Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life (review)


Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life (review)

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Altered and Adorned by Suzanne Karr Schmidt and Kimberly Nichols accompanies the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2011 Altered and Adorned exhibition of prints and other objects of print culture. Schmidt opens the book with a basic question: How were prints used during the Renaissance? She examines a range of engravings, etchings, and woodcuts dating from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries to uncover some answers to this question. She considers contextual details, such as how these objects were collected and stored by their owners. She looks at evidence such as particular markings on the objects themselves, including stains, smears, and other indications of the viewer’s touch. And she explores how prints were cut and pasted, used for decoration, and even worn by viewers for festive and religious purposes. Schmidt’s interest in the applied uses of Renaissance prints leads her to explore a rich variety of images, many of which will be unfamiliar to most readers. The objects she discusses range from scientific works such as celestial maps and anatomical drawings, to portraits of royals and holy figures, to games and ornamental designs. She dedicates space, for example, to an investigation of images that were literally meant to be eaten, which she describes as edible prints. These small pieces of paper were typically inscribed with images of saints or the Virgin Mary, and consumed in the hopes of warding off illnesses. Intriguingly, Schmidt even considers the communion wafer as a printed object, a point well-illustrated by an image of a host iron showing a crucifixion scene. Similarly, Schmidt analyzes an array of images meant to be worn on the body for various purposes. An illustration of an engraving for a fan by Agostino Carracci entitled Headpiece in the Form of a Fan, c. 1589, was designed to be cut out and worn; it may have been mounted and displayed as part of an elaborate hairstyle. Three oval vignettes along the bottom of the fan could be cut out and exchanged, allowing for the appearance of the fan to be adjusted. Schmidt suggests that Carracci’s fan could have been created as a gift for guests in honor of the 1589 wedding of Christine of Lorraine and Ferdinando de Medici. Schmidt’s description of Carracci’s fan demonstrates the varied functions of this image: although displayed today as a work of art, it was a festive adornment in the late sixteenth century, and it may have marked an important event by serving as a souvenir. Her exploration of such objects offers particularly interesting and informative insights into less frequently examined aspects of print culture in the Renaissance period. In the last chapter of Altered and Adorned, Kimberly Nichols looks at a small number of Renaissance prints to provide an overview of their technical qualities. She considers the materials used to make them, the signs of age and usage that they bear, and the technical innovations they display. Her explanation of the physical qualities of select prints is very useful for understanding both the print itself—why it looks as it does, and how that look was achieved—as well as the process of printmaking behind it. For example, she shows an enlarged detail of Hans Burgkmair the Elder’s Equestrian Portrait of Maximilian I (1508) to demonstrate a chiaroscuro woodcut. This print was made from more than one block, and Nichols offers a detail that clearly shows how the first layer of the image was printed in gold, and the second layer in black. Art historians in particular will find much to see in her inclusion of enlarged detail illustrations, particularly where they show finer examples of technique and execution very clearly. Magnified details of delicately tapering lines, fine hatching, and the impact of colorant aid Nichols’s discussion of the materiality of printed objects. The lucidity of her explanations and the images that accompany them provide helpful tools for learning about printmaking during the Renaissance.

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