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XV Century

SG Collezione Stampe / Centuries / XV Century

From illuminated manuscripts to incunabula

In the book “The dawn of books”, Alessandro Marzio Magno defines the Bible printed by Gutenberg in Mainz, between 1452 and 1454, as sober and austere: German, Gothic, Christian and Medieval.
This first work, published in two volumes with the new technique of movable types, refers to the style of the books and manuscripts of the previous periods.  The text of the page is divided into two columns, 42 ‘justified’ lines in each page.  The titles are printed in red ink and drop caps as are finely decorated.  According to the main historical sources, the copies of the Bible printed by Gutenberg should have been 184: 150 on paper and 34 on vellum.
Today there are only 41 specimens preserved in public collections and museums.
Once printed the text, hand thumbnails and decorative designs were added through the work of qualified illuminators.
So that the various specimens, although with the common text, are different from each other.
The invention of Gutenberg has certainly represented a landmark in the culture of people.  The book printed in many copies was no longer the privilege of a few individuals, as had been for amanuenses codes and as a result, printing workshops soon arose in various parts of Europe.
Before the introduction of printing, books written by hand were generally accompanied by precious illuminated tables that enriched the text to facilitate understanding and to make the message it contained more clearer.
It follows the need to introduce in addition to writing, also depictions to reinforce the meaning of the text as well as to enrich the book.
Thus, the first illustrated books are born with text and woodcut, and the latter occupying the entire page or as interspersed figures in the text.
Today, books with woodcut figures are very rare. They represented the natural evolution of religious and devotional prints that, on loose sheets, circulated in several European countries during the mid-fourteenth century.
Throughout the second half of the fifteenth century we are witnessing a growing production of publications with woodcut illustrations.
These from simple, realized with a few strokes and devoid of perspective, become gradually more and more elaborate and complex with the addition of shading and perspective developments such to resemble more and more to artistic designs.
The printed books from origins until the 1500 are called incunabula, a term derived from the Latin “in culla” which appears for the first time in a typographic treatise printed in Cologne in 1639.
“Post-incunabula” are the books published in the first decades of the sixteenth century containing woodcuts or copperplate engravings.

The graphic art in the fifteenth century Renaissance

Even though, until today it was not possible to identify an exact date for the appearance of the earliest depiction prints, these appear during the late fourteenth century and were done with the woodcut technique. The first prints were compositions of simple lines, little processed and devoid of the artistic modulations of the drawing. They generally represented scenes from the Passion of Christ, the lives of saints or constituted sets of playing cards.
Today, rare specimens of these early prints are almost exclusively kept in the most prestigious museum collections.
During the first half of the fifteenth century, many were the woodcuts in Austria, Netherlands and especially in Germany. In Italy they were more rare, the first representations printed on paper, appeared a few decades later.
Soon afterwards the creation of the first book printed with the technique of movable types (around 1455), the editors have realized the importance to insert woodcut illustrations in the text. The combination of writing and images gave tremendous impetus to the development and distribution of the “Book”, because at that time very few people were able to read and for this reason images roused more interest than the text. The illustrated book developed and expanded rapidly the art of printing from Germany to the rest of Europe.
Amongest the most beautiful products of this new book art are: the Bibles of Cologne (1478) and Lubeck (1494), the Gart der Gesundheit (1485), first scientific picture book and the famous “De temporibus Mundi” better known as the ‘Chronicle Nuremberg ‘(1493) by Wohlgemut and Pleydenwurff.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century the woodblock compositions became more elaborate and complex, often not conceived as book illustrations, but as autonomous artistic products. This was mainly thanks to the work of great artists such as Dürer, Cranach, Aldegrever, Holbein the Younger, who produced etchings considered true works of art. Since the mid fifteenth century a more refined printed depiction technique slowly began to spread in Germany and Italy: “intaglio” printing or engraving on copper plate through the use of the burin.
The advent of engraving on metal matrix, mainly copper plates, expanded and enhanced the expressive possibilities of the printed representations so much, that great masters of painting, became skilled engravers too. This new Masters skill gave rise to a new artist-figure: the peintre- graveur.
The use of the burin for the direct engraving of the copper plates was the dominant technique in the production of graphics masterpieces for all the sixteenth century.

