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The whole world in wood and copper

Prints were the main source of visual (mis)information for three centuries

by Joachim Whaley  |  7 April 2017
The monk calf of 1522 was one of the early images used in the polemical war between the theologian Martin Luther and his critics
The monk calf of 1522 was one of the early images used in the polemical war between the theologian Martin Luther and his critics
For roughly four centuries before the invention of photography, prints made with woodcuts or copper plates were the main means of transmitting images. Yet the history of prints lags far behind those of books and art, which share so much in common with it. For historians of the book, the print has only been interesting in so far as it illustrates or decorates a book. For historians of art, the print has often seemed an inferior and derivative genre. Only the greatest printmakers have attracted much attention, with exhibitions and catalogues of their works. Yet the great majority remain unstudied and the history of their trade is not well known.

Antony Griffiths’s sumptuously illustrated book, The Print before Photography, provides the first detailed survey of the history of European printmaking. He starts with the creation of the first intaglio plates in Rome and Antwerp around 1550 and ends around 1820, after which the business was transformed by steel plates, lithography, wood engraving and photography. Between those times the subjects of prints changed and developed an infinitesimal variety but the techniques of production and the materials used remained substantially the same.

Both types of prints originated in the 15th century but they developed separately and served different functions. Woodcuts were the natural complement to print since they involved relief images. Copperplates were made by incising, either by hand (engraving) or with acid (etching), lines on the plate’s surface and could be more delicate and precise. It was not long before the experiments of Dürer, Lucas van Leyden and Marcantonio Raimondi, working with Raphael, created the first art prints, which definitively established the copperplate as the higher, “artistic” medium.

Griffiths uses sources from across the whole of Europe to reconstruct an anatomy of the business from raw materials, design and production to sales and distribution, collection and display. The chapters devoted to the use and understanding of prints are particularly interesting. Griffiths emphasises that it is wrong to regard the print simply as a faithful transcript of reality, like a photograph. The print was almost always an interpretation; its details were carefully studied and decoded, often with the aid of text that appeared below the image.

He covers the full range, from the deluxe images by major artists such as Mantegna or Rembrandt to images intended to be pasted to wood panelling, rough popular portraits or crude mass-market images of saints. The scope of Griffiths’s study is limited only by the simple fact that much evidence from the lower end of the market has failed to survive. Little is known, for example, about the production and circulation of the hugely popular cheap prints, sometimes referred to as “cottage prints”, of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They were characterised by “poor craftsmanship, deep engraving or etching, worn plates…cheap paper, sloppy printing, slapdash colouring and vernacular text”, yet they were clearly sold in great numbers. These products were simple and crude compared with the better known images produced by Gillray for the social and political elite. Yet, especially in their original simple fruitwood frames, they are delightful and highly sought-after by collectors today.

Readers broadly familiar with the English market will be fascinated to learn about its European counterparts. French and German producers exported to Spain and Portugal and all their overseas territories in America and the Indies. The most prolific producer of the later 18th and early 19th century, however, was probably the Remondini firm of Bassano in Venetia. Their products were sold by an extraordinary network of pedlars throughout central and eastern Europe and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America, among other places. The products may have been crude but Remondini and other large-scale producers of cheap prints were much more organised than those who produced fine images for the elites. Griffiths painstakingly pieces together the evidence to give a fascinating account of this often forgotten mass market.

The book is not intended, Griffiths says, to be consulted as a reference work but read as a narrative. Yet it lends itself to both approaches. The style is light and flowing, even when it uses the inevitable technical terms, and the 375 illustrations further leaven the 490 pages of text. At the same time Griffiths’s account of the increasing sophistication of copperplate and the long decline of the woodcut forms an intriguing narrative. From the last quarter of the 16th century the copperplate all but replaced the woodcut. By 1786, Charles François Joullain observed that people simply no longer collected woodcuts at all. The stunning catalogue of the collection of the flysheet woodcuts at Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha, Fliegender Blätter, is a salutary reminder of what was achieved in this genre in its heyday. The Gotha collection is one of the largest of its kind and perhaps, alongside the somewhat smaller Wickiana collection held in the central library in Zurich, one of the most authentic. Some 700 sheets, including many unique items, span the period from the late 15th to the end of the 16th century. The largest number date from the first half of the 16th century and it seems clear that they were collected by the Ernestine Electors of Saxony and taken with them from Wittenberg to Weimar when they lost the electoral title in 1547. They came to Gotha with Ernest the Pious in 1640 and were mounted in two large volumes that were listed under the heading “artificialia” in the first catalogue of the ducal Kunstkammer in 1659.

