Antiques and Collecting: Pressing Engagements; Renaissance Printing Processes Brought Fine Art to the Burgeoning Middle Classes. Richard Edmonds Reports on the Legacy of These Fine Collections

The Birmingham Post (England), November 4, 2000 | Go to article overview

Antiques and Collecting: Pressing Engagements; Renaissance Printing Processes Brought Fine Art to the Burgeoning Middle Classes. Richard Edmonds Reports on the Legacy of These Fine Collections


Byline: Richard Edmonds

Collecting antique furniture has always puzzled me. When you have installed your dining table and chairs, sideboards and whatever else you need, what then? Do you pass it all on to an antiques dealer and start again when a new piece catches your eye?

Paintings and prints are different, they can be stored or moved on a whim. Renaissance prints in particular, launch today's column.

Usually thought of as wildly expensive, I should point out that Renaissance prints dating from 1605 - still the Renaissance in my book - were on sale recently at a print dealer in Hay on Wye at pounds 60.

They were delightful. They were not Rembrandt's, of course, but how could they be? Even a cheap Rembrandt would cost as much as a new conservatory and who ever heard of a conservatory costing pounds 60.

During the Renaissance, collecting was in the hands of a wealthy middle-class elite who paid very good money to support their tastes and regarded fine prints as prestige symbols much in the way we spend money today on fancy cars and dizzy holidays.

It was a period when some of the richest and most satisfying prints ever made came from the printing presses in Nuremberg and Florence, when consumers in Holland, Germany and the Low Countries were discovering the wonder of line engraving and chiaroscuro printing (where three blocks printed one upon the other gave various colour tones).

It all created new markets for collectors who were beginning to take great delight in illustrated books which sold well to a rising and a more literate populous.

But all this information is extended and enlarged in a wonderful way in Evelyn Lincoln's study of the subject: The Invention of the Italian Renaissance Printmaker (Yale: pounds 40) which reveals the development of the pure drawing skills of the early print makers, explains how they came to eminence, and examines the diversity of prints which flowed from the early Italian presses to the rest of Europe.

Andrea Mantegna is the first of the artists under consideration in this excellent book. Mantegna was schooled first in Padua and later Mantua where he joined the court and therefore the patronage of the ruling Gonzaga family producing prints and drawings which extended the new concepts of Humanism.

Mantegna, had originally taken an apprenticeship with an embroiderer called Squarcione, who later adopted the young man since Squarcione was himself a painter, when he was not making garments or functioning as an interior designer.

As an embroiderer, Squarcione always had an artist prepare a sketch of a pattern if he happened to be covering a large surface, and then he worked closely from the drawing. No artist in the Renaissance was shut off within artistic boundaries.

If a wealthy bride wanted a gold leaf painted wedding chest, or a special necklace and set of bracelets, she could go to Squarcione who could easily arrange everything for her as well as providing fine embroidery on the wedding garments. Presumably, at the same time, Mantegna, now recognised as one of the great Renaissance geniuses, looked on, smiled, lent a hand with everything and later danced with the bride.

Squarcione had a social position which made Mantegna eligible when it came to marrying and so in time he took Nicolosia Bellini, the daughter of the famous painter, to be his wife. …

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