Sometimes I make a fantasy comparison between my Random Treasure blog and Neil MacGregor’s masterly radio series and book A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which he tells “history through things” by choosing significant objects from of the British Museum, of which august institution he was Director.
My purpose is, of course, infinitely more modest than his. I don’t want to relate the history of the world. I merely use objects which I buy cheaply and locally as a resource for telling stories which might (or might not) provide a little understanding of their production, provenance and background. But whereas in the British Museum MacGregor had some 13 million objects to choose from in one of the biggest and most comprehensive collections in the world, my choice is restricted to whatever stuff I can pick up on a very restricted budget in the charity shops and back-street salerooms of North Edinburgh.
This enforced policy of bottom-feeding has, however, over the years resulted in the discovery of several world-class objects, which I have written about in my book and in this blog. A wooden sculpture carved in Burgundy around 1430; a psalm book printed and bound here in Edinburgh in 1617, one of only two copies known; two exceptional pieces of Chinese pottery; an extraordinary and unique jug made jointly by the two founding fathers of the studio pottery movement; and more. You can read their stories in my book Random Treasure – Antiques, Auctions and Alchemy and on this blog.
But notwithstanding these isolated successes, it is inevitable that the opportunity to tell stories about some classes of object will always be closed to me. How, for example, could I expect to be able to find in Great Junction Street, Leith, a pharaonic death mask, or an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, or an Old Master picture?
But wait! Delete that last example! Very recently, in a small saleroom in Portobello in the east of Edinburgh, I bought a genuine Old Master. It’s a seasonal object, too, and an ideal subject for my Christmas blog piece.
Bethlehem, 1 AD
It’s a busy evening at the stable in Bethlehem when the shepherds arrive, attracted by a blindingly bright star. Six of them come, with just one sheep between them. They find the baby Jesus on a rough wooden platform in the open air in front of a half-ruinous classical building. He is attended by his mother Mary and two other women whom I can’t identify. They might simply be generic helpers (for example one might be a midwife), or possibly they are named biblical characters who feature in the Nativity story. Unfortunately my secular Jewish upbringing didn’t equip me with a sufficiently detailed knowledge of New Testament hagiography to enable me to be more informative than this.
The shepherds jostle in from the left hand side to get a good look at Baby Jesus, and one of them holds up the sheep on its hind legs so that it also can adore – or alternatively, if you want to get symbolical, perhaps the sheep is being held in a sacrificial position, about to get its throat cut, foreshadowing the child’s eventual fate? The better-dressed of the attendant ladies raises her hands in exasperation, maybe protecting the precious child against the crush of the rude mechanicals. The baby himself, mouth downturned, seems anxious, and looks for comfort to the second woman, who bends to embrace him. To the right of the scene, the Virgin sits slightly detached beside a magnificent carved column, looking on serenely and lovingly, but not participating in the melée.
In the background, unconcerned and uninvolved, Joseph tends to a weary-seeming long-faced Ass who stands forlornly beside a rather grumpy Ox. For some reason which I can’t explain, Joseph is the only one of the eleven human figures in the composition who is wearing a halo.
If you’re selecting a Renaissance image for a Christmas card showing the Adoration of the Shepherds, you’ll doubtless be looking for a colourful sugary-sweet picture replete with bleating, woolly lambs and benign wide-eyed rustics, all surrounding the doting Mary, Joseph, Ox and Ass as they gaze lovingly on gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild lying peacefully in the manger, with the whole tableau overlooked from above by an assortment of doves, cherubs, angels and putti, perhaps something like the Guido Reni version shown here. But this is not that image. Rather, it is emotional, serious, grown-up, edgy and, frankly, slightly disturbing. Moreover, it’s printed on paper in sombre, heavily-shadowed black-and-white, dulled with age, and it is not the sort of picture you can just take a glance at and move on. No, you have to look quite closely.
Rome, 1526 AD
The 1520s should have a good time to be an artist in Rome, and you might have thought there would be lots of scope for the next young genius painter to make a name for himself. Leonardo da Vinci had died in France in 1519, followed by Raphael in here Rome in 1520, aged just 37; Michelangelo, having finished work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1512, was alive and well but had relocated to Florence; Titian was busy painting in Venice.
