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Battle of the Nudes

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Discover the Battle of the Nudes

Image of Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498)<br><I>Battle of the Nudes, </I>1470's-1480's
<br>Florence15th century
<br>42.4cm x width: 60.9 cm;
<br>J.H. Wade Fund 1967.127.
1. Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498)
Battle of the Nudes, 1470's-1480's (Cleveland)
Florence15th century
Engraving, first-state
42.4cm x width: 60.9 cm;
J.H. Wade Fund 1967.127.

Engravings, Impressions and States

Pollaiuolo's Battle of the Nudes is an engraving. Engraving can be broadly defined as the process of cutting lines into the surface of a metal plate (or other material) with a sharp and very hard tool (most commonly, a steel 'burin' or 'graver'). Engraving can also refer to the printed impression on paper taken from an engraved plate or to the engraved plate itself. It is the engraving as the printed impression that we are primarily concerned with in this discussion.

Engraving, along with etching and drypoint, belongs to a category of prints called intaglio. In intaglio printing an image is made by first incising a design in a metal plate. Next ink is applied to the plate and forced into the incised lines. Excess ink is wiped away and then the ink remaining in the incised lines is transferred to a support material, generally a damp sheet of paper. This transfer is acheived by applying considerable pressure to the plate and paper.

Engraving is the oldest intaglio process. Since antiquity and even prehistoric times, incising metal and other hard materials has been used for all kinds of decorative purposes. The art of using this technique to reproduce images as prints did not occur before the fifteenth century. It is widely accepted that engraved prints evolved from the goldsmith's and armorer's craft of surface adornment and that this new art form emerged first in Germany. The earliest engravings were made in the first half of the fifteenth century - as early as the 1430s; the earliest dated print is 1446. The Italian tradition of using engraved prints as a form of visual expression developed in the second half of the century, several decades after the north. Florence was among the earliest centers for Italian printmaking.

An impression is the imprint made on another surface from a plate, block or stone (or other matrix); an impression is any print.

State is a term used to indicate any stage in the development of the plate that is recorded in one or more impressions. Each reworking or modification of the plate constitutes a new state. Battle of the Nudes is considered to exist in two states, although recently a third state has been suggested. [Bibliography: Landau] There are approximately 48 second-state (or later state) impressions in Europe and the United States; Cleveland's first-state impression is unique as no other first-state impressions are known.

Louise Richards, former curator of prints and drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, discovered that the Cleveland impression of Battle of the Nudes was a first-state shortly after it was acquired in 1967. This was a remarkable finding considering the impression had come from a preeminent print collection and passed through the hands of well-established print dealers. Whatever the reasons for the oversight, it was certainly to Cleveland's benefit, as with this discovery the print's rarity as a unique first-state impression was established and consequently its value escalated.

Determing the States of a Print

Determining the states of a print, both the sequence of development and extent of changes to the actual plate, entails a careful comparison of first-state impressions with later-state impressions. In the case of Pollaiuolo's engraving where the sequence is obvious but the extent of the changes is not, this comparison was undertaken with diligence by former assistant curator of prints Shelley Langdale in preparation for the focus exhibition, "Battle of the Nudes": Pollaiuolo's Renaissance Masterpiece. This painstaking scrutiny was essential as the differences between the two states are subtle, to say the least, and range from fairly minor to minute adjustments. The only readily discernable change to the plate is the shading (parallel hatch lines) added to the inner proper right thigh of the figure on the right brandishing an axe.

The six images below show the single major plate change in increasing detail between the first and second states.

2. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first state impression, overall view.
Image of 3. Fogg Art Museum second state impression, overall view.<br>
<br>Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498)
<br><I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, 1470's-1480's (Fogg Art Museum)
<br>Florence15th century
<br>40 cm x width: 57.9 cm;
<br>Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Bequest of Francis Bullard in memory of his uncle Charles Eliot Norton. Photo credit: Katya Kallsen
<br>Image copyright: President and Fellows of Harvard College
<br><I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, 1470's-1480's (Fogg Art Museum)
<br>Florence15th century
<br>40 cm x width: 57.9 cm;
<br>Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Bequest of Francis Bullard in memory of his uncle Charles Eliot Norton. Photo credit: Katya Kallsen
<br>Image copyright: President and Fellows of Harvard College
<br>
<br>Fogg's second state impression, overall view.
3. Fogg Art Museum second state impression, overall view.
Full photo credit 3
Image of Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, close-up of proper right inner thigh of figure on right.
4. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, close-up of proper right inner thigh of figure on right.
Image of 5. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  Fogg Art Museum second-state impression, close-up of proper right inner thigh of figure on right showing major state change.<br>
<br>Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Bequest of Francis Bullard in memory of his uncle Charles Eliot Norton. Photo credit: Katya Kallsen
<br>Image copyright: President and Fellows of Harvard College
5. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, Fogg Art Museum second-state impression, close-up of proper right inner thigh of figure on right showing major state change.
Full photo credit 5
Image of 6. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, CMA first-state impression, magnified detail of proper right inner thigh of figure on the right.<br>
<br><B>Photo credit:</B> Shelly Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washigton, D.C.
6. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, magnified detail of proper right inner thigh of figure on the right.
Full photo credit 6
Image of 7. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, Fogg second-state impression, magnified detail of proper right inner thigh of figure on the right showing major state change.<br>
<br>Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Bequest of Francis Bullard in memory of his uncle Charles Eliot Norton.
<br>Photo credit: Shelly Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washigton, D.C.
<br>Image copyright: President and Fellows of Harvard College
7. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, Fogg Art Museum second-state impression, magnified detail of proper right inner thigh of figure on the right showing major state change.
Full photo credit 7

The Importance of this Exhibition

The focus exhibition, "Battle of the Nudes": Pollaiuolo's Renaissance Masterpiece brought together three second-state impressions with Cleveland's unique first-state impression and afforded a rare opportunity to compare four impressions of the same print.

A comparison of impressions is essential to the study of prints. In addition to identifying and distinguishing among different states, a consideration of multiple impressions is needed to demonstrate clearly the differences between a "good" and "poor" impression, as only through a comparative evaluation can the impressions' relative merits and flaws be identified. Implicit to the study of prints is that a good impression represents the artist's true conception.

In addition to being a unique first state, Cleveland's Battle of the Nudes is considered to be a very fine impression.

Below are six close-up views of the print showing its extraordinary line quality.


Image of 8.  Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA impression,  close-up upper right section to show print's overall line quality and fidelity.
8. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA impression, close-up upper right section.
Image of 9. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA impression,  close-up upper right section to show print's overall line quality and fidelity.
9. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA impression, close-up upper right section.
Image of 10. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA impression,  close-up upper middle section to show print's overall line quality and fidelity.
10. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA impression, close-up upper middle section.
Image of 11.  Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA impression,  close-up upper middle section to show print's overall line quality and fidelity.
11. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA impression, close-up upper middle section.
Image of 12.  Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA impression,  close-up upper middle section, figure on left.
12. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA impression, close-up upper middle section, figure on left.
Image of 13. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA impression,  close-up upper middle section, figure on left.
13. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA impression, close-up upper middle section, figure on left.

Impression Quality

An impression in which even the finest lines are clearly reproduced is considered a finer impression than one where these same lines do not print well or at all. This loss of detail can be the result of poor/improper printing, but it is often the result of the plate's matrix becoming worn and diminished through repeated printing - the finer and more shallowly engraved lines are the most fragile and the first to wear down. Therefore an early print that more faithfully reproduces the complete plate matrix and the artist's conception, as well as the full aesthetic potential of the print, is a superior impression and holds greater allure for the print connoisseur than a later print that lacks both beauty and fidelity due to plate wear.

