikportal.org/document/gpo00080483
-Harvard M9810: yellow-brown/black (wmk: crossbow in circle surmounted by a star): https://hvrd.art/o/254684
-Istituto nazionale per la Grafica di Roma, inv. F.N. 40360 (3486)
-BM 1918,0713.51: pale green/black https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=40807001&objectId=1511116&partId=1
-MFA Boston 64.1100: green/black: https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/hercules-and-the-nemean-lion-167964
-MMA 28.15.15: yellow/black: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/632841
-Städel 35518: yellow-brown/black
-Windsor D,LVIII.11: yellow/black
, "I chiaroscuri di Ugo da Carpi", in Print Collector - Il conoscitore di stampe
, Milano, 1982, pp. 36–37
Van Eikema Hommes M.
, Changing pictures discoloration in 15th-17th century oil paintings
, Londra, 2004
, Ugo da Carpi. L'opera incisa. Xilografie e chiaroscuri da Tiziano, Raffaello e Parmigianino, Carpi, 2009, p. 120, n. 15 (Previdi T.)
, In Farbe! Clair-obscur-Holzschnitte der Renaissance - Meisterwerke aus der Sammlung Georg Baselitz und der Albertina in Wien
, Monaco, 2013, p. 98, n. 33
Price, B.A./ Ash, N./ Dine, H.A.
, "A technical study of sixteenth-century Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts", Printing colour 1400 - 1700
, Leiden, 2015, pp. 140-150, pp. 143–45, 148–49