One of the most hotly-tipped candidates for success was the precocious young artist Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, called Parmigianino (1503-1540). Parmigianino means “the little Parmesan”, but the nickname has nothing to do with cheese and everything to do with the fact that he was born in the city of Parma, into a family of minor artists. He arrived in Rome in 1524, bringing with him several of his small early paintings, and Romans were so impressed, especially when they saw his remarkable Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, that he was hailed as “Raphael reborn”. His painting style displayed the beginnings of a movement away from High Renaissance heroic perfection, towards the elongated figures and slightly unbalanced poses which would come to be characteristic of Late Renaissance or Mannerist painting. His most famous painting in this style is known as the Madonna of the Long Neck.
A new Pope had been enthroned in 1523, and in normal times, a new Pope meant lots of new patronage. But these weren’t normal times. Clement VII came to the papacy “at a time of crisis, with the Protestant Reformation spreading; the Church nearing bankruptcy; and large, foreign armies invading Italy”. Rome was in recession and Papal commissions had more or less dried up. Despite his obvious potential, Parmigianino found it difficult to get work. In his three years in Rome, he completed only one oil painting, the Vision of Saint Jerome, now in the National Gallery, London.
However, during this period he made many drawings and also took up the production of printed images. This could have been because he had time on his hands, or because he enjoyed scientific experiment and innovation (later in life he became interested in alchemy), or because printing and distributing your work was a good and cheap way to advertise your talents to potential patrons.
The process of producing printed impressions on paper from inked images engraved on copper plates was developed in Germany from around the 1430s. Later in the fifteenth century, engraving reached a high level of sophistication in Germany with Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Durer, and in Italy with Andrea Mantegna. Then, from around 1500, artists began to experiment with etching, a slightly different and more sophisticated technique in which the blank copper plate is first coated with a thin layer of wax. The image is cut into the wax, and the plate is then immersed in acid, which etches into the metal the lines drawn through the wax.
While in Rome, “Parmigianino recognized the potential of the [etching] medium to render the fluid lines of his drawn sketches”. It has been claimed that in doing so he became “the de facto father of Italian etching”.
He started by making some small and attractive engravings himself, but soon after this modest start he went into collaboration with a young professional engraver to create a series of very much more ambitious works. Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio (c.1500-1565) was also an incomer to Rome from either Parma or Verona (it isn’t certain which), and had learned his trade from the successful engraver Marcantonio Raimondi.
Together, Parmigianino and Caraglio produced just four prints in 1526/’27: The Marriage of the Virgin, The Martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul, Diogenes and Adoration of the Shepherds. Artist and engraver worked closely together, with Parmigianino making preparatory sketches and detailed drawings, and Caraglio providing the engraving expertise, following closely the images made by the artist.
Uniquely, Parmigianino’s original drawing for the Adoration of the Shepherds still exists in a museum in Weimar, Germany.
“Given the sheer richness and brilliance of the drawing, produced in the most elaborate technique, one wonders how the engraver was able to work from it. The contours on this drawing are indented with a blind stylus, which is a strong indication that Caraglio attempted to follow it in every detail.”
The Adoration was the only one of the four prints in which Caraglio included his signature, as a monogram above the date 1526 on the base of the column at the right-hand side. There is no doubt about the identity of the engraver, but the meaning of his monogram combining the letters IAV is unexplained. The I probably stands for his forename Jacopo/Iacobus, and the V might signify Veronensis (i.e. from Verona), but what the A means is unknown.
A technical problem with taking repeated printed impressions from a copper plate is that the plate fairly rapidly gets worn out and often receives other types of damage. Many early prints therefore exist in various different states, with the plate having been repaired or re-engraved, or sometimes altered to effect improvements at the behest of either the artist or the original engraver. The Adoration of the Shepherds is known to exist in two states. One of these (the original, I believe, although I haven’t seen this written down anywhere) contains in the centre near the lower edge the inscription Ant. Sal. exc. This inscription also appears on many other prints published in Rome around the same time, and indicates that the print was executed by the publisher and printseller Antonio Salamanca (1479-1562). We can assume that neither Parmigianino nor Caraglio owned a printing press, so presumably a commercial arrangement was made with Salamanca for production of the print. The other (later?) version of the Adoration print doesn’t have Salamanca’s inscription, but does have a number of differences including the addition of extra engraved or etched lines in certain places to deepen some shadows.
