I met Freyda Spira, Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints, at the top of the grand staircase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Along with Gregory Jecmen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Freyda organized the exhibition currently on view at the Blanton, Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540. Freyda quickly ushered me passed roped passages and locked doors until we arrived at a quiet reading room lined with books on metallurgy, weaponry, and war. In the middle sat a half suit of armor and a helmet, delicately etched in the style of Daniel Hopfer, who was commissioned by some of the best armorers in Augsburg to embellish arms and armor with etched flora and fauna, imaginary beasts, and female nudes. His style, with a distinctive dot patterned background and raised design, became indicative of the Northern Renaissance and known simply as Hopfer Style.
I’d come to the Met with the hope of borrowing armor to display alongside the prints and drawings in Imperial Augsburg. Sitting in front of the impressive pieces they’d laid out, the curators and I talked about the close connection between armor decoration and printmaking and which piece would best demonstration this tie to our museum visitors. Choosing became a problem given the merits of both pieces and the simple fact that much of our audience has never had the opportunity to see works like this in person. I pressed my luck and asked for both the helmet and the suit of armor—the Met graciously agreed! Because of their fragility and complicated construction, the pieces arrived from New York with their own courier. They were assembled in our galleries and placed in specially designed cases, surrounded by prints from the same period.
So what is a suit of armor doing in an exhibition on Renaissance prints and drawings? Intaglio prints such as engravings (where lines are carved directly into the plate), and etchings (where lines are created using acid and an acid resist), owe much of their history to early modern metalsmiths. Shortly after Johannes Gutenberg started printing around 1450 in Mainz, Germany, artisans experimented with different types of printing presses—some applied gentle, even pressure and others very high levels of pressure. Through this experimentation, metal workers discovered they could make an impression on paper when they inked flat, metal plates and put them through a high level press. With printmaking, metalsmiths were able to record their designs, display them in their workshop, or distribute them throughout the region to secure commissions. Although printmakers were successfully printing engravings throughout Europe, Daniel Hopfer was the first to pull a print from an etched plate around 1500 in Augsburg.
With the invention of etching and color printing, the small German town of Augsburg left a tremendous mark on the history of art. The research conducted by the curators and paper conservators at the Met and the NGA in preparation for this exhibition will forever change the way we teach printmaking. The Blanton’s large collection of prints and drawings is enhanced by scholarly exhibitions such as this one, offering a glimpse into the complex history of the works in our own collection. More importantly, we have the opportunity to bring a part of Renaissance Germany all to way to Austin, Texas!
– Catherine Zinser, Manager of Exhibitions