The excellent condition of the images probably reflects the lack of interest in them from then on until the later 19th century. In the 1920s the sheets were removed from the albums in order to store them more safely in boxes. Some were then sold and the whole collection was transported to the Soviet Union as war booty in 1945. When it was returned in 1958 a comparison with the original catalogues revealed that 219 items were missing, some of which were auctioned in Switzerland in the 1950s and 1960s. These mostly disappeared into private collections, but in 2009 the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung was able to purchase 13 sheets from a Zurich dealer and return them to Gotha.

The collection reflects the standing and the world view of the 16th-century Ernestines. It contains high-quality prints with images by the Cranachs, father and son, by Virgil Solis, Erhard Schön and Niklas Stör among others. The impressions are all crisp, and even today the colours seem as fresh as when they were first applied. Almost all of them combine images and text, for the flysheet was an important medium of communication before the advent of newspapers. The overwhelming majority were printed at Nuremberg, reflecting the significance of this free imperial city as a news hub for the Holy Roman Empire and the transregional nature of the print market. The major exceptions to this are the images, mostly of Luther and his close associates, produced by the Cranachs in their workshops in Wittenberg and, later, Weimar.

The extensive category of portraits includes half-length ones of popes, emperors and princes, sets depicting the emperors and the electors, and equestrian and full-length portraits of the emperors and princes, as well as portraits of religious reformers, scholars and artists. Numerous images of Ottoman rulers and Turkish soldiers or of battles between Christian and Ottoman forces reflect the ever-present Turkish threat from the 1520s. Military conflicts within Germany and in Europe more widely are also vividly documented, sometimes accompanied by the relevant marching songs and anthems. Political allies and enemies are variously eulogised or excoriated in the extensive texts that accompany coats of arms. Another group comprises pictures of soldiers, Landsknechte (German mercenaries) and weaponry.

Caricatures and polemical images predominate among images relating to the Reformation, all—with one exception of an anti-Lutheran flysheet—supporting the Protestant cause. A particular delight is the stunningly coloured illustration of the “monk calf” of 1522: a deformed calf apparently born with a tonsure with two lumps in it and a large roll of skin on its back. First exploited by Martin Luther’s opponents as a sign of God’s displeasure at his heresy, the image became a powerful and extremely popular Protestant image once Luther had reinterpreted it as an image of a hideous, deformed monk. Other categories include flysheets devoted to different crafts and trades, illustrated moral tales, representations of moralising fables and proverbs, and crimes and law enforcement. Five sheets depicting various crafts and trades (two with 48 images, three with 24) are particularly intriguing. The Gotha examples appear to be unique but their purpose is not known, though the fact that one sheet of 24 has three further images pasted onto it might perhaps indicate they were designed to be cut up and collected.

Equally well represented are news items relating to heavenly apparitions, miracles and monstrous births, accounts of particular natural events and natural disasters. The catalogue ends with seven memento mori sheets, the last a four-part woodcut showing the four ages of man.

The catalogue entries give the dimensions and physical description of each sheet, a complete transcription of the text, an analytical description of the sheet placing it in context and a note of the location of other known copies. The entries are all headed by miniature illustrations; in the second volume each is also illustrated in colour, many on a full page.

The overall quality of these volumes is just superb; at last this extraordinary collection has been made accessible. The catalogue will be indispensable for museums and libraries as well as for historians and other academic specialists. It would make the most wonderful present for anyone interested in the history and visual culture of the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century. One really could not wish for more.

• Joachim Whaley is a professor of German history and thought at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire 1493-1806 (two volumes, Oxford University Press, 2012)

The Print before Photography: an Introduction to European Printmaking 1550-1820
Antony Griffiths
British Museum Press, 560pp, £60 (hb)

Fliegender Blätter: Die Sammlung der Einblattholzschnitte des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts der Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha
Bernd Schäfer, Ulrike Eydinger and Matthias Rekow (eds)
Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha and Arnoldsche Art Publishers, two vols, 1,048pp, €198 (hb); in German only

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