The Adoration of the Shepherds has been described as “without question the most successful and atmospheric of Caraglio’s prints for Parmigianino”. Since 1526, the composition has been copied many times by other artists and in other media, including in oil paintings and in reproductions on tin-glazed maiolica pottery. It’s a famous and well-documented image.
As for Parmigianino and Caraglio, their partnership broke up in 1527 and they went their separate ways. Rome was suddenly invaded by a huge force of undisciplined and mutinous soldiers from the army of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. To escape the looting and pillage, anyone who was in a position to flee did so with alacrity. The artist fled to Bologna, where he spent the next three years, and in 1530 he returned to his home in Parma, where he died, aged 37, in 1540.
The engraver fled to Venice, and worked there for ten years before moving on to Poland, where he used his expertise to engrave coins, medals, gems and cameos rather than copper plates for printing. He was appointed goldsmith to the Polish King Sigismund I, and died in 1565.
Portobello, 2019 AD
One of the two small local auction rooms in my locality holds fortnightly sales in its premises in an industrial estate in Portobello, on the eastern edge of Edinburgh. Shortly before the most recent sale on 7th December, I browsed through the online catalogue, as I am wont to do, and noted several lots for close examination at the viewing. Among these was lot number 183, listed as “Parmiagino Paraglius, engraved print in a glazed oak frame, 23.5 x 20cm”, with an estimated price of £30-40.
By a day or two later I had been able through the good offices of Google images to identify the print as Adoration of the Shepherds, the artist as Parmigianino, and the engraver as Caraglio. At the viewing I had a good close look and became rapidly convinced that this was no reproduction, and that the year 1526 engraved in the plate was indeed the year in which this impression was made. Instant loss of interest in any other lots offered in the sale! Instant obsession! My chance to buy a genuine Old Master for a song!
My hope before bidding was that the inaccurate names “Parmiagino” and “Caraglius” which are handwritten on the print’s mount, compounded by the mistranscription of the latter name in the catalogue as “Paraglius”, would mean that other auction viewers would overlook this small unassuming print in its modest oak frame, and fail to identify it for what it was.
Sadly, I was wrong. One other keen-eyed bidder had spotted it too, and on the day of the sale things got rather competitive. I had agreed with myself to bid, if necessary, up to a price well above the catalogue estimate, but in the event I got caught up in the excitement of the moment, unable to stop bidding, and my opponent folded at a much higher figure than I had anticipated. But I just had to win my prize. Couldn’t stop myself.
I won’t tell you the eventual hammer price, but to give you a ballpark figure, it was not enormously different from the amount I had paid just a few weeks ago for a new fridge-freezer. But I’m infinitely more excited about my Old Master than I am about my New Fridge.
I brought my beautiful print home, and here I am now, a few days before Christmas, having done pretty well nothing else since the auction date but study it. Haven’t completed my Christmas shopping. Haven’t written all the cards. Haven’t written my shopping list for the vast amounts of catering to which we’re committed over the festive season. It’s a compulsion.
The print is behind glass in a simple oak frame with a bit of gilded beading. At a guess, I’d say it has been undisturbed in the frame for 80-100 years, and for the time being I’m too scared to remove it for close inspection. Thus, to date, I have only examined it through glass. Originally it would have been printed on a larger sheet with a plain border, but this has been trimmed off to the very edges of the image, which measures about 235 x 207 mm. As far as I can tell, no parts of the printed image are missing. It appears to have been pasted down on another sheet of paper which has also been trimmed to the same size, and then mounted on card inside a narrow hand-drawn ink border. There is some discolouration from age, a couple of small patches in the bottom right-hand corner and to the right of Joseph’s halo where there might have been some restoration, and light vertical creasing down the centre of the sheet.
Having said all of the above, I have absolutely no idea whether this means that the print is in good condition or in poor condition for its age. With no knowledge whatsoever of how to appraise a 494-year-old sheet of printed paper, I’m simply not equipped to venture an opinion. Similarly I can’t tell you if it’s a good, sharply-printed early impression from the plate, or a poor impression taken when the plate was worn. I do know however that the condition and printing quality of early prints has a major bearing on their desirability from the point of view of expert collectors.
