The astonishing Masterprinter Marcantonio Raimondi was instrumental in spreading knowledge, and well, pornography, from Italy all the way over to England. Working alongside the Italian master Raphael, Raimondi made use of the new printing presses to disseminate erotic prints to the masses, scandalizing Europe and causing the consternation of the Pope himself.

Born in 1480 in Bologna, Raimondi’s prodigious skill as a draughtsman was quickly spotted by Old Master Raphael who put him to work making elegant and meticulously drawn prints of his work. Together they fell in with a group of sexual libertarians in Rome presided over by the then banker to the Vatican, Agostino Chigi. The banker was quite a character, considered the richest man in Rome. His home was effectively an ancient Berghain—wild parties and orgies were part of the course. His business success and thirst for Bacchanalia led to his simple title as the “Magnificent.”

Marcantonio Raimondi, The Dream

After Raphael died of his excesses in 1520—Vasari writing that after a particularly heavy night of sexual passion, Raphael fell into a fever and never recovered—Raimondi worked with his main assistant Giulio Romano. Their collaboration was shockingly successful: I modi, which translates into “The Positions”, was the first time erotic images were made widely available across Europe. A Renaissance bestseller, the work is even mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale—Romano is the only artist to ever feature in his work. 

The genius behind I modi was the manner in which the explicit engravings were disguised by use of classical subject matter. The images usually depict famous couples from antiquity and mythology engaged in the act of coitus, such as Aeneas and Dido in the cave, Anthony and Cleopatra and even deities like Jupiter and Juno. Now little remains of I modi, most of the original edition apparently destroyed by the Catholic Church—only fragments of a later edition survive in the British Museum. However, the illustrations still exist as copies created by Agostino Carracci.

On the left Agostino Carracci, Satyr et Nymphe and on the right Agostino Carracci, Bacchus et Ariadne

Giulio Romano and Raimondi were the first to realize the money that could be made from selling sex. Together they can be considered the innovators of the European tradition of printmaking and rather dubiously, as the inventors of porn, having taken the sensuality of Renaissance art and made it available to everyone. After the release of I modi, Raimondi was even briefly imprisoned by Pope Clement VII, the incumbent Pope who oversaw the English Reformation, for spreading lewdity.

Raimondi was also involved in one of the first intellectual property disputes with the artist Albrecht Dürer. The German Old Master made a complaint to the Venetian Government after Raimondi began making reproductions of his woodcut series the Life of the Virgin. Reproductions of woodcuts were rare, but Dürer’s woodcuts were of very high-quality and proved to be highly-profitable. The dispute, however, was not over the reproduction of the works but of the use of Dürer’s Monogram, which Raimondi was reproducing as well. The Venetian Government awarded protection for Dürer’s Monogram but not his compositions—a landmark case that had far-reaching implications in the complicated history of intellectual property law.

Albrecht Dürer, Life of the Virgin

Now, many of his works are on view at the Whitworth Museum in Manchester, the first time the work of this great printer have been shown in the UK. Also on show are extraordinary unique works by the Italian Master Raphael, on loan from numerous British museums.

Marcantonio Raimondi and Raphael on at the Whitworth can be seen through to the 23rd of April 2017.

By Anne Erhard – FAM Editorial