Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator
The glories of Italian Renaissance painting, frescos by Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Mantegna, and Romano, were created within the cloistered walls of churches and monasteries, and in aristocratic palaces and villas. Outside of a small audience who were privileged to view the paintings in situ, how was it that artists and connoisseurs from far away came to know and appreciate these great, immovable works of art? Occasionally, artists had the opportunity to travel and see things first hand; in the early 16th-century, Dürer made the long journey from Nuremberg to Italy where he saw works by Leonardo and traded drawings with Raphael, but the primary means of artistic exchange over distance was through finely made printed copies. Masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos were influential far outside of Rome because of a flourishing trade in engravings after his compositions.
One of the most talented and interesting engravers of the mid-16th-century was Diana Mantuana, also referred to as Diana Scultori. Though it was unusual at the time for a woman to acquire printmaking skills, for Diana the trade of engraving was a family business. Her father, Giovanni Battista Scultori was an accomplished draftsman and engraver who taught the craft to Diana and her brother Adamo. Engraving is a difficult and laborious medium as each line is incised into a copper plate using a fine-tipped tool known as a burin. This requires both strength and control in order to cut lines in metal that will appear to be as fluid and immediate as those of a pen drawing. Diana excelled at creating strongly engraved, yet finely detailed, elaborate compositions.
Diana’s engraving The Feast of the Gods is a condensed rendering of a group of 22 frescos depicting the story of Cupid and Psyche that Giulio Romano created for Federico II Gonzaga’s Palazzo del Te in Mantua around 1528. The murals illustrate the myth as told in Apuleius’s Metamorphosis: Cupid fell in love with the beautiful mortal Psyche, but the two were separated by the gods and Psyche was forced to undergo a long period of wandering and many trials before she was permitted to be reunited with her lover.
In reducing a lengthy narrative told through a cycle of monumental paintings down to a tabletop sized print, some creative editing was required. Rather than attempting to recreate the entire story, Diana selected scenes from the cycle that highlight the luxury of a celebratory spectacle as the gods prepare a banquet for Cupid and Psyche. The print captured the exuberance of the murals and allowed Diana to demonstrate her technical virtuosity. Her skill and control of the engraving medium is on full display as she depicts a sumptuous assembly of classical nude figures and a menagerie of exotic animals set within an expansive garden.
Another remarkable feature of Diana’s engraving is its scale; this is a large print, 44 inches long, and 15 inches high. The size of this engraving exceeded the papermaking and printmaking technology of the day so in order to create an engraving this long, Diana actually needed to engrave and print 3 plates, which were then pasted together. Prints from the Renaissance as large as this rarely survived as collectors often displayed them tacked or pasted onto walls. The BMA impression of the print also has suffered from aging and rough handling, however it was likely preserved because it was folded and tipped into a book for storage.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.