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Woodcuts printed in color from multiple blocks are usually termed "chiaroscuro," an Italian word meaning "light and dark"—a reference to their broad areas of contrasting tone. From their origin in the early 16th century, such woodcuts have been admired for their striking effects, resemblance to finished drawings, and demanding production process. These works require separate blocks, and thus separate printing runs, for the outline of the design and for each color. The print is successful only when the sheet is aligned precisely each time it is run through the press. In Italy the technique flourished in Rome during the late 1510s and early 1520s, in Bologna during the 1530s and 1540s, and in Mantua at the end of the century. In Venice the chiaroscuro woodcut took a distinctive form—elaborate line work with large areas of a single tone—and appeared throughout the century in special projects amid that school's production of conventional woodcuts. Venetian chiaroscuros are many fewer in number than those from other areas of Italy, and impressions are usually limited to later printings of the line block. The most significant and accomplished group of Venetian chiaroscuro woodcuts is attributed to Nicolò Boldrini. The attribution is based upon a single signed work as well as the style of a group of woodcuts after designs by Titian. Of these prints, Hercules and the Nemean Lion is by far the most elaborate in composition and articulate in execution. It is also the rarest: only four other impressions of the completed print are recorded in public collections.

One of the 12 Labors of Hercules, this depiction transforms the hero's combat with the lion of Nemea into a single figural group rendered in profile and subtended by a continuous curve. This motif was frequently used in ancient Roman coins and cameos. Images of the Labors survived in the Middle Ages as symbols of Virtue overcoming Vice; this combat was often represented because of its simple shape and the clear duality of good versus evil. The subject was newly appreciated in the Renaissance as a conflation of mythological narrative, antique form, and Christian meaning. A monumental marble relief of the struggle located in the Villa Medici, Rome, was widely copied by artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Whether inspired directly by an antique prototype or by a contemporary copy, the present composition was the most developed version of the period, with the principal group ascribed to Raphael (though probably by another artist in his circle) and set within an extensive landscape that relates to Venetian paintings and drawings of the mid-16th century. The only interpretation with such spatial extension and narrative, this woodcut began a vital naturalistic tradition distinct from the motif's classical legacy. It also had the greatest influence, inspiring Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix.

This impression is also exceptional. The image is complete, including a border. The two blocks are in exact registration, avoiding the shadow of tone that lies outside the contours in many early chiaroscuros. And the printing of both the tone and line blocks is practically uniform, avoiding the weaker patches and pronounced squash of ink that are also common in early examples of the technique. The same is true of condition. The sheet has a faint vertical centerfold and a few printing creases, but it is otherwise unblemished by damage, repair, or later strengthening in pen. This is unusual for an early woodcut and exceptional for a chiaroscuro of the period, distinguishing this impression from all but one, in Vienna's Albertina Museum.


lower right in image: RAPHAEL. VR. INV.


John Barnard, London (died 1784) (Lugt 1419). (James A. Bergquist, Newton Centre, MA); purchased 2014 by NGA.

Exhibition History

The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Rennaissance Italy, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2018-2019, no. 86.


Bartsch, Adam. Le peintre graveur. 21 vols. Vienna, 1802-1821: Adam. Le peintre graveur. 21 vols. Vienna: J.V. Degen, 1802-1821: no. 18
Passavant, Johann David. Le peintre-graveur, contenant l'histoire de la gravure sur bois, sur metalet au buring jusque vers la fin du XVI siecle .... 6 vols. Leipzig: Rudolph Weigel, 1860-1864: no. 18

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