THERE’S A SENSE OF DEJA vu about “Prints From the Leo Steinberg Collection, Part I,” the exhibition on view at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art through July 27. It’s not that the work is familiar; much of it is strikingly unexpected. But a pattern does seem to have emerged: A small university gallery acquires a coveted collection, amassed by an eminent scholar, out from under the noses of America’s top museums. Five years ago the Blanton scored a stunning coup with the acquisition of the Suida-Manning Collection, a cache of Mannerist and Baroque paintings and drawings assembled by art historians William Suida, his daughter, Bertina, and his son-in-law, Robert Manning, all noted authorities in the field who got into the market ahead of a trend. Last summer the art world was similarly startled to learn that Leo Steinberg, who is regarded as one of the most brilliant art historians working today, had given the Blanton his stellar print collection. Like Suida and the Mannings, Steinberg stole a march on the market, picking expertly from a selection that today is much smaller—and far pricier.

“It was certainly one of the last comprehensive yet distinctive collections of prints in private hands in this country,” says Blanton curator Jonathan Bober, who was instrumental in engineering both the Suida-Manning and the Steinberg acquisitions. “In terms of the rarity and quality of the impressions, there is nothing like it.” While the $3.5 million estimated worth of the Leo Steinberg Collection doesn’t match the Suida-Manning Collection’s $35 million, its value to a teaching institution like the Blanton can hardly be overstated. Extending from the fifteenth-century origins of Western printmaking to Jasper Johns’s celebrated 1964 color lithograph, Ale Cans (Steinberg wrote a seminal essay on Johns’s art in 1962), Steinberg’s 3,200-piece collection reflects an intellect legendary for its breadth, erudition, and edginess.

Born in Moscow in 1920, Steinberg grew up in Berlin and studied in London before settling in New York at the end of World War II. In his half-century as a writer, a scholar, and an educator, he has ranged across half a millennium of Western art, elucidating Modern masters such as Picasso and Johns and old masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo, often tossing bombshells along the way. Steinberg’s 1983 tome, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, was a controversial (to say the least) masterpiece of intellectual temerity, taking to task established scholarship for politely ignoring Renaissance artists’ obvious fixation on Jesus’ genitals—which Steinberg interpreted as an important doctrinal expression of the humanity of Christ.

Steinberg’s collection took shape in the aftermath of a heart attack he suffered in 1961, shortly after he had finished his Ph.D. dissertation on Italian Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. Advised by his doctor to take it easy, he spent the summer browsing for engravings and etchings in New York bookstores and art gallery bargain bins, quickly finding that this neglected genre appealed to his independent streak. “Prints were considered beneath the consideration of serious galleries,” he recalls. “I would take a batch of prints on approval to the print room of the Metropolitan Museum and acquaint myself with the range of the artists’ work and the relevant literature. Artists I had never heard of became heroes to me.” Starting out on a teaching assistant’s budget, Steinberg occasionally sampled big names like Rembrandt and Piranesi but preferred soon-to-be-discovered masters like sixteenth-century Dutch engraver Hendrik Goltzius (whose posterior view of The Farnese Hercules, the colossal nude statue that was a tourist favorite in Renaissance Rome, is one of the collection’s signature images), as well as artists who even today remain underrated, like Jean Lepautre, a seventeenth-century French engraver who set biblical scenes amid precisely detailed, extravagantly invented classical architecture.

“I couldn’t afford to buy anything that was over one hundred dollars,” says Steinberg, who sometimes bought at bulk prices averaging out to pennies per print. After casually inquiring at a Lexington Avenue frame shop in 1962, he was shown an album of prints pasted onto pages by a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century collector, then given a paper knife and invited to cut out entire pages at a dollar apiece. His favorite story, though, involves a shop in an alley off of London’s Charing Cross Road that specialized in portrait engravings of Englishmen. Asked if he had anything other than the English portraits, the elderly dealer replied, “Oh, my God, I have a whole basement full of them.” Needing to run out for lunch, the dealer apologetically locked his customer in a basement Steinberg describes as “dingy and dusty, with a large central table piled high with prints, stacks of prints five feet tall lining the walls, and a sole fifteen-watt bulb overhead. The light was so bad that anything that looked halfway interesting I put aside.” When the dealer returned two hours later, Steinberg had about a hundred prints he’d hoped to winnow in better light before discussing prices. But after a quick riffle through the stack, the dealer simply put his hand on the entire batch and said, “Shall we say twenty pounds?” Among the prints in the bargain-basement haul was a remarkable early work, now appraised in the high four figures, by celebrated English visionary poet and engraver William Blake. Johann Kaspar Lavater (1787), Blake’s portrait of a Swiss theologian and physiognomist, combines the conventions of the then-fashionable neoclassical profile with a sense, in the sitter’s strangely blazing gaze and sharply drawn features, of the artist’s own intensity.

