Despised by Dürer and jailed by the Pope Marcantonio Raimondi, master printmaker

Despised by Dürer and jailed by the Pope: Marcantonio Raimondi, master printmaker

Alastair Smart recounts the rise and fall of the little-known Bolognese master engraver whose ‘diligence and beauty’ captivated Raphael — and whose prints helped to spread High Renaissance taste across Europe

In 1515, two of the great artists of the day exchanged gifts. Raphael handed over a chalk drawing (now in the Albertina Museum) to Albrecht Dürer and received a (now-lost) self-portrait in return. It’s not known if the pair actually met, who initiated contact, or why they did so.

One possibility is that Raphael was seeking to make amends for a slight on the German by Marcantonio Raimondi, a key member of his workshop.

Born in Bologna in 1480, Raimondi trained as an armour decorator but chose a career in printmaking instead — as an engraver, to be precise. In 1506, he moved to Venice, where he thrived as an uncannily exact copier of Dürer’s prints, albeit without the artist’s consent. Raimondi even retained the distinctive ‘AD’ monogram, prompting buyer after buyer to believe they were purchasing a Dürer.

Marcantonio Raimondi. Illustration from The Gallery of Portraits (Charles Knight, 1836). Photo © Look and Learn  Bridgeman Images

Marcantonio Raimondi. Illustration from The Gallery of Portraits (Charles Knight, 1836). Photo: © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

According to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, the German was so incensed by news that Raimondi had copied his woodcuts series ‘Life of the Virgin’, he set out for Venice forthwith. Dürer ended up staying there for two years, during which time he launched a case against Raimondi in the Venetian Senate.

In what’s considered one of the first ever lawsuits over artistic copyright, Raimondi was banned from using the AD monogram — though not from making Dürer reproductions altogether.

Other artists whose work he adapted include Giorgione, a lost painting by whom inspired Raimondi’s engraving The Dream.

Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) and Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), The Climbers, 1510. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 284 x 224 mm. Sold for £4,750 on 14 December 2017 at Christie’s in London
Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) and Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), The Climbers, 1510. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 284 x 224 mm. Sold for £4,750 on 14 December 2017 at Christie’s in London

Raimondi was also skilled enough to combine different sources in one print, as he did with The Climbers (above): a landscape copied from Lucas van Leyden, in which he set three male nudes lifted from the cartoon for Michelangelo’s never-realised fresco, The Battle of Cascina.

By around 1510, Raimondi had settled in Rome. It was there that he struck up one of the greatest artistic double-acts of the Renaissance: with Raphael.

Giorgio Vasari thought Raimondi worthy of a whole chapter in his book, The Lives of Artists — the only printmaker to be so honoured

Few records survive documenting their relationship — apart from a contract from 1515, in which the printmaker acted as a witness for the artist’s purchase of a house. Raphael would also depict a bearded Raimondi in his fresco at the Vatican, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (Raimondi is seen carrying Pope Julius II on a portable throne).

Raphael (1483-1520), The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Stanza di Eliodoro, 1511-12, in which a bearded Raimondi is depicted as one of the Pope’s throne-bearers. Vatican Museums and Libraries, Vatican City. Photo Bridgeman Images

Raphael (1483-1520), The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Stanza di Eliodoro, 1511-12, in which a bearded Raimondi is depicted as one of the Pope’s throne-bearers. Vatican Museums and Libraries, Vatican City. Photo: Bridgeman Images

Most of our information comes from Vasari, who thought Raimondi worthy of a whole chapter in his book, The Lives of Artists — the only printmaker to be so honoured.

We’re told that Raimondi sought out Raphael soon after arriving in Rome. The latter was instantly struck by the ‘diligence and beautiful manner’ of the former’s engravings, as well as by the strategic advantage of a collaboration.

Having prints made of his art would help Raphael increase both his income and his fame — just as Dürer’s prints did for him. He seems to have understood what was then, given the novelty of printmaking, quite a radical idea: that where a painting might only be seen by a privileged few in a private palace or chapel, prints allowed an artwork to be seen simultaneously far and wide.

Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Raphael (1483-1520), The Last Supper, circa 1515. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 287 x 434 mm. Sold for £7,500 in Old Master Prints, 19-28 January 2021, Online
Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Raphael (1483-1520), The Last Supper, circa 1515. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 287 x 434 mm. Sold for £7,500 in Old Master Prints, 19-28 January 2021, Online

Unlike Dürer, however, Raphael was no printmaker himself. So inundated was he with painting commissions from Rome’s elite, he didn’t have time for it anyway. Which is where Raimondi came in.

Their first collaboration, The Judgment of Paris, was a triumph. In Vasari’s words, the engraving ‘astounded all Rome’. In their 1983 book, Raphael, Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny claimed this ‘was perhaps more imitated than any of Raphael’s other inventions… the composition, or part of it, was painted on majolica; engraved on gems; and fashioned into gilt metal cap badges’.

Another hit was Massacre of the Innocents, a stylised scene of biblical violence, in which Raimondi revealed his command of nuanced lighting and texture. The print was recorded in a number of big 16th-century collections.

Raimondi and Raphael produced at least 50 works together. Interestingly, the former didn’t work from finished paintings. His engravings tended to be based either on a drawing that marked an early stage in a painting’s evolution or, as with The Judgment of Paris  and Massacre of the Innocents, on a drawing created specifically to be engraved.

The idea seems to have been to disseminate a broad spread of Raphael’s imagery rather than specific masterpieces.

Raimondi was nothing but faithful in his reproductions. So much so that the temptation might be to regard him as a mere technician or copier, who lacked the originality of the artists he adapted. But that would be to overlook the fact that translating a work from one medium into another requires a host of creative decisions.

Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Baccio Bandinelli (1488-1560), The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, circa 1525. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 438 x 579 mm. Sold for £20,000 on 10 December 2019 at Christie’s in London
Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Baccio Bandinelli (1488-1560), The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, circa 1525. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 438 x 579 mm. Sold for £20,000 on 10 December 2019 at Christie’s in London

By the time he was in Rome, Raimondi had mastered a system of hatching, cross-hatching, stippling and burnishing that rendered forms in marvellous light and shade.

Even after Raphael’s untimely death in 1520, aged 37, Raimondi continued to produce well-received work, such as The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, above, from a drawing by Baccio Bandinelli.

His career never really recovered, however, from his contribution to an infamous book called I Modi  (‘The Positions’) four years later. For this, Raimondi made a set of engravings based on 16 sexually explicit drawings by Raphael’s ex-pupil, Giulio Romano. It was a kind of Renaissance Kama Sutra, deemed so scandalous that Pope Clement VII threw Raimondi in jail for a year on a charge of obscenity.

He died in 1534, in relative obscurity. His engravings, though, would continue to be collected for generations. They helped foster High Renaissance taste across Europe, providing future collectors and artists with a plentiful stock of images.

Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Raphael (1483-1520), The Lamentation over the Body of Christ, circa 1515-16. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 218 x 172 mm. Sold for £1,375 in Old Master Prints, 19-28 January 2021, Online
Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534) after Raphael (1483-1520), The Lamentation over the Body of Christ, circa 1515-16. Engraving on laid paper. Sheet 218 x 172 mm. Sold for £1,375 in Old Master Prints, 19-28 January 2021, Online

Until the boom in public galleries and museums in the 19th century, prints were the means by which most major artworks were experienced.

Might we even say, then, that Raphael’s enduring fame owed a great deal to Raimondi? For centuries, the former was held up as the paragon of High Renaissance artistry. The French writer and painter Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy spoke for many when he gushed in 1665 that Raphael had ‘made as many miracles as he made pictures’.

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Tellingly, two of du Fresnoy’s peers, Rembrandt and Poussin, both worked under Raphael’s influence but knew his imagery through Raimondi’s prints rather than original paintings. It’s worth noting also that Manet, two centuries later, took the pose for his three figures in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe  from the two river gods and naiad on the right of The Judgment of Paris.

Raimondi may not exactly be famous, but his name is engraved indelibly into art history.