The figure of Marcus Curtius was one of the most celebrated inventions by the painter Giovanni Antonio de Sacchis, known as Pordenone, in his fresco decoration on the façade of Palazzo Martino d'Anna on the Grand Canal in Venice. Executed around 1535, the frescoes had largely deteriorated by the mid-seventeenth century, and today are entirely lost. However, a number of drawings and prints provide important iconographic records of Pordenone's highly esteemed and influential fresco complex. Notably, a drawing in the Victoria and Albert Museum records its overall program, including, in the lower right of the façade, Marcus Curtius on horseback dramatically leaping through an architectural frame with a palazzo outlined in the background. This drawing, albeit loosely sketched, reveals the dependence of three chiaroscuro woodcuts on Pordenone's fresco design, including a two-block Leaping Horseman by Boldrini (ALU.0192.1, ALU.0192.2, ALU.0192.3, ALU.0192.4), a three-block Marcus Curtius by an unidentified hand ( ALU.0195.1) and a third print known in a single impression in the British Museum (Anonymous Italian, after Pordenone, Marcus Curtius, second half of the 16th century, chiaroscuro woodcut from 4 blocks, British Museum 1917,0714.13, ALU.1125).
Leaping Horseman is one of only three chiaroscuro woodcuts signed by Boldrini. The print's inscription further credits Pordenone for the design. It was previously postulated that Pordenone directly supplied a model to the blockcutter. Although the image's lively and expressive line work does suggest reliance on a drawing, scholars now agree that Boldrini executed Leaping Horseman after Pordenone's death in 1539, on the grounds of its stylistic affinity with his 1566 Venus and Cupid. In passages of the line block such as the horse's neck, Leaping Horseman displays the same kind of disciplined cutting with evenly spaced parallel hatchings that model the figure of Venus, while the treatment of the sky in the tone block is also analogous. Watermarks provide further evidence linking these two prints. Another impression of Leaping Horseman (British Museum, 1973,U.208) bears the same Ladder in a Shield Surmounted by a Star recorded on Venus and Cupid. The rare chiaroscuro impressions of Leaping Horseman are printed in Boldrini's typical palette of brown and black inks. The tone block ink in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's impression appears to have had a viscous consistency that caused some uneven passages, for example, in the sky above the horse's raised leg. The filled holes visible in the tone block (for example, below the horse's front leg) are found in all extant impressions, and are not indicative of a late printing.
The three-block Marcus Curtius (B.XII.151.19) has also been attributed by some to Boldrini. The compositional block, which combines neatly arranged, uniform parallel hatchings with more energetic line work, bears some resemblance to that of the signed Leaping Horseman. However, the two tone blocks in Marcus Curtius depart dramatically from Boldrini's usual practice. For one, Boldrini consistently used a single tone block. Additionally, the sponge-like pattern that creates tonal gradations in elements such as the clouds and horse's neck in Marcus Curtius is not only unprecedented in Boldrini's work but is also difficult to associate with any Italian blockcutter. Reichel speculated the pattern was created through use of a punch to pit the surface of the block. Whatever the process or tool deployed, these shallow cuts achieved a fine texture; at the same time, they easily filled in with ink and lost detail. The only watermark noted on a chiaroscuro impression of Marcus Curtius is the Siren in a Circle present on the Minneapolis Institute of Art's sheet. This watermark has not been found on other Boldrini prints. Although a common watermark type, it is worth noting its similarity with one David Woodward records on maps printed in Venice in the late 1550s through the 1560s, which aligns with the timing of Boldrini's activity. In the light of the uncertainties and in the absence of a more secure candidate, however, the attribution of this print must remain an open question.
The British Museum impression 1860,0414.119 represents the first of three known states of Marcus Curtius described by Gnann. In the second state, the short horizontal line defining the base of the palazzo is removed. The more dramatic change occurs between the second and third states, with the light tone block cut away around the clouds and behind the palazzo. This change opens the background, deepening the sharp recession of space. Campbell Dodgson described this three-block chiaroscuro as a repetition of a four-block print, known in a single impression in the British Museum and tentatively attributed to Niccolò Vicentino. While the two chiaroscuro woodcuts coincide in their general outlines, the three-block version delineates details that are only loosely described in the more pictorially rendered four-block composition. Although we cannot fully exclude one print's dependence on the other, it is also possible that both blockcutters had access to the same drawing, perhaps a preparatory work for Pordenone's fresco. Notably, the two prints correspond in their departure from certain details in the fresco design, as it was recorded in the Victoria and Albert drawing. For example, the small chimneys on the palazzo roof that are evident in the drawing are absent from both woodcuts.
The multiple prints attest to the immediate success of Pordenone's Marcus Curtius, as do the many early writers who admired it. Vasari, among others, singled out for praise its use of foreshortening and its powerful rendering of volume and relief. The dynamic compositions of these chiaroscuro woodcuts, which adopt distinct approaches to block design, convincingly capture the illusionistic conceit of the horse dramatically leaping out of the picture plane.
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. 212-214
Altri esemplari, oltre a quelli catalogati agli ALU.0192.1 , ALU.0192.2, ALU.0192.3, ALU.0192.4:
New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, 22.73.3-67