UGO DA CARPI
(c. 1480-c. 1523)

Hero and Sibyl

after 1518
Chiaroscuro woodcut, 292 x 213 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

This woodcut is traditionally called Raphael and His Mistress.

The chiaroscuro prints were produced from several wood blocks in which the major areas were printed in black and successive blocks were carefully registered to yield highlights and additional areas of colour. These were the first true colour prints, for hand tinting done directly, and often crudely, on the black-and-white impression was thus eliminated. Here the larger format and the addition of colour offer a better opportunity to appraise the character and qualities of this type of colour woodcut. The finest examples of works produced by this method are generally conceded to be by Italian artists, and these prints are probably the first to be created specifically as wall decorations. Detail is reduced to a minimum and stress is placed on bold composition, large contours, and flat, subtly coloured areas.

Ugo da Carpi is a somewhat controversial figure. The dates of his birth and death are not generally agreed upon. Vasari mentions him as a "mediocre painter," but nevertheless "in other flights of fancy, of the keenest genius." His chiaroscuro prints should be considered the products of these "flights of fancy." He worked in both Venice and Rome, and in the former city he probably first learned the art of woodcutting and the special technique of the chiaroscuro print. During his sojourn in Rome, many of his works were inspired by the art of Raphael, whose drawings he translated into this new medium. These sold so well that they were counterfeited by some Venetian artisans, and Ugo returned to Venice to present a petition to the Senate for a special license to protect him against this piracy.

Attributions in this medium are not readily made. The illustration of the present example in the scholarly catalogue of William H. Schab carries a question mark after the artist's name. It is, however, a splendid work and definitely in the master's style. It is sometimes referred by its older title, Raphael and His Mistress. However, most likely the subject is taken from classical mythology and represents a hero consulting an oracle or sibyl.

The subject is printed from four blocks, one in black, one in gray, and two in shades of ocher.