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Old Master Paintings

How Printmaking Invention and Dürer's Cityscapes Influenced Bartolomeo Veneto’s 'Madonna and Child'

By Sotheby's
Easily transportable and replicable by nature, prints have always been the way in which artistic ideas have been most effectively disseminated. It is through the study and use of prints that the artistic languages north and south of the Alps were unified. Precisely because of their portability and accessibility, soon after their invention prints became valuable visual sources for painters, sculptors and craftsmen.
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After Jan van der Straet, called Stradanus, The Invention of Copper Engraving, engraving, circa 1600

P rintmaking was invented in Germany in the early 15th century, and the trade in prints immediately flourished. Prints became collectibles and were soon bought south of the Alps, and entered the workshops of artists working in northern Italy and Venice. Venice quickly became the hub of Italian printmaking. Among the engravers whose designs circulated throughout Italy from the second half of the fifteenth century (such as the Master ES and Martin Schongauer), it was Albrecht Dürer who surpassed them all, turning printmaking into a lucrative and thriving business.

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Attributed to Erhard Schön, Portrait of Albrecht Dürer, woodcut, circa 1538

Dürer practised in all printmaking techniques, expanded their visual repertoire, explored both sacred and secular subjects, and developed their circulation through the publication of print albums. As a result, the distribution of his designs expanded exponentially, and his works were readily available. In addition, Dürer’s prints were also printed on larger paper giving them the status of ‘proper’ works of art, but this also made them more practical as visual models for artists. Dürer travelled to Italy and visited Venice twice, once between 1494 and 1495 and a second time between 1505 and 1507. Consequently, his designs were favoured by Venetian artists, and use of his motifs soon became part of their artistic repertoire. Italian printmakers themselves also replicated Dürer’s prints, sometimes faithfully, other times only partially and combining details from different prints.

The Madonna and Child by Bartolomeo Veneto dating to circa 1505 in the forthcoming Old Masters Day Sale, is a perfect example of the extent to which designs by Dürer were used by Venetian artists. The painting depicts a Madonna holding The Christ Child in an open-air setting before a landscape of rolling hills. A townscape in the near background features at the right-hand side the steeply-pitched roofed farm houses that we can recognize from those buildings in Dürer’s print The Prodigal Son.

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Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son, engraving, circa 1496

Dürer’s The Prodigal Son is a large format print and is considered to be one of the most significant early achievements in his artist career as a printmaker. The print shows the prodigal son kneeling on the ground surrounded by a herd of swine. The buildings in the background have been identified as those of the farm of Himpelshof, situated outside the city walls of Nuremberg. By borrowing this cityscape from Dürer, Bartolomeo Veneto shows his interest in merging different sources, and one can imagine that these buildings offered him inspiration that were a contrast to the visual architectural traditions of Venice.

The similarity between the two cityscapes is striking, and Bartolomeo has only made minor changes to a few of the buildings in the background. It is clear that the artist looked closely at Dürer’s design – he even transposed the scratch on the steep roof of the small house in the foreground, as well as the crossed boards nailed on the facade of the taller house just behind. Even in the more significant changes that Bartolomeo made, he remained considerate of Dürer’s compositional structure – for example, when he removed the figure of the prodigal son and the swine and the surrounding straw in Dürer’s composition, Bartolomeo painted a lake in their place, the shape of which somehow reminds us of the shape created by the straw in the original composition.

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