AUSTIN, Texas — In 1506, the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer realized that someone, somewhere had been producing unauthorized copies of his famous Life of the Virgin woodcut series.
At the turn of the 16th century, Dürer’s prints were incredibly popular across Europe as artworks in and of themselves, but also as an affordable alternative to paintings — an authentic Dürer print was far more affordable than an authentic Dürer painting. A concerned friend from Venice came across a print that looked suspiciously like one from the Life of the Virgin series and — worried that it was a copy passed off as the real thing — sent it to Dürer. On close inspection, Dürer determined that, indeed, it wasn’t one of his prints, but was a copy. In fact, to the artist, it was more than just a copy — it was a forgery.
Incensed, Dürer tracked down the creator, a brilliantly talented artist and engraver named Marcantonio Raimondi, and brought a lawsuit in Venice against Raimondi and the printing house that produced the print, the Dal Jesus family. “It was the first-known case of art-specific intellectual property law brought to trial,” art historian Noah Charney explains in his book, The Art of Forgery (2015), “but the suit proved only partially successful.”
The case hinged on how similar the two prints were, not whether Raimondi was trying to hoodwink audiences by claiming his printer were original Dürers. Had Raimondi’s prints been exact copies, he would have been guilty of forgery. But, as it turned out, they were not exact replications of the originals: although Raimondi included Dürer’s “authenticate” signature — a famous “AD” monogram — the former also included his own initials, as well as a small design indicating the printing house. The Venetian court ruled that Raimondi wasn’t at fault for being such a skilled artist that buyers mistook his work for Dürer’s and told Dürer he should be flattered that such artists wanted to copy his work. The German master was unimpressed with the court’s decision.
In the 1511 edition of Life of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer leaves little doubt that he considered copyists to be forgers (parasites, really) and reminds his audience that Emperor Maximillian had effectively granted him copyright to his own images to control what could be printed, where, and why. “Beware you envious thieves of the work and invention of others, keep your thoughtless hands from these works of ours,” Dürer seethed with righteous indignation.
Five hundred years later, we’re still grappling with the same questions of authenticity and reproduction; sorting out what makes something “an original” and what makes “a copy” isn’t any simpler or more straightforward now than in the early Renaissance. For pieces like Dürer’s — prints that are by their very nature “copies” of “an original” — these questions are even more compounded. Where does “the original” end and “the copy” begin? And, more to the point, where does “the copy” end and “the fake” begin?
Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions: Printmaking in the Renaissance at the Blanton Museum of Art tackles these questions with subtlety and nuance, drawing (as it were) from Dürer and Raimondi’s work, of course, but also from Raphael, Michelangelo, Giorgio Ghisi, Hendrick Goltzius, and many others. The question of Renaissance copies, we learn, goes well beyond Dürer’s court case. The exhibition examines the relationship between various artists and their copyists, as well as emphasizing that each print on display has a unique, material life all of its own: some of the prints are copies, but nothing is a duplicate.
Although the exhibition focuses on Renaissance prints, visitors are greeted by a 19th-century plaster reproduction of a Roman-era copy or adaptation of the “Apollo Belvedere,” the bronze original of which is by the Greek sculptor Leochares, circa 330 BCE. Peel back one layer of reproduction and we find copies all the way down. Behind the “Apollo Belvedere” is a print copy of an engraving of the Roman adaptation by Hendrick Goltzius (1592).
The “Apollo Belvedere” stands in the middle of the exhibition’s first room. On one wall, visitors read the above-quoted wall text expressing Dürer’s frustration with copyists — forgers — using his work for their benefit. On the other side of the room, however, a Giorgio Vasari quote from 1550 reminds us that, “Design cannot have a good origin it is not come from continual practice in copying natural objects, and from the study of pictures by excellent masters and of ancient statues …”
Which brings Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions to the first of its themes: the relationship between artists and their copyists. If, according to Vasari, copying is an instrumental part of learning art, wherein lies Dürer’s frustration? In short, as the exhibit suggestion, it is in the intent. But it is also in the media and making of the original. (Incidentally, the “Beware you envious thieves…” Dürer quote greets visitors as they step into the exhibition.)
For some artists, like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian, engravers (copyists) were important translators of their paintings into black-and-white prints for wider distribution. While Michelangelo painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512, it wasn’t until Giorgio Ghisi created engravings of Michelangelo’s work decades later — thus insuring that copies could be printed and reprinted — that the public became familiar with the original painted works. In Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions, six of Ghisi’s prints neatly line one of the walls; the label informs readers that these were printed as a set in the 1570s, but many copies of the prints were “backdated” to the 1540s to offer “an air of authenticity.”
One of the more entertaining sets of prints shows two different engravers working from the same original, Michelangelo’s drawing “The Punishment of Tityus” (1532). The first reproduction — “Tityos, after Michelangelo” — is a stipple engraving in brown ink by Francesco Bartolozzi (1795); the second is an engraving by Nicolas Beatrizet (ca. 1542). Both retain the basic elements of Michelangelo’s original sketch, but reversed, due to the mirroring effect of the engraving process. Beatrizet is clearly pandering to buyers, as he has opted to include more elements in his engraving than were in the original: more flora, more clouds and sky, more architecture from antiquity. This is what Michelangelo would have drawn, Beatrizet seems to say, if only the former had had the latter’s insight into what buyers thought a Michelangelo drawing ought to look like.
All of these copies translate paintings into engravings, in order to reproduce the originals; there is no assumption that, for example, Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving “Dance of Two Cupids and Seven Children, After Raphael” is anything but a print-medium reproduction of a painting by Raphael. This gets to the heart of Dürer’s issue. Dürer’s originals were woodcut engravings — objects used to create copies. It’s reasonable to mistake a Raimondi print for an authentic Dürer because both the original and copy are prints.
But — and this is the counterintuitive point that Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions makes — not every copy from an original is the same. “Even with the most perfect reproduction, one thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in the place where it is at this moment,” philosopher Water Benjamin offers in his seminal text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). Every copy, then, is its own original, its historical circumstance and material life unable to be duplicated.
In a corner of the exhibition’s final room are two copies of Giulio Bonasone’s “Mater Dolorosa (The Virgin of Sorrows), after Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael” — a copy of a Raimondi reproduction of an original Raphael. The two “Mater Dolorosas” hang side by side. There are notable differences between the two prints: one is darker, one looks softer; one has distinctly pronounced lines, the other’s lines seems to merge together. These copies were made at different times and, as the engraved plate wore down over time, the printed image changed. The “Mater Dolorosas” show that time can change how copies look, but it doesn’t make either copy any less of an authentic reproduction.
“You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains! … Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximilian that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen!” Albrecht Dürer commands his Life of the Virgin readers in 1511. “And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your good be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.” In Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions: Printmaking in the Renaissance, the Blanton tackles tricky questions of authenticity, fakery, and how history and context shape our thinking about “originals” and “copies.” The exhibition challenges viewers’ assumptions that “copies” must be “fakes” and therefore must be “problematic” or “bad.” And it does so with finesse and flair that is often difficult to tease out of the world of print media.
Copies, Fakes, and Reproductions: Printmaking in the Renaissance continues at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 East MLK Jr. Drive, Austin, Texas) through June 16.