Chiaroscuro woodcut from 3 blocks, light gray-brown/medium gray-brown/black, state i
state i/ii: before the letter "f" inscribed in the light tone block at the base of the throne, and more extensive line block
state ii/ii: with the letter "f" inscribed in the light tone block; the line block cut back in the face of the emperor and outline of his arm
Giorgio Vasari identified the Martyrdom of Two Saints as one of the four chiaroscuro woodcuts that Antonio da Trento executed after Parmigianino in Bologna between 1527 and 1530 (see ALU.0960.1). It is the only three-block print he produced during this period, and the most ambitious in scale and conception. The line block holds most of the finely detailed outlines and the fluid, parallel-hatched shading in the foreground of the composition. The mid-block gives depth to the figural forms while also delineating the background architecture. The light tone block establishes an overall ground from which the highlights are cut as broad, form fitting pools of light, rather than the linear reserve hatching observed in Antonio's Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Nude Man Seen from Behind.
Parmigianino developed the composition, first for an engraving by Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio (B.XV.71.8), and then for the present chiaroscuro, with an iconographic freedom similarly witnessed in other designs he prepared for prints (for example, Nude Man Seen from Behind and Circe Drinking). Vasari described the subject as the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul, which (according to tradition) occurred in Rome on the same day by order of Emperor Nero. Although the attribution of the chiaroscuro is uncontested, the identity of the two martyrs has been challenged. Notably, the apostles' attributes and the methods of their executions are especially ambiguous as depicted. The imminent beheading of the kneeling foreground martyr indicates that he is Paul; however, it is the second apostle, Peter, who is portrayed with Paul's attribute of a long beard as he is dragged away to be crucified (confusing matters further, in the engraving, Peter's keys are placed in the foreground by the kneeling apostle who is about to be beheaded. For the icono- graphic uncertainty, see Ekserdjian, who reviews various proposals).
There is a similar relationship between Antonio's chiaroscuro and Caraglio's engraved versions of the Martyrdom as the one noted between Ugo's and Caraglio's Diogenes, also after Parmigianino. In both cases, the chiaroscuro woodcut omits or simplifies compositional details rendered in the engraving that preceded it. Furthermore, the woodcuts are appreciably larger than the engravings. In contrast to the linearity of the engravings, both Antonio's Martyrdom and Ugo's Diogenes exploit an aesthetic reminiscent of wash or paint applied with a brush. There are no known modelli for the chiaroscuro woodcuts, either because Parmigianino drew directly on the blocks or because the blockcutters destroyed the drawings in the process of transferring their designs. By contrast, a quantity of drawings by Parmigianino prepared in Rome for engravings by Caraglio survive, including one for the Martyrdom of Two Saints in the British Museum (executed in pen and brown ink with brown wash and heightened with white, this drawing, which is in reverse and very close in size to the intaglio print, is incised on the recto with a stylus for transfer. BM 1904,1201.2).
Johnson described four versions of the Martyrdom of Two Saints, in which a line block and a tone block were replaced or altered. However, a reexamination of this print demonstrates that there is only one version, which exists in two states with changes to the line and light tone blocks. In the first state, the line block delineates the emperor's facial features and describes the upper contour of his arm. NGA 2006.162.2 is one of only three recorded impressions of this first state. All three sheets were printed together in light gray-brown, medium gray-brown, and black inks (the other two are listed below). Moreover, in each of these three impressions, a diagonal, linear pattern from the pronounced paper texture has transferred to the ink film. Antonio evidently used a single stock of sheets that had been couched on twill-woven felt when manufactured (worn papemaking felts were likely to transfer undesirable weave texture to newly formed sheets. See Albro).
In the second state, the line block was cut back in the emperor's face and arm, and a letter F was incised in the light tone block on the base of his throne. Some confusion around the identification and chronology of the states of this print has arisen from the fact that the shallowly carved letter F did not print consistently as it gradually filled in with ink over the course of printing. For example, in one edition of state ii printed in translucent red ochre, blue-gray, and gray-black inks, the F is clearly visible in four of the sheets (including NGA 1964.8.1625; other impressions are Albertina, DG2002/467, Georg Baselitz collection, and Harvard M9778), but appears filled in or partially obscured with ink in two others (in MFA M9722 the F is filled in and in GDSU 13307 st. sc the F is partially obscured). The F is also variably visible in three subsequent printings in palettes of brown, blue, and black (V&A 29471.1); light tan, light blue, and gray-black (LACMA M.2012.137 and V&A E.941-88); and light blue, medium blue, and gray (Albertina DG2002/466 and Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-31.276. See further Stiber Morenus 2015, 128–29). In NGA 1990.61.1, printed in light blue, medium blue, and black, the F has disappeared, having been worn down or clogged with ink during printing. No alteration was made to the tone block and therefore these later impressions equally represent the second state.
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. 117-120.
Other impressions of state i/ii:
-MFA 64.1070: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/167781/the-martyrdom-of-ss-peter-and-paul?ctx=17ba9837-edd7-491e-9ef4-2fb25e9447f1&idx=0
-MMA 22.73.3-45: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359961
For impressions of state ii/ii and variant impressions see ALU.0957.2