Decoding paper: Secrets of a Renaissance Print

Works on paper often have a long history and hide many clues that tell their story. Take a closer look and the artwork might reveal some of its secrets.

In the first in a series focusing on the hidden world of works on paper, FAMSF paper conservators take a look at Ugo da Carpi’s The Surprise, on view until October 5 in The Poetry of Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca" at the Legion of Honor.

Working in the paper lab

In this nearly 500-year-old print, Ugo da Carpi depicts a figure frozen in a state of surprise directed at an unseen subject on the right. Ugo, who worked in Venice, is known as the first Italian artist to employ the technique of the chiaroscuro woodcut. The artist has created volume and depth by working with the light and dark contrasts of three layers of ink printed from three different hand-carved woodblocks.

Ugo da Carpi’s “The Surprise”

Ugo da Carpi, 1526-1527, The Surprise, chiaroscuro woodcut in three shades of brown ink, Gift of Herta Weinstein 2011.69.3

Paper was historically made on a mold consisting of a woven wire screen onto which the wet pulp slurry was formed into a piece of paper.

Making paper

paper making equipment

In the paper laboratory, conservators can use transmitted light (a light directed through the artwork) to reveal the hidden structure of paper formed by the wire screen.

Working in the paper lab

Lighter areas indicate the thinner parts of the paper due to the metal wires where the pulp did not collect as densely. In this image of Ugo’s The Surprise, transmitted light reveals the horizontal “chain lines” and thin vertical “laid lines” of the screen.

Ugo da Carpi’s “The Surprise”

Above the figure’s head, transmitted light also reveals the faint horizontal image of a ladder within a cartouche with a star on top. This is the papermaker’s watermark, which was also formed from the presence of a wire attached to the screen. With some research, the imagery, shape, size and location of the watermark relative to the chain lines tells us that the paper was made in Siena, Italy in 1524.

Ugo da Carpi’s “The Surprise”

Early papermakers removed water from wet sheets of paper by compressing them between felts made of animal hair.  With close inspection of the The Surprise, you can see this hair texture imprinted in the paper. In the image below, conservators used a raking light (a light projected from a low side angle) to help reveal the texture. The raking light also accentuates the deep indentations made by the wood block used to print the darkest color.

Ugo da Carpi’s “The Surprise”

Early papermakers placed sheets of paper on ropes strung up in lofts to take good advantage of air circulation for drying. Raking light reveals the creases at the center of the paper sheet corresponding to the rope used for drying the paper sheet when it was made in in the early 16th century.

Ugo da Carpi’s “The Surprise”

It may seem remarkable that paper hundreds of years old is still in good shape, but it is no surprise. Old handmade papers (before the 19th century) were made of long durable fibers, typically flax or hemp. Their source was likely old clothing, hence the term “rag paper,” which to this day means paper of the highest quality.


paper fibers

Take a closer look. Visit the Ugo da Carpi and two other renaissance prints, each with their own hidden story, in the exhibition The Poetry of Parmigianino's "Schiava Turca" at the Legion of Honor. 

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