Below are two comparative examples with magnified details taken from the same locations to show plate wear between the CMA first-state impression and later second-state impressions from the Yale Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philiadelphia, PA, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


14. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, magnified detail of buds on stalk of grain, CMA first-state impression.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Shelley Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
14. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, magnified detail of buds on stalk of grain, CMA first-state impression.
Full photo credit 14
Image of 15. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, magnified detail of buds on stalk of grain, Yale Art Gallery second-state impression.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Shelley Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
15. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, magnified detail of buds on stalk of grain, Yale Art Gallery second-state impression.
Full photo credit 15
Image of 16. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, magnified detial of bud's on stalk of grain,  Philiadelphia Museum of Art second-state impression.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Shelley Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
16. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, magnified detial of bud's on stalk of grain, Philiadelphia Museum of Art second-state impression.
Full photo credit 16
17.  Image of Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, magnified detail of figure's face, CMA first-state impression.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Shelley Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
17. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, magnified detail of figure's face, CMA first-state impression.
Full photo credit 17
Image of 18. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, magnified detail of figure's face, National Gallery of Art, second-state impression (Rosenwald).<br>
<br>Photo credit: Shelley Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
18. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, magnified detail of figure's face, National Gallery of Art, second-state impression (Rosenwald).
Full photo credit 18

A determination of impression quality can also be a subjective endeavor that will reflect an individual's regard for certain print characteristics over others. One variable that can significantly affect the appearance of a print and thus impression quality is ink "type": what is the consistency of the ink; is it thick or thin, matte or glossy; does it contain fine or coarse pigment particles? The crucial process of wiping the plate to remove excess ink can be varied to produce tonal effects in the final print that are not fundamentally good or bad. For example, a plate wiped to leave an overall or selective grey plate tone may be preferred over a cleanly wiped plate - or vice versa. Varying the support material can also appreciably alter the overall visual impact of the image; even subtle paper properties such as texture and softness can affect the way the lines print. Such refinements in printing and impression quality may be quite accidental or fully intentional as part of the artist's creative process.

Finally assessment of impression quality can be based on the recognition that certain print characteristics that might be fundamentally inferior - such as uneven printing, or consistently weak printing - are nevertheless valued and admired because they are idiosyncratic of certain prints, periods, or artists.

Often prints and especially engravings are valued for their uniformly black and richly printed lines that yield images with high tonal contrast and strong linear designs and images in which the clarity and brilliance particular to line engraving are manifest. These print characteristics relate in large part to ink quality and are a mark of excellence and distinction in the case of early German and Netherlandish engravings.

Cleveland's impression of the Battle of the Nudes has long been admired for its pale delicate lines and overall warm-gray image tone. This effect is a direct consequence of the lean, sparsely pigmented ink used to print the plate. In this type of ink, the individual pigment particles are widely dispersed in a thin binding medium and do not thoroughly coat the paper upon printing. Furthermore, due to the thin binder, the ink is well sunken into the paper. Essentially the printed lines, whether fine or robust, appear gray, even blurry in the case of the delicate modeling lines, because the black pigment particles are interrupted with white paper. This "soft tonal style" of printing is characteristic of much early Italian engraving, and in this respect Cleveland's impression is considered exemplary.

Read more about Early Italian versus Early Northern European Engraving.

With magnification it is possible to see that in places the pigment particles actually lie underneath the paper fibers. The details below show how little black pigment is actually present in the lines as well as how the pigment particles are embedded in the paper fibers. Yet at normal viewing distance, along even the finest lines, the pigment particles clearly resolve to form continuous gray-black lines.


19. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, magnified detail of hatching lines used to shade foreground.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Moyna Stanton, Cleveland Museum of Art.
19. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, magnified detail of hatching lines used to shade foreground.
Full photo credit 19
20. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, magnified detail taken with raking light of the bow on the ground at left.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Moyna Stanton, Cleveland Museum of Art.
20. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, magnified detail taken with raking light of the bow on the ground at left.
Full photo credit 20
More About Ink

It is instructive to compare more closely Cleveland's first-state impression of Battle of the Nudes with the Fogg Art Museum's second-state impression of the same engraving. The Fogg impression is generally accepted as an early second-state impression printed before the plate began to show appreciable wear. Most importantly, the Fogg impression lacks the prominent printed scratch on the proper left thigh of the figure viewed from the back holding the chain; this scratch is found in all other second-state impressions. [Bilbliography: Langdale, pp. 34] The Fogg impression's early chronology is also based on the fact that it shares important paper characteristics with the Cleveland impression. Most significantly the two papers have “nearly identical” watermarks. Therefore, according to the terminology defined by Ash and Fletcher in Watermarks in Rembrandts Prints, the two papers can be regarded as the same paper. That is to say, that they were manufactured about the same time at the same paper mill and were made on the same mold or on twin molds. [Bibliography: Ash and Fletcher, Watermarks in Rembrandts Prints. Page, 27]

