In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern European Engravings and Etchings, 1400–1700

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Specialized Studies—Print Production
  • Specialized Studies—Collecting and Consumption
  • Thematic Studies

Art History Early Modern European Engravings and Etchings, 1400–1700
Larry Silver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0178


Making multiple images from a print matrix basically began in tandem with the the use of the printing press during the later 15th century; however, a different press had to be developed to print ink from grooves produced on a metal matrix rather than from an inked surface ridge, as with printed letters or woodblock lines in relief. In whatever way that linework is produced in the metal (usually copper), the general name of this kind of printmaking is intaglio, and the plate surface is wiped. In engraving, produced with a gouging instrument called a burin, the resulting printed lines produce a slightly raised surface of dried ink. In etching, finer but also more maneuverable lines are achieved by scratching onto a waxlike prepared surface called a ground, so that when the plate is submerged in an acid bath, the ground resists biting and only the scratches produce lines on the plate once the ground has been removed to expose the surface. An etched ground also permits covering up some lines and rebiting others in a process called ”stopping out,” which reinforces the exposed lines so that darker tones can be produced from the further action of the acid. Engravings completely dominated the production of intaglio prints from their origins in the mid-15th century, but the manual skill required to use a burin for lines in metal usually required the same extended apprentice training as for a goldsmith. However, once safe and replicable etching techniques had emerged, early in the 16th century, artists without such specialized craft skills could begin to make intaglio prints in the newer method. By the 17th century, while some trained engraving specialists still produced virtuoso prints, often emphasizing the calligraphic beauty of their linework, the dominant medium for intaglio prints clearly shifted to etching. Another important development, first in Italy (especially Rome) but later highly developed in the Netherlands (especially Antwerp) as well, found specialist, professional printmakers, often doubling as print publishers, taking drawn designs by nonspecialist artists and converting them into engravings. Large printmaking firms, akin to book publishers, provided an alternative way for painters (including Titian, Bruegel, and Rubens, among others) to circulate their images as engraved reproductions. Finally, the advent of color printing through the use of multiple plates for each tone first emerged for multiblock woodcuts during the 16th century, a time when intaglio prints were hand-colored by well-paid specialist painters (called Briefmaler in Germany). But later centuries brought more technical innovations for intaglio plates to simulate the effects of drawings. Those new techniques, particularly aquatint and mezzotint during the 18th century, mark a major expansion of printmaking effects, so this transitional moment marks the effective end of this study of early intaglios, from the mid-15th century through the 17th century. Given the limitations of the Oxford Online Bibliography series, this list must necessarily remain selective.

General Overviews

Intaglio prints are often surveyed along with woodcuts in general histories of printmaking. In addition, intaglios are often surveyed according to particular countries of origin or centuries. Nevertheless, several general histories of prints do a good job of covering intaglios among other printmaking media.

  • Griffiths, Antony. Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques. London: British Museum, 1980.

    Succinct and authoritative primer on print techniques across history, with revealing details and assessment of qualities of each medium. Brief but very useful history of printmaking. Essential introduction in lucid language by a former Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.

  • Hind, Arthur M. A History of Engraving and Etching. New York: Dover, 1963.

    Still invaluable, this survey “from the 15th century to the year 1914,” published first in 1929, was penned by Hind, a Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and a professor of fine art at Oxford University. About half of it is devoted to the early period (up to about 1650), and an introduction addresses processes and materials.

  • Hults, Linda. The Print in the Western World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

    A comprehensive survey from the 15th century to the late 20th, designed along the lines of a textbook by a professor, with about half devoted to the early history of prints, including woodcuts as well as intaglios. Emphasis on major artists and trends.

  • Ivins, William M., Jr. Prints and Visual Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1953.

    Inspired by printmaking as the forerunner to photography, Ivins concentrates on how graphic media progressively approach comparable verisimilitude, while also tracing innovations in production, such as aquatint for tone and wood engraving for mass production, in anticipation of lithography, half-tones, and photography itself.

  • Jenkins, Catherine, Nadine Orenstein, and Freyda Spira. The Renaissance of Etching. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019.

    Authoritative essays by leading experts about the first half-century of etching up to around 1550, organized by regions, including Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and France. An introductory essay outlines the materials and techniques of the medium, and a final essay reveals that, like engraving, etching became professionalized at midcentury. Richly illustrated and inclusive of print topics within individual catalogue entries. Fundamental.

  • Lumsden, E. S. The Art of Etching. New York: Dover, 1962.

    While this book (first published in 1924) focuses more on the varied techniques of making etchings, it devotes an insightful final section to the history of etching, divided basically in half to discuss the leading masters up to Rembrandt.

  • Mayor, A. Hyatt. Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971.

    A lively, essayistic survey of prints in all media, from origins up to the early 20th century, encompassing many topics usually ignored, such as maps, lettering, book illustration, anatomy, and many other less obviously individual or assertive artistic hands. Famous printmakers also receive their due in short profiles by this longtime curator at the Metropolitan Museum. Frustrating chiefly in lacking annotations or further references, but delightful and insightful reading.

  • Melot, Michel, Antony Griffiths, Richard Field, and André Beguin. Prints. Geneva, Switzerland: Skira, 1981.

    A modern, collaborative overview by four authoritative curators, led by Melot, director of the print room at the Bibliothèque nationale. Melot’s own essay is broadly cast and selective in its examples and speaks more generally about the “nature and role” of prints as both product and work of art. Griffiths, Keeper at the British Museum, gives a more general history, focusing on intaglios as well as later developments after Rembrandt.

  • Peters, Emily, ed. The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver, 1480–1650. Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 2009.

    Concise summary of major masters and works of the first two centuries of engraving in Europe, with emphasis on the distinctive properties of engraved line.

  • Spira, Freyda. The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.

    An homage to the two great curators who assembled the Metropolitan Museum print collection. Separate sections, organized by medium, feature masterworks of etchings and engravings as well as woodcuts in chronological order.

  • Stijnman, Ad. Engraving and Etching 1400–2000. A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes. London: Archetype Publications, 2012.

    Standard modern introduction to materials and techniques as well as historical development of intaglio processes from origins to the present.

  • Stijnman, Ad, and Elizabeth Savage, eds. Printing Colour 1400–1700: History, Techniques, Functions, and Reception. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.

    Definitive study of the innovations that produced prints in color, both woodcuts and intaglios, across the first centuries of printmaking by leading scholars of technique (Stijnman for intaglios and Savage for German color woodcuts).

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