In its favour, I can tell you that my print seems to have a reasonable amount of contrast between light and dark, and that I can clearly distinguish all the tiny engraved lines which make up the image. But it needs an expert examination to judge if it is a good ‘un or not.
I mentioned earlier that the Adoration of the Shepherds exists in two states. Having looked closely at photos online of several copies in public collections, I think I might have found a way to distinguish between the two states. It seems that some copies bear the inscription of the publisher Antonio Salamanca, and I believe this to be indicative of the first state. One copy of this type is in the Warsaw University Library and the other in the Casanatense Library in Rome. A third is in my house.
Above is a comparison between a detail in my print (left) and in an impression in the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (right). Note in the angled overhanging section of the column’s pedestal base that the St Petersburg impression has some additional horizontal engraved cross-hatching. My theory (available to be exploded at any time) is that this proves my impression is from the earlier state of the plate. My reasoning is simply that it seems plausible that the cross-hatching has been added later but implausible that it might have been removed later.
Old Master prints were highly valued and eagerly collected from times when the Masters were New and not Old. As a result, many copies of the Adoration have survived and have passed into public collections. There is one in the British Museum, London, two in the New York Metropolitan Museum, the one in St Petersburg, plus several others. But of all the copies I have inspected in online images, only the two mentioned above in Warsaw and Rome appear to share with mine the characteristics of the first state of the engraving. If this is correct, I think this must also be much the rarer version.
So, if my rather superficial research is correct (and I have no certainty that it is), then I can briefly sum up my print as follows: it is the very rare first version of the most successful and atmospheric of Caraglio’s prints for Parmigianino, the father of Italian etching.
That sounds good. It must surely mean that my Old Master is quite something. But does it also mean that it’s valuable? Don’t know.
I can find a record of only one other copy of the Adoration having been sold at auction in recent years, which was at Skinner’s in Boston, Mass, USA in 2006. It was not from the first state and was described as a “weak impression in poor condition”, and it sold for the princely sum of £71, which is not really very helpful as a guideline.
Old Master prints do, however, fetch good prices at auction. Very recently Christie’s held a sale of them in London, and you can see their catalogue here. The sale didn’t include any examples by Caraglio, but there was one print made by Parmigianino (Lot 7) which sold for £2,375, plus two woodcuts and an engraving after Parmigianino (lots 22, 23 and 24), which sold for £16,250, £8,750 and £2,500 respectively. A fine print by Marcantonio Raimondi, Caraglio’s teacher (Lot 6) sold for £20,000, but other Italian Renaissance pieces fetched as little as £1,000.
Unfortunately I can’t say why it is that some prints sell for so much more than others: is it rarity, or quality, or condition, or the state of the plate, or the subject, or the complexity of the engraving technique, or any combination of the above? I simply don’t know.
So I have sent photos of my Adoration print to experts at Christie’s and Sotheby’s to seek their opinions. If it isn’t worth much I’ll keep it, but if it turns out to have a substantial value, then I will probably sell it, on the principle that it will be better appreciated and safer preserved for the future in a specialist public or private collection than in my slightly damp Victorian semi-detached house. My hope is that it won’t prove to be very valuable, which will justify me in retaining my first Old Master print within what I am pompous enough to think of as my Permanent Collection.
I haven’t heard back yet from either of the experts. Perhaps they are off for their Christmas holidays. Perhaps they are too busy. Perhaps my email has gone into their spam folders. Perhaps my print is so insignificant that they aren’t interested in replying.
If and when I find out anything more, I’ll update this blog piece to let you know. In the meantime, I hope that seeing and reading about my extraordinary little picture of the Adoration of the Shepherds will help to bring some extra festive cheer to readers of the Random Treasure blog. Very happy holidays to you all!
 David Franklin, The Art of Parmigianino, Yale University Press, 2004, page 42
 Ibid., pages 135-6, citing David Landau and Peter W. Parshall in The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550, Yale University Press, 1994, page 154
 Franklin, op. cit., page 41
 Illustrated in Print Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 2 (JUNE 2005), pp. 209-213, but not included in the Library’s online catalogue