Compare the two impressions of Battle of the Nudes below. Each impression was printed with a black, oil-based printing ink. However the quality of the two inks varies significantly and consequently the appearance of the two closely related impressions varies dramatically as well. As is often the case with variant impressions and states, the use of different types of ink can impact the overall appearance of the image much more significantly than the actual changes to the plate. Author M. Hind wrote in A History of Etching and Engraving, published in 1923, “the immense differences which can be made by printing with more or less ink on the surface never constitutes a state merely a variant impression.” In this context "more or less ink" and "different types of ink" are interchangeable.


Image of 21. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, overall view.
21. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, overall view.
Image of 22. Fogg Art Museum second-state impression, overall view.<br>
<br>Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498)
<br><I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, 1470's-1480's (Fogg Art Museum)
<br>Florence15th century
<br>40 cm x width: 57.9 cm;
<br>Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Bequest of Francis Bullard in memory of his uncle Charles Eliot Norton. Photo credit: Katya Kallsen
<br>Image copyright: President and Fellows of Harvard College
22. Fogg Art Museum second-state impression, overall view.
Full photo credit 22

The two details below show a closer comparison of ink quality between Cleveland's first-state and Fogg Art Museum's second-state impression. As we saw with the previous two details, #19, #20, the ink used in the CMA impression is black and sparsely pigmented. Pigment particles are irregular in size and shape and sharp-edged, indicating they were crudely ground. The ink's thin binder is indicated by the degree to which the pigment particles contained in the ink have sunk into the paper and spread slightly to create soft-edged lines. The ink used in the Fogg's second-state impression is black and densely pigmented. It consists of more finely ground and uniform pigment particles and a thicker binder. This ink tends to sit more on the surface of the paper and form crisper, more continuous and blacker lines.


Image of 23.  Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, magnified detail of bicep on proper left arm of crouching figure at right.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Shelley Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
23. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, magnified detail of bicep on proper left arm of crouching figure at right.
Full photo credit 23
Image of 24.  Fogg Art Museum second-state impression, magnified detail of bicep on proper left arm of crouching figure at right.<br>
<br>Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Bequest of Francis Bullard in memory of his uncle Charles Eliot Norton. Photo credit: Shelley Fletcher, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
<br>Image copyright: President and Fellows of Harvard College
24. Fogg Art Museum second-state impression, magnified detail of bicep on proper left arm of crouching figure at right.
Full photo credit 24

Embossed Detail and Surface Wear

These details of CMA's engraving taken with raking light show line embossment: note how even the finest lines are raised in relief. This surface texture is very desirable in an engraving, as it is a mark of both fine impression quality and good condition. As the plate matrix is slowly worn down through repeated printing, the line embossment in the print, especially that of the finer, more shallow lines, is diminished - and impression quality declines. Whereas, if the printed lines on the actual impression are diminished due to surface wear caused by handling and storage and possibly even restoration procedures, the resulting inferior impression quality is also an issue of inferior condition.


Image of 25. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, magnified detail taken with raking light of bow on ground at left.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Moyna Stanton, Cleveland Museum of Art.
25. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, magnified detail taken with raking light of bow on ground at left.
Full photo credit 25
Image of 26. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, magnified detail taken with raking light showing chain links.<br>
<br>Photo credit: Moyna Stanton, Cleveland Museum of Art.
26. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, magnified detail taken with raking light showing chain links.
Full photo credit 26
Pollaiuolo's Return Stroke

