Chiaroscuro woodcut from 4 blocks, light brown/gray-brown/dark brown/dark gray
(not in Bartsch)
The Tiburtine Sibyl draws the attention of Emperor Augustus to a vision of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in the sky in these chiaroscuro woodcuts after Parmigianino. The scene is based on Jacobus da Varagine's account in the Golden Legend. According to Jacobus, Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was encouraged by the Senate to declare himself a god. He summoned the Sibyl for counsel in response. The two met on the Capitoline Hill, where the Virgin in glory appeared to them, revealing the child who was destined to surpass Augustus as the king of Heaven. The emperor built an altar, the Aracoeli, upon the site of the vision, where later the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was erected. Architectural elements within Parmigianino's design allude to the construction of the altar (See Gnann 2013, p. 130, nn. 87-88). The subject sustained the notion that the ancients had anticipated the birth of Christ, and for this reason appealed to artists and their audiences in the Renaissance (Franklin 2003).
In his two-block chiaroscuro woodcut, Antonio da Trento admirably transmits the calligraphic tendencies of Parmigianino's drawing. The print demonstrates the attenuated elegance of the gracefully choreographed figures, rendered with long, confident strokes. Parmigianino's delicate touch is approximated especially well in the Courtauld impression, which is printed clearly in light blue and gray. The printing of the tone block over the line block softens the visual weight of the line, giving it a silvery gray appearance akin to a metalpoint, and further unifies the composition tonally. Such overprinting can only be successful if the tone block ink is translucent and applied in a uniformly thin layer, as is the case here—a hallmark of the Parmigianino shop in Bologna.
Three extant preliminary studies, as well as a lost compositional drawing recorded in a print, reveal Parmigianino's development of his design (Biblioteca Reale, Turin, n. 16178; Louvre, inv. 6419; and private collection; a now-lost fourth drawing was recorded in a print by F. Rosaspina. Popham 1971 vol. 1, p. 184, n. 595recto; p. 142, n. 398; p. 229, n. 802; p. 253, n. O.R. 68). A 1558 record in Alessandro Vittoria's diary, which describes a Parmigianino drawing of Augustus with a sibyl on a small pear panel, presumably a woodblock, might also be associated with the print (See Takahatake 2018 and Popham 1969). This report has been taken as evidence that Parmigianino drew directly onto a pearwood block for his chiaroscuro blockcutter. The description, however, does not indicate a drawing that has been cut into the block, raising the question of whether Parmigianino intended to issue an additional version of this composition, which was never realized.
Antonio's Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl has been dated late in Parmigianino's Bolognese sojourn, which ended sometime in 1530. The execution of the Turin preparatory drawing on the verso of a study for Madonna of the Rose, a painting completed in Bologna in March 1530, supports this dating, as does a reading of the print's iconography through the lens of contemporary political events. The Peace of Bologna, ratified on December 23, 1529, was followed by the ceremonial coronation of Charles V as Holy Roman emperor, presided over by Pope Clement VII on February 24, 1530. Parmigianino's two paintings from this period, Madonna of the Rose (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) and Allegorical Portrait of Emperor Charles V (See Ekserdjian 2006), have been recognized as the artist's response to witnessing both these events in Bologna. Marzia Faietti suggests that Parmigianino's interpretation of the legend of Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl may be a pro-papal expression, a cautionary reminder of the limits of the emperor's temporal power with respect to the spiritual power of the church (Faietti 2013).
The many sixteenth-century copies of this composition in various print mediums, including two chiaroscuros, attest to the popularity of the subject and the success of Parmigianino's design. LACMA M.88.91.51 and MFA Boston 20.5436 represent two different versions, both using four blocks. Bartsch knew only one of the two versions, which he catalogued as a repetition of Antonio's print, likely executed by Niccolò Vicentino. Although the cutting bears some analogies to Vicentino's technique, the thin and translucent printing inks used in all known impressions of both four-block versions depart from the opaque inks associated with Vicentino's shop. If this attribution is accepted, these two prints must have been executed before Vicentino established his workshop.
The two four-block versions correspond to one another in many respects, but are most easily distinguished by the highlights in the column and the sibyl's raised forearm. Both prints follow the outlines of Antonio's woodcut closely, although they omit the foliage at upper right and the vegetation along the ground. It is not possible to ascertain which of the four-block versions was executed first. Version A has been recorded in just over a dozen impressions, most commonly in the blue palette of the LACMA sheet, but also, if more rarely, in yellow and green. Version B, however, has been noted in two impressions only: the MFA impression from four blocks, and a three-block variant impression missing the darkest block (Bartsch described Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl as a three-block print. In the Illustrated Bartsch, Karpinski identified the Metropolitan Museum of Art's three-block variant with the one described by Bartsch; however, given the rarity of this variant, it may be that Bartsch had simply erred in recording the number of blocks and that he had seen a four-block impression of the more common Version A). A unique impression in Berlin is printed with Version A and Version B superimposed—that is, both four-block versions (all eight blocks) are printed in register on a single sheet.10 While the image is difficult to read, the Berlin sheet confirms the overall conformity of the two designs and, furthermore, indicates that the blocks for Version A and Version B were, at least for a period, printed at the same press.
Konrad Oberhuber and Achim Gnann have suggested that Parmigianino supplied the same (now lost) drawing to Antonio and Vicentino, motivated by a desire to explore the different aesthetic possibilities of the chiaroscuro technique, from the emphatically linear to the painterly (See Oberhuber 1963 and Gnann 2013, p. 194). However, Vasari claims that Vicentino began making chiaroscuros only after Parmigianino's death in 1540, a view that has been widely held in the absence of any other records of his activity dates (for a different view, see Gnann 2013, pp. 16–17, who has suggested that Vicentino's activity started in Rome in the 1520s, coinciding more closely with the date of the designs). While the cutter of Versions A and B, whether Vicentino or a yet unidentified hand, could have worked independently of the artist from a drawing, he no doubt was familiar with Antonio's print. Gnann has submitted, in fact, that the light tone block from Antonio's print was reused to print the four-block Version B (Gnann 2013, p. 194, nn. 87–89). The different pattern of highlights contravenes this theory (for example, the four-block Version B highlights are more extensive in the proper left hip, leg, and foot of Augustus than in Antonio's print); nevertheless, Gnann was correct to recognize that the two chiaroscuros were produced in proximity to one another. The LACMA sheet is one of at least seven impressions on paper with an unusual Two Dolphins watermark that is also found in a number of impressions of Antonio's two-block print, which suggests that the blocks to these two prints were also in the same shop for a time (impressions with this watermark include BM W,4.84; MFA 64.1079; and MMA 22.67.76).
No late printings of either four-block Version A or Version B are recorded. By contrast, Antonio's blocks were reissued through the sixteenth century, and likely beyond, among others by the F on Three Mounts Printer who issued Cleveland 1923.115 in his usual oily olive-brown ink. This publisher reprinted three prints by Ugo and two by Antonio toward the final quarter of the sixteenth century. In later printings, Antonio's line block underwent two state changes. Cleveland 1923.115 represents the second state, in which hatchings have been added to the cheek of the attendant at left. In a third state, these lines are removed. Wormholes, which increasingly damaged the blocks, were incrementally filled through the successive campaigns of printing.
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, p. 15, footnote 26.
-MMA 39.20.2: 3 block variant in brown-grays https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/632477
Version A and Version B blocks printed together: Berlin 460-38