Chiaroscuro woodcut from 3 blocks, light blue/blue/black, state i
state i/ii with the inscription “UGO/ DA/CAR/PI” in the light tone block
state ii/ii with the added inscription “RAPHAEL∙VRBINAS+” in the light tone block, in the lower border
Ugo da Carpi's signed Descent from the Cross credits Raphael with the design. The absence of a finished modello or related painting has led to much speculation about the print's source. Johnson, for one, has proposed that Raphael's original design was executed as early as 1506–7, and that this composition was subsequently adapted for the print by an artist in his workshop (Johnson 1982, no. 9, pp. 48–51). Gnann, however, observed a greater stylistic affinity with Raphael's preparatory drawings of around 1516-1518 for the Vatican loggias (Gnann 2013). Marcantonio Raimondi produced a related engraving that differs in many details from the chiaroscuro woodcut, most notably in the height of the cross and the landscape setting. A further distinction between the two designs is the illusionistic frame that surrounds Ugo's image, a device that he also adopted in Raphael and his Mistress and David and Goliath and thus is likely his own invention. Although Ugo derived three of his chiaroscuro woodcuts from engravings by Marcantonio, in this instance the two printmakers may have worked independently from the same source drawing (for the relationship between the chiaroscuro woodcut and the engraving, see Takahatake 2015).
Ugo's three-block Descent from the Cross is recorded in at least two states (Johnson 1982, pp. 48–53, documented two states of the Descent but seemed to confuse states and variant printings). In the rare first state, known in six impressions, Ugo's name is inscribed in the light tone block inside a tablet at lower right, and the margin below the illusionistic frame is blank (impressions of the first state are listed below). In the more common second state, Ugo added the inscription “∙RAPHAEL∙VRBINAS+” in the lower margin of the light tone block, as seen in the present two examples. The Windsor impression (RCIN 850450) is a variant from two blocks, printed without the mid- tone (the line block is printed in translucent gray ink exhibiting channeled squash, which misled Johnson 1982, p. 48, to believe that an additional outline block was sparingly used). The annotation by Pierre Mariette at the lower left of the sheet, “avec diff.” (i.e., with difference or variation) acknowledges this distinction. It is an early printing of the second state, before two wormholes damaged the line block (in the bottom left corner) and the light tone block (in the cloak of the figure on the right ladder). Although the LACMA impression features these wormholes and is therefore a slightly later printing than the Windsor sheet, it was nevertheless issued by Ugo. Indeed, both impressions employ the distinctive printing materials and disciplined processes of his workshop.
Ugo's Descent from the Cross can be dated to 1518 or shortly before on the grounds of watermark evidence and the block design (the first state Rijksmuseum impression bears a Crossbow in a Circle Surmounted by a Star watermark, a type found in Ugo's prints from around c. 1517–18). It must precede his dated 1518 Aeneas and Anchises and Death of Ananias, which are more sophisticated in their distribution of designs over four interdependent blocks. Whereas Descent from the Cross relies on hatching and cross-hatching to express gradations of tone, the 1518 compositions are constructed from planes of color with a minimum of line. Thw Windsor variant impression illustrates how the design of Descent from the Cross is complete when printed from the light tone block and line block alone. The mid-tone block, which is relatively crudely cut, appears ancillary rather than fully integrated into the design. In some impressions, the printing of the mid-tone block even detracts from the clarity of the composition. What is more, because the mid-tone block has no outer border to align with the frames of the other two blocks, impressions of Descent from the Cross are often misregistered, an uncommon flaw in Ugo's output. The exploratory approach to the function and cutting of the mid-tone block supports the proposal that this was his first trial with a third block. In this early work, Ugo also experimented with the inks and printing procedures in a manner that deviated from his typical workshop practice. For example, he occasionally used a mid-tone block ink that is rendered glaze-like by an abundance of binding medium that often penetrates through to the verso (a glaze-like mid-tone block is seen in Harvard M657, first state). Furthermore, Descent from the Cross is the earliest woodcut in which he printed lighter colors of the tone blocks over the dark line block to minimize the contrasts and tonally unify the composition (such as MFA 64.1042, first state, and P1682, second state; and BM 1918,1010.34, second state). Ugo must have been satisfied with the results, as he followed this unorthodox printing order again when making such works as David and Goliath (for example, Städel 33920, state iii/v).
A number of later publishers, including the “F on Three Mounts Printer” continued to print Descent from the Cross even as the blocks' condition badly deteriorated. Johnson posited the existence of deceptively close copies (without specifying impressions) of Descent from the Cross that can be distinguished from Ugo's original by their cruder cutting and the different patterns of wear to the blocks (Johnson 1982, 52–53). Given the large number of posthumous impressions, it would hardly be surprising to find that blocks were replaced. However, the present authors have not identified definitively such deceptive copies, even though minor discrepancies in the blocks have been noted across impressions. For example, some first state impressions feature broader lines, which might suggest the use of a different mid-tone block (Custodia inv. 1986-P.23 and MFA K25 are much more broadly printed than most other early, refined impressions). However, variations in inking and printing, as well as the compression of blocks with age, can affect a design in this way. As in the case of Ugo's Saint Jerome, which presents similar kinds of inconsistencies in the tone block's appearance across impressions, this must remain an open question.
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. 83-85.
Other impressions of state i/ii:
-Chatsworth vol. IV, fol. 16, no. 20
-Custodia inv. 1986-P.23
-Harvard M657 https://hvrd.art/o/255086
-MFA Boston 64.1042 https://collections.mfa.org/objects/168228/the-descent-from-the-cross
-MFA Boston K25 https://collections.mfa.org/objects/109683/the-descent-from-the-cross
-Possibly NGA 1977.5.1: salmon/brown/black (sheet is trimmed at bottom; cannot determine if state i/ii or iia/ii) https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.56232.html
For impressions of state ii/ii see ALU.0946.2