Pollaioulo employed a strong contour line to outline the figures and principal design elements. In order to achieve the textural variation and tonal range necessary to create his image he used three modeling and shading techniques: hatching, cross hatching and, most importantly, the so-called return stroke. Pollaiuolo's masterful engraving technique is credited with the refinement, if not the development, of the return stroke. Unlike the continuous back and forth zigzag line that is so effortless to make with drawing tool such as a quill pen, the engraver's return stroke is traditionally understood to be a difficult maneuver comprising two discrete rows of parallel lines -- one laid at a slight angle to the other. Arthur M. Hind, who perhaps first used the term when describing the distinctive shading mark in Pollaiuolo's Battle of the Nudes, used return stroke to designate only the second set of lines placed at an acute angle between the first set of parallel hatch lines. [Bibliography: Hind, Early Italian Engraving pp. 190 - 191]. Since then the technique and skill of this stroke have been more fully interpreted. For example, recently Shelley Fletcher described Pollaiuolo's return stroke as follows:

“Pollaiuolo's execution of his zigzag shading pattern is completely and easily realized. The strokes of the burin, in an easy and seamless effort, incise the lines as if they are one long drawing stroke. We are so mesmerized by Pollaiuolo's facility that at first we believe he has actually returned the stroke by turning the plate, but, with closer examination, we see that these are still two sets of parallel strokes seamlessly woven together. It is indicative of the kind of facile execution a master goldsmith might make.”
[Fletcher, “A Closer Look at Mantegnas Prints,” Print Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, p. 26]

At this time alternative explanations for the mechanics of the engraver's return stroke are being explored and will be presented in a later publication about the Pollaiuolo engraving. Whatever the actual technique behind this mark however, the finesse of Pollaiuolo's return stroke is beautifully captured in CMA's first-state impression of the Battle, where his subtle and skillful definition and modeling of the muscular bodies is most faithfully reproduced.


Image of 27. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, close-up of figure raising axe on right, showing
27. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, close-up of figure raising axe on right, showing "return stroke."
Image of 28. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression,  magnified detail of figure's torso at far right, showing
28. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, magnified detail of figure's torso at far right, showing "return stroke."


Careful scrutiny of the CMA print using various light sources and magnification reveals much about the paper type and its physical properties. For example, information about the paper's weight, texture, translucency and sheet formation can be discerned.

In transmitted light (light passing through the sheet) it is possible to learn much about the paper's internal structure. Cleveland's impression of the Battle is printed on a laid paper, evident by the fine, closely spaced laid lines that, in this case, run horizontally through the sheet and the more widely spaced chain lines that have a vertical orientation. The laid lines are visible in the transmitted light pictures below because they have alternating densities. The sheet has a laid line frequency of 9 lines per cm. The chain lines are not possible to make out in the images below. Nor was it possible to see all the chain lines when the actual print was carefully examined with transmitted light. We can only estimate that the sheet has 14 or possibly 15 chain lines; a beta radiograph of the watermark precisely images three chain lines, which are spaced at 3mm intervals. The sheet has uniformly placed laid lines and a good formation (i.e., even distribution of pulp); this is evident by the sheets overall homogeneity in terms of density/translucency. These characteristics, combined with the sheet's off-white color and supple hand signify that the paper is high quality and was made by an experienced papermaker from a well beaten, high-grade rag pulp on a skillfully constructed paper mould.


Image of 29.  Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, overall view taken with transmitted light to show paper's internal structure.
29. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, overall view taken with transmitted light to show paper's internal structure.
Image of 30. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>,  CMA first-state impression, close-up taken with transmitted light of figure's back, middle background, note laid lines.
30. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, close-up taken with transmitted light of figure's back, middle background, note laid lines.


The paper's complete watermark is also visible in transmitted light. The watermark is a Three Mounts with a Staff; the staff is plain and extends from the middle mound along the chain line. An exact match for this watermark has not been found among the catalogued watermarks, but similar watermarks date from 1420 - 1490s. Note that the sheet's laid lines run perpendicular to the watermark's vertical orientation in the sheet; this is by far the more common orientation for a watermark in a sheet of hand-made laid paper.


Image of 31. Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, CMA first-state impression, close-up taken with transmitted light to show watermark.
31. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, close-up taken with transmitted light to show watermark.
Image of 32.  Pollaiuolo, <I>Battle of the Nudes</I>, CMA first-state impression, close-up taken with transmitted light with watermark and laid lines enhanced.
32. Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, CMA first-state impression, close-up taken with transmitted light with watermark and laid lines enhanced.

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