During the Renaissance, the imperial city of Augsburg in southern Germany became an important artistic center. Its financial prosperity in banking and trade – as seen in the enormous wealth of the Fugger, Welser, and Hoechstetter families – and its close ties to the Holy Roman Emperor ensured Augsburg’s artists a sophisticated and demanding set of patrons. While the arts in Augsburg have been the subject of a host of German publications, few studies on the artistic culture of the city have been published in English (with the notable exception of the artist Jörg Breu the Elder, to whom two English-language monographs are devoted). This absence is especially evident in comparison with the exhaustive English scholarship on Nuremberg, the other pre-eminent artistic center in southern Germany at this time.
The slim yet richly illustrated volume, Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings 1475-1540, seeks to rectify this situation. The book is a catalogue to the exhibition of the same title, which was on view at the National Gallery of Art before traveling to the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin; it also will be shown at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in 2014. The catalogue’s authors are the two curators, Gregory Jecmen (National Gallery of Art) and Freyda Spira (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The exhibition and catalogue introduce and contextualize the city of Augsburg as a center for artistic production through the prints, drawings, and portrait medals created there.
The catalogue contains three essays. The first, “The Imperial City of Augsburg: An Introduction,” is co-authored and offers a general overview of the political, economic, religious, and cultural significance of Renaissance Augsburg. The authors particularly stress the influence of the great banking families on the financial opportunities available to artists, the relationship between the city and the Prince-Bishopric of Augsburg, and Augsburg’s imperial associations, not only as a free imperial city but as a site of imperial Diets and a locus of patronage activity for the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V.
Freyda Spira discusses elite artistic culture in Augsburg in the second essay, “Between Court and City: Artistic Productions in Renaissance Augsburg.” While products with mass-market appeal were certainly produced in great numbers by Augsburg artists, particularly printmakers, Spira concentrates instead on the sophisticated Augsburg art market, noting especially its prominence in the media of printmaking, illustrated books, armor, medals, and textiles. Augsburg’s close connection to the Holy Roman Emperor is again emphasized, for both imperial commissions and for ties between Augsburg merchants and the emperor.
Gregory Jecmen’s essay, “Color Printing and Tonal Etching: Innovative Techniques in the Imperial City, 1487-1536,” argues that Augsburg’s unique culture fostered innovations in printmaking, particularly in color printing and etching. He discusses the pioneering activities of Erhardt Ratdolt, who replicated the look of hand-colored woodcuts by printing with multiple blocks inked with different colors. Hans Burkgmair is also singled out for his development of the chiaroscuro woodcut, whose line blocks and tone blocks served to increase the three-dimensionality of the image. The second half of the essay discusses Daniel Hopfer and the invention of etching as a printmaking technique. Hopfer had worked with etching onto metal in his career as an armorer, and he translated this knowledge into the realm of printing on paper. He remains “the only printmaker [of his generation] whose entire body of intaglio work is etched” (82), at a time when engraving dominated intaglio printmaking. Jecmen notes in particular how Hopfer anticipated Rembrandt in his manipulation of both the plate and the impression in order to produce a wide variety of effects.
The works in the exhibition are listed in a checklist at the end of the book. The exhibition is divided into three main sections: late medieval devotional works; objects concerning everyday morality; and the patronage projects of Maximilian I. Two other smaller sections of only a few objects both introduce the exhibition and conclude it with a consideration of artworks related to Maximilian’s grandson and successor, Charles V. The lack of catalogue entries seems a missed opportunity to discuss individual objects and their role in Augsburg’s broader artistic patrimony. Another downside to this otherwise excellent book is that only about a third of the exhibited works are illustrated, many of them not fully reproduced.
Yet these very illustrations – many are two-page spreads of high-quality, full-color details from various prints and drawings in the exhibition – constitute a most exceptional and noteworthy aspect of this publication. The blowups allow readers to view with absolute clarity the tapering line of the draughtsman’s pen stroke, the precision of the burin mark, and the skill of the Formschneider, far better than when viewing the actual object in the gallery. The figures accompanying Jecmen’s essay are particularly revealing since he discusses in detail Hopfer’s inking techniques, experiments in tone, re-working of the image, or use of different needle sizes, issues that can be easily discerned through the close-up illustrations of the etching in question.
University of Texas at Austin