The origin of engraving on metal plates

Giorgio Vasari says that in 1450 ” a niello ” works were made in Florence, in the sense that small silver plaques or metal alloy silver were engraved with a burin by goldsmiths and used as decorations. The grooves carved into the metal plate were filled with black enamel “nigellum” and a sheet of paper that held the image to see if the job was done right was pressed on them.
Legend has it that a Florentine goldsmith, Maso Finiguerra, after filling the grooves of a carving with a black mixture, unintentionally covered the plate with a damp cloth and after lifting it up he found his drawing clearly imprinted. This process probably obtained accidentally, gave the idea to Maso Finiguerra, of replacing the woodcut with the engraving on metal.
Thus, Vasari in his ‘Vite dè più eccelenti …’ attributes the invention of engraving on metal plates to Finiguerra around the middle of the fifteenth century.
The following step in the use of a metal support for the printed representation is due instead thanks to a German engraver active in Augsburg and Nuremberg: Daniel Hopfer. During his apprenticeship as an engraver and decorator of armours , Daniel Hopfer learned to use diluted acid solution to etch the metal. This particular experience meant that he began to treat iron plates with acid to obtain representations on paper.
Today, it is a widely shared opinion amongst experts that Daniel Hopfer was the first to introduce, in the late fifteenth century, the use of etching on metal plate in the graphic art. He produced numerous decorative prints, in which it is easy to recognize the compositional origin from friezes of armour (see the works of Hopfer in the collection).

The lesson of Dürer

The German genius Abrecht Dürer, at the end of the XV century, interpreted art as an expression of the creation, harmony, the balance of shapes and proportions, based on study and training. He has been the only artist, of the late medieval Northern Europe, that was able to understand Italian artistic developments. After two trips to Italy he influenced the renewal of Nordic art, still soaked by medieval models, to the taste and Renaissance culture. With him the transformation inspired by the great Italian masters like Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, the Pollaiuolo started . He totally embraced the new artistic value of the Renaissance, reaching memorable goals and exerting a lasting influence on neighbouring countries.
Following the path already taken by his first teacher Michael Wohlgemut, the greatest printmaker and painter of Nuremberg, finally freed himself from the simple role of illustrator of books. His engravings were performed freely, without the control of printers and editors.
With him the incision, whether on wood or metal matrices, becomes a final artistic product executed in total creative freedom and without the worry of physical location of the work nor the tight constraints of the customer.
After Dürer, other great artists like Rembrandt and Goya will find in graphic work the maximum freedom for their artistic expression and for the full revelation of their thoughts and feelings.
Hans Burkmair, Leonard Beck, Hans Baldun Grien, Erhard Schön, Hans Springinklee and several others amongst the engravers most active at the time of Dürer were strongly influenced. Thanks to Dürer’s innovation they improved their techniques of engraving and replaced the stylistic features and the late gothic models of their Nordic art, with new cultural cues from Italian Renaissance art.
During his travels in Italy, Dürer was warmely welcomed and respected by Bellini, admired by Raphael, but often criticized by other great Italian artists. Ferdinand Salamon writes in his book “Il conoscitore di stampe “… the German artist did not receive open sympathy, this was due to the fact that Italians saw the genius in him and that troubled them, the artist who could be criticised but not ignored.
For Nordic engravers of his time he represented the link between the Middle Ages and the Modern, between tradition and innovation open to broader cultural horizons.
Dürer has influenced the art with his graphic production more than through his paintings. His prints were circulating throughout Europe and many artists, drew from its graphical models a new way of depicting his own compositions.
Before him, the setting or the background scenery were seen as marginal elements with respect to the subject in the foreground. With Dürer the main subject and background becomes one, homogeneous, uninterrupted, and the setting becomes an important factor, essential to make the whole scene more harmonious and effective.
Great Italian painters such as Giovanni Bellini, Cima da Conegliano, Vittore Carpaccio and the most famous Titian, after having observed and studied the prints of Dürer, were influenced in the creation of their works.
Neither could escape the influence of his artistic innovation, engravers that with him had had relationships in Germany and in other Nordic countries.
The graphic work of Dürer was central for the masters engravers, not only for technical innovations, but also for the prestige of their role in the art scene.
Until then the work of engravers was limited mainly to the illustrator of books to the printers’ service, in turn closely linked to the will of the customer. With Dürer the figure of the engraver acquires greater autonomy.
Increasingly, the printed representations consisted of individual sheets or loose series of themed sheets, not to illustrate books, but as a true work of art, allowing the engraver greater freedom in the expression of their own genius.

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