The Ghisi engraving of Michelangelo’s fresco
‘The Last Judgement’
The following is an extract from Victoria Child’s essay, ‘Reproducing the Renaissance’, which featured in the catalogue for the exhibition ‘State of the art: reproductive prints from the Renaissance to now’. This exhibition, curated by David Maskill, was on show at the Adam Art Gallery, University of Victoria, Wellington during 2013. The Ghisi engraving, featured in ‘Last Judgement’ at PG gallery192, was loaned to the Adam Art Gallery for that exhibition. We note here our gratitude for the research done by David Maskill and his team.
Since its invention during the Renaissance, the technology of engraving has revolutionised the dissemination of art. Within a hundred years of its first appearance in Western Europe, engraving allowed for the reproduction of works of art in other media to be made and distributed to a wider audience.
In the mid-1540s, the engraver Giorgio Ghisi (1520-1582) produced a large-scale engraving of Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) recently completed fresco of the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Ghisi’s engraving was in response to a significant demand for reproduced images of the fresco and although Ghisi’s engraving was not the first to reproduce the Renaissance master’s work, it surpassed earlier reproductions to become the most authoritative. Within weeks of its unveiling on October 31st 1541, Cardinal Gonzaga commissioned drawings of the frescoby Marcello Venusti (1512/15-1579). Ghisi worked from Venusti’s drawings, earlier engravings and his own observations made on a visit to Rome in the mid-1540s to complete the ten plates for this monumental engraving back in his native Mantua.
The most striking element of Ghisi’s engraving of the Last Judgement is its sheer size. A technical feat, the Engraving consists of ten irregularly shaped plates fitted together like a jigsaw, producing a work with the visual impact of the original. The central and the largest plate shows Christ in glory, his right arm raised casting the damned to eternal hell-fire. Below Christ, Saint Bartholomew holds his limp, flayed skin while in the lower plates Ghisi has graphically depicted the torture and mutilation of the damned. While Ghisi mastery is on full display, the reproduction also acts as an historical record. Ghisi’s engraving was made before the later additions of loincloths and other changes that were made in response to criticism of the work at the Council of Trent of 1564. This poses the interesting question: is Ghisi’s engraving more “original” than Michelangelo’s fresco as we see it today with its interventions still present? Or are we asking the wrong question?
Michael Bury has argued that so-called “reproductive” prints such as this one should be thought of less as reproductions in the modern sense of the term and more as translations.1 The use of the word translation implies that the printmaker has had to find techniques to represent the painted medium which are germane to the medium of engraving. For example, without the use of colour to show modelling, Ghisi’s engraving relied on a greater complexity of forms and contrast tones, while the composition needed to be adjusted to fit the shape of the plates and paper. Despite these adjustments, there is no evidence that contemporary viewers did not consider the print to be an accurate representation of Michelangelo’s fresco. After all, few would have known the work in any other format than the print.
The work’s location in the Sistine Chapel limited contemporary viewers to those who had access to the inner sanctum of the Vatican. Despite its inaccessibility, it is wrong to assume that the image and its ideas were not widely known. The work had been talked about before its completion, and given the centrality of its ideas to the Catholic faith and the Counter-Reformation, it is no surprise that a demand formed for a reproduced image that could spread those ideas to new audiences. Ghisi gained notoriety from this engraving that furthered the popularity of his work. More importantly, Ghisi was acknowledged by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in the second edition of the Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects in 1568. Referring to him as Giorgio Mantovanno, Vasari states:
“And although many plates have been badly executed through avarice of the printers eager more for the gain than for honour, yet in certain others there may be something of the good; as in the large design of the Last Judgement of Michelangelo Buonarroti on the front wall of the Papal Chapel, engraved by Giorgio Mantovano.”2
The status of Ghisi’s print has endured. It was first published in the 1540s and it continued to be printed into the next century due to its fame and success. The impression included in this exhibition, though not printed until the late seventeenth century, still captures the magic of a great masterpiece of the Renaissance.
Essay by John Finlay about Michelangelo’s fresco The Last Judgement
1. Michael Bury, ‘On some engravings by Giorgio Ghisi commonly called “reproductive”, Print Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 1 (March, 1993), pp. 4-19.
2. Giorgio Vasari (1568), Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, trans. Gaston Du C. de Vere. 3 vols (1st ed. 1912. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979) p. 1259.