Engraving with 1 tone block, i state
state i/ii: with original tone block
state ii/ii: with a new tone block with fewer highlights
Beccafumi executed the Cleveland drawing of Three Male Nudes in direct preparation for his chiaroscuro print. The artist broadly sketched out the composition, exploring the figural forms with trembling lines. Although it lacks finish, the drawing thoughtfully determines the distribution of lights and darks. Beccafumi used a lightly colored ground to approximate the mid-tone of the eventual print; from this intermediate tone he worked upward into lights using white heightening and downward into darks using black chalk and wash. A tangle of lines expresses the darkest passages while stumping (which spreads and blends
the black chalk) creates the more nuanced shadows. It is notable that the Cleveland drawing and the Library of Congress chiaroscuro impression both belonged to the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton. The drawing and print were sold at separate Sotheby's London sales on July 5–6 and 9, 1917, respectively. The drawing was acquired by Archibald George Blomefield Russell (Lugt 2770a), who also owned (and similarly stamped) the Cleveland engraving.
To transfer the design onto the plate, Beccafumi incised the drawing, tracing the black chalk lines with his stylus and freely delineating new details, such as the figure's hair. Yet not all of these incised markings carry over into the engraving, and some may have been applied to define contours in broadly rendered passages of the drawing, as the artist appears to have done in his oil sketches (on this interpretation of stylus work in Beccafumi's oil sketches, see Chapman in Renaissance Siena 2008). Moreover, he introduced a number of changes in the translation from drawing to print; for example, he replaced the vertical element in the background with a distant mountain and repositioned the raised hand of the foreground nude (Gordley 1988, 285–86).
From the start, Beccafumi conceived of Three Male Nudes as a chiaroscuro print. In its naked variant, the engraving is legible as an image; however, it provides only the outline of the design and the deepest of shadows. The tone block is required to complete the image and give the composition its depth and the figures their volume. Two states of the print are known. The first survives in a unique impression in Siena (De Marchi in Domenico Beccafumi e il suo tempo 1990. The different states were identified by Hartley, 1991 p. 423), while Library of Congress (ALU.1018.2) is the only extant example of the second. In the later state, Beccafumi used a new tone block with fewer highlights; he also reworked the engraving by darkening the face of the foremost figure with parallel hatchings.
In both states, the highlight reserves cut from the tone block mirror the lines of the engraving in their ordered arrangement as well as their character. Both the engraved lines and woodcut highlights feature tapered ends and slight swelling bodies. Beccafumi likely used a fine gouge or burin to cut the highlights, given that the width of the lines (particularly in the principal figure's back and thighs) is strikingly uniform. The precise, regular lines of both woodcut and engraving suppress the nervous energy of Beccafumi's sketch and imbue his figures with a stony solidity. In his later chiaroscuro woodcuts, such as the Apostle at the Base of a Column (ALU.1010.1), Beccafumi abandoned this exact and measured approach to cutting in favor of a more vigorous and erratic one that better approximates the rapid and agitated movement of his drawing hand.
Likely produced soon after Two Nudes in a Landscape (ALU.1017.1), Three Male Nudes counts among Beccafumi's earliest forays into printmaking (Hartley 1991, p. 422, and Landau and Parshall 1994. Gordley 1988, p. 284, however, considered Three Male Nudes the earlier of the two). Despite the occasional slip of the burin and a restrained linear vocabulary, the present work displays a steadier assuredness and demonstrates the artist's improved understanding of how to balance engraving and tone block. This artistic evolution is reflected in the preparatory drawings themselves. In his drawing preliminary to Two Nudes in a Landscape, Beccafumi used red chalk; for Three Male Nudes, he adopted a technique more conducive to chiaroscuro preparation. Here, black chalk with white heightening on a colored ground provide more distinct equivalents for engraved lines, tone, and highlights (Hartley 1991, p. 422).
In Three Male Nudes, Beccafumi printed the engraving over the tone block, in contrast with Parmigianino's earlier combination print, Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man, in which the tone block designs were overlaid on the etching. In this way, Beccafumi prevented opaque color ink from obscuring his fine intaglio lines. The primary challenge of such combination techniques was managing the registration of the engraving and woodcut, which required the use of two different presses. This sort of attendant complication may account for the limited impressions Beccafumi pulled of Three Male Nudes and, ultimately, for his abandonment of the mixed technique altogether. The Cleveland engraving is a later printing with respect to the Library of Congress chiaroscuro impression, as evidenced by the damage in the copperplate visible in the lower left corner. Such engraving-only impressions of Three Male Nudes are rare, unlike the many that were printed of Two Nudes in a Landscape.
Beccafumi's debt to Michelangelo, evident throughout his prints, is especially pronounced in Three Male Nudes. Indeed, Pierre Jean Mariette described the print as having been engraved “aussy savement que l'auroit pu faire Michel Ange” (as skillfully as Michelangelo might have done), and noted that an impression was conserved in a Michelangelo volume in the French royal collection (Mariette 1853). Three Male Nudes calls to mind the powerful, restless marble figures from Michelangelo's Medici Tomb chapel, as well as the planned but unrealized terracotta river gods for the same space. Beccafumi's massive nudes also derive their twisting form from such ancient statuary as the Belvedere Torso and the Laocöon (Gordley 1988, p. 277).
Diane De Grazia posited that Beccafumi used sculptural wax models that could be manipulated, adjusted, and studied from various angles when drawing his figures (De Grazia and Foster 2000). The close relationship between the foreground figure in Three Male Nudes and the recumbent one in Two Nudes in a Landscape may indeed suggest the use of some such sculptural model viewed from different directions. Muscular nudes such as these—shown reclining on the ground and propped up on an elbow, their twisting bodies both tensed and languid—are stock figures that recur in his drawings and prints and populate his paintings and Siena Cathedral pavements. In the present composition, the identities of the three men and their relationships to one another are unclear. Although loosely described as philosophers in conversation or as river gods, the subject of the print remains elusive and likely lacks a narrative (the subject is interpreted as Moses and the Israelites drinking in the desert in Olszewski and Glaubinger 1981).
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. 168-171.
Impression of state ii/ii:
-Library of Congress FP-XVI B388, no. 1 (B size): https://lccn.loc.gov/93509858
Variant from engraving only:
-Cleveland 1957.314: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1958.314
-Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, inv. 1638
[Preparatory drawing in Cleveland, Black chalk or charcoal, with stumping, and traces of brush and black chalk wash, heightened with white, on light brown laid paper (23.2 × 41.7 cm), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Delia E. Holden Fund, 1958.313: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1958.313]
, The drawings of Beccafumi
, 1988, Princeton, pp. 277, 284-286
, Domenico Beccafumi e il suo tempo, Milano, 1990, pp. 480–481, n. 149 (De Marchi A.)
, "Beccafumi 'glum & gloomy'", Print Quarterly
, 1991, 418-425, pp. 422-423
, Renaissance Siena. Art for a City, London, 2008, p. 341, nn. 110–111 (Chapman H.)