Today, you can drive from Augsburg, in southern Germany, to the Italian border in about three hours. A day’s drive puts you in Florence. But even before the automobile and modern highways, Italy was a closely felt presence in Augsburg, a city that dates back to Roman times. As the Middle Ages waned, the main currents of the Renaissance flowed north from Italy, and artists and artisans in Augsburg were fired by the same humanist and antiquarian passions as Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo.
“Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540” is a small show that captures a surprising amount of liveliness in its slightly more than 100 images, many of them brilliantly colored and intensely detailed.
In a 1510 woodcut, “The Lovers Surprised by Death,” a terrifying and skeletal specter reaches violently into the mouth of a young man, pulling out his soul and sending him to judgment at the very moment of bliss with a woman, disheveled and bare-legged, who looks on in horror. A strangely feline dog romps at the bottom of Daniel Hopfer’s touching image of “The Virgin Mary Taking Leave of Christ,” in which Mary’s agony and Jesus’s fatigue and sense of duty are painfully palpable.
The details of life, and the drama of religious and human passions, are as present in this exhibition of woodcuts, etchings and drawings as in anything by the flamboyant artists of the sunny south.
But one is more keenly aware of technique and technology. The Hopfer image of Christ and Mary is an etching, made by covering a metal plate with a waxy material impervious to acid. By scraping lines into the wax and then submitting the plate to an acid bath, a design is bitten into the surface--which can then be used to make an image on paper.
The process was probably invented by Hopfer, who used the same technique to produce intricate images on armor. The exhibition includes an etched iron printing plate designed by Hopfer and the gorget, breast- and backplates of a suit of armor that he may have had a hand in decorating. One of the most technically impressive images is a design for a dagger sheaf, depicting vines and leaves against a dark background, made sumptuous by tiny dots that give the shaded regions a texture like fine fabric.
A fascinating nexus of art, empire and technology made possible the emergence of Hopfer’s artistry. By the middle of the 1500s, the great age of armor was in decline, but it remained a mark of prestige and power for figures such as the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian and Charles V, two royal patrons who play major roles in this show.
Image was essential to empire, projecting power far beyond what could be sustained by force of arms alone. It is a nice happenstance of history that the same technique for turning a simple suit of armor into a vehicle of imperial pomp transferred so neatly to etching printing plates, which in turn produced paper images used to spread imperial propaganda even farther and deeper into the realms of the Holy Roman Empire.