Many of the great paintings of Renaissance Italy were intended to be displayed in their patron’s home, only seen by a few people. The printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi is a little-known figure of the period, but the first UK exhibition of his work, currently displaying at the Whitworth in Manchester, reveals that his rich creative collaboration with Raphael, lasting around a decade between 1510 and 1520, helped sow the seeds of the mass consumption of the same image possible today.

Marcantonio’s early engravings, produced at the turn of the sixteenth century in his native Bologna, are exquisitely detailed and seem to come to life on the page. They depict allegorical scenes designed to serve as intellectual puzzles, and also legends, including an engraving of Apollo and Hyacinth that is one of the most explicitly romantic images of male lovers of the period.

The Judgement of Paris, Marcantonio Raimondi, (c.1510-20)

Marcantonio soon realised that copperplate engraving and printmaking, both new technologies at the time, opened up new possibilities in reproducing and distributing images. However, his early experiments in this field allegedly led to one of the first ever copyright disputes: Albrecht Dürer brought a complaint before the Venetian Senate after Marcantonio sold copies of his Life of the Virgin woodcuts. The exhibition places Dürer’s The Visitation next to Marcantonio’s, allowing for a fascinating comparison. While they are undoubtedly the same image, Marcantonio’s is subtly made more Italianate and idealised than Dürer’s darker Germanic version.

By 1510, Marcantonio was in Rome, where he entered into a decade-long partnership with Raphael, who designed prints for Marcantonio to engrave. It was the first time an artist of Raphael’s importance had been involved in printmaking, but the famed artist recognised it was a medium that would allow new audiences to see his work. The engravings depict many scenes of action and terror, including a harrowing portrayal of The Massacre of the Innocents, made more striking by situating the violence in a contemporary setting recognisable as Rome’s Ponte Sisto. The relationship between the two men was apparently close – Raphael’s fresco The Expulsion of Heliodorus (1511-12), a digital reproduction of which is displayed in this exhibition, depicts Pope Julius II as one of the figures and himself and Marcantonio as his litter bearers.

The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Raphael (1511-12)

The Whitworth’s exhibition demonstrates how, along with being a technology that enabled media to be mass produced on an unprecedented scale, printmaking was part of a continuous tradition with both the past and the future of art. Marcantonio produced a print of Leonardo’s The Last Supper (ca.1515-16), apparently co-designed by Leonardo and Raphael, and with some key differences, including a sterner-looking Jesus. A group of seated figures in his and Raphael’s The Judgement of Paris (ca.1510-20) went on to form the basis for Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1862-63).

Around 1524, after Raphael’s death, Marcantonio produced a series of erotic engravings entitled I Modi (‘The Positions’), from drawings by Raphael’s chief assistant, Giulio Romano. Pope Clement VII ruled that the mass-produced images were obscene and had Marcantonio imprisoned and the prints destroyed. The exhibition displays the surviving fragments as part of its triumphant assessment of Marcantonio’s legacy – producing the first pornography was part of a lifetime of innovation that introduced the idea of copying and circulating images, changing the way we see the world today.

“Marcantonio Raimondi and Rapahel” is running until the 28th of May at the Whitworth. Further information can be found here.