Attributed to Kolman Helmschmid (armor maker) and Daniel Hopfer I. ‘Breast-and Back-plate with Virgin and Child with Saints,’ c.1510-1520 etched steel. (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Marshall Field)

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.

Hans Holbein the Elder. ‘Portrait of a Woman,’ c. 1508 silverpoint, brush and black and brown ink, and black chalk heightened with white on white prepared paper. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, Woodner Collection)

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.

Gutenberg’s printing technology was less than a century old when Augsburg became a center of Renaissance creativity, and the show traces the rapid development of the printed image from heavy, often blunt woodcuts to Hopfer’s virtuoso etchings. Central to the exhibition are prints by Erhard Ratdolt, who used as many as six woodblocks, carefully aligned, to create a single multi-colored image. These have somewhat the same impact as stained glass, fields of color contained within dark outlines.

Ratdolt’s technological accomplishment, like science done in the midst of a great paradigm shift, may have been as time-consuming and labor-intensive as the old “technology,” which was to hand-color images, print by print. But no matter how cumbersome, Ratdolt’s method was forward-looking to more precise, more nuanced and more easily reproduced color images centuries in the future.

Curator Gregory Jecmen is quick to point out that the focus of this exhibition, Augsburg, is unique, shifting attention away from Nuremberg, where artists such as Albrecht Duerer were making what would be a stronger impact on art history. Duerer, who on occasion worked in Augsburg, is represented, most notably by his none-too-flattering portrait of Maximilian and by a long, almost comically grandiose woodcut on eight joined sheets of paper that depicts the same megalomaniac in an elaborate chariot, pulled by teams of horses and accompanied by allegorical figures; it recalls the classic Roman triumph, an orgy of flattery and aggrandizement.

This kind of hype, for imperial figures and for the city itself, is a prominent theme throughout the show. An early map, useless for navigation but revealing of Augsburg’s sense of itself, places the wealthy mercantile city almost in the center of the world, just below Jerusalem.

Maximilian’s ample self-regard led him to commission elaborate and self-glorifying books, replete with images. The “Kaiserbuch” was meant to trace his genealogy back to Julius Caesar. The “Freydal” celebrated a fictional version of Maximilian, recounting his tournament exploits like those of a superhero. These books and other imperial projects needed illustrations, and illustrators needed inspiration, which sent them in search of precedents from their Roman past. Thus the Renaissance is felt here as an efficient machine, a cultural looping process, with imperial vanity harnessed to humanist study, spitting out images as a delicious byproduct.

And yet, in spite of this almost mechanistic efficiency of image-making, it is the rare hand-drawn work that lingers. Hans Holbein the Elder’s “Portrait of a Woman,” from around 1508, is a small silverpoint-and-ink drawing showing an unknown woman with her neck and hair loosely swaddled in cloth. Her nose glistens ever so slightly, and her eyes have just a hint of puffiness about them, as if fussy children have kept her up for too long. There’s a range and nuance of texture and shading in the drawing, and an emotional directness, that give one the illusion of a real window into the psychological world of Augsburg.

It’s an illusion because we in fact know very little about who she is or what she’s thinking, and because the woodcuts and etchings in this exhibition encode just as much information about life as this little drawing. But the prints require an extra effort, a tangible act of interpretation, while the drawing just hums its simple tune. It’s a relief to have it, and all the more rewarding if you save its pleasures for last.

Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540

on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art through Dec. 31. For more information, visit