The Blanton’s 104-piece premiere showing is no mere sneak peek at the collection’s greatest hits but a thoughtful presentation that chronicles a media explosion similar in many ways to the introduction of radio and television in the twentieth century (Part II, covering much of the same ground with a whole new cast of works, opens August 22). A relative latecomer in Western art, printmaking paralleled Europe’s ascent to modernity, leaving us vivid images of both the higher aspirations and the basic instincts of a culture in profound transition. The first woodcuts (made by a technique originally used to block-print fabric) date from the early fifteenth century, before movable type; they often served as inexpensive religious icons—prints of Saint Christopher appeared in the most humble homes—and provided popular spiritual instruction. The Test of Faith by the Devil (c. 1470), an illustration from the perennial late-medieval best-seller The Art of Dying, depicts in an angular, almost primitive gothic style a demon-haunted world where Christ and Satan literally struggle for every soul.

But Europe quickly became more complicated, as humanism began to usurp the church’s cultural monopoly and Protestants began to battle Catholics; Steinberg notes that Martin Luther astutely recognized the value of using religious prints to broadcast the Protestant message. “The Vatican did its own propaganda by commissioning frescoes for its state rooms,” he says, “but they remained in place, whereas Dürer’s anti-papal propaganda was disseminated in hundreds and hundreds of copies all over Europe.” Albrecht Dürer, the German master who knew Luther personally and became a devoted follower, spent time in Italy; his astonishingly dexterous 1511 woodcut The Flagellation weds the clarity of Italian humanism to the spiritual fervor of Northern Europe.

Engraving—carving images directly into a soft metal plate—was a late-fifteenth-century innovation that allowed lines that were more flowing and forms that were more solidly modeled than the woodcut. It was ideally suited to both the muscular style of the High Renaissance and a burgeoning market in reproductions of celebrated works of art. Rome-based Marcantonio Raimondi, famous for his Michelangelos and Raphaels, copied the latter’s mythology-derived Galatea, his crisply delineated contours capturing the classical grace of Raphael’s fresco while actually amplifying the heroic heft of the original; even the airborne cupids look like powerlifters. Such body-conscious pagan images, with their emphasis on ideal human forms—a basic visual expression of humanist philosophy—often had an erotic edge. Antonio Fantuzzi’s Jupiter and Antiope (c. 1544), etched at the court of Italophile French monarch Francis I, pruriently portrays Zeus, in the form of a satyr, spreading the legs of his languorous nude victim. But even these soft-core images were agents of an epochal cultural transformation. “Humanism was an elitist court culture that became increasingly disseminated,” Steinberg observes. “Every peasant was likely to have heard the story of Galatea. This could not have happened without prints.”

Prints also broadcast the fears and fantasies hiding in the shadows of progress. Raimondi’s showstopping The Witches’ Procession, engraved in the 1520’s, was possibly borrowed from an original composition by Raphael’s assistant Giulio Romano. (In 1961 Steinberg paid $20 for the print, now valued at $60,000.) It interprets the theme of a witch’s “night ride” as a triumphal Renaissance float, with classical nudes pulling along the meticulously imagined skeleton of a monstrous, dinosaurlike beast; the witch, a remarkably buff hag, rides atop the huge skeleton’s spine while snatching a baby by the head to be sacrificed in a diabolical ritual. Done at a time when the witch-hunting inquisition had just begun in earnest in Italy, Raimondi’s vision, still terrifying after all these years, vividly illustrates the dark corners of the Renaissance mind—a reminder that great episodes of enlightenment also seem to engender an irrational need to find new devils of one sort or another.

If prints gave ordinary people a window onto a wider world, they also allowed artists to keep up with colleagues a continent away. “Prints gave me a sense not only of what artists had done but what artists were looking at,” says Steinberg. “Rembrandt would have known Raphael through Raimondi.” Assembling personal collections that might number in the thousands of images, artists also became keenly aware that prints could advance reputations; in Antwerp, Rubens kept a workshop full of talented engravers like Jan Witdoeck, whose spectacular Raising of the Cross (1638), requiring three large sheets to reproduce Rubens’ original altarpiece triptych, is a graphic testament to the master’s teeming, ambitious composition and opulent style.

Etching—incising an image into a soft, waxy layer spread thinly over a metal plate, which is then etched in an acid bath—permitted more-spontaneous draftsmanship and subtle shading than engraving, allowing painters to create pictorial effects almost as freely as they might on paper or canvas. The Rising Sun (1634), a small etching by eminent French landscape painter Claude Lorrain, is sublimely allusive, the incandescence of a sunrise on water almost palpably reproduced by nothing more than an expanse of unworked plate—which printed an unblemished white.

Steinberg collected passionately for about a decade, until high-end galleries got into the act. “I thought I would have a hobby forever,” he says. “Instead, as the sixties matured into the seventies, I was gradually priced out of the market.” But many of the prints Steinberg bought for a song are unavailable today at any price, and his collection will underscore the Blanton’s dramatic rise to the top tier of America’s university art museums—a status that won’t be fully revealed until the museum, still crammed into a corner of the UT art building, moves into its new complex, scheduled to open in 2005. Much of the positive glow and fundraising cachet of the Suida-Manning acquisition was lost when the original architects for the new building, Pritzker prize winners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, effectively fired their client after their cutting-edge neomodern design clashed with the taste of a couple of amateur architecture critics on UT’s Board of Regents. The Herzog and de Meuron debacle subjected the university to global ridicule; Steinberg’s unimpeachable prestige as both a scholar and a collector should return the focus to what is now one of the deepest collections of Mannerist and Baroque art anywhere in this country.