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Printmaking in Europe 16th century

The first known matrix of woodcut in Europe was found in Macon, France and dates back to 1370 (the side with the angel probably back to approximately 1450). This is a piece of walnut wood cut in both sides by an anonymous printmaker. Part of a bigger plate, it represents on the one side the centurion Longinus next to the cross and an angel on the other side, probably the Angel of Annunciation. 

Woodcutting was developed in the 15th century and at a very fast paste in the 16th century, at the same time with printing. Its main purpose was the illustration of books, as well as the creation of playing cards. Since the beginning it represented various subjects, usually religious ones. Woodcutting was embraced by great artists who create valuable independent printmaking works, as well as series. 

From 1493 to 1526, Albrecht Dürer, a very famous German artist, created also woodcuts which were printed and copied countless times from other great printmakers. After his first series, Apocalypse (1498), The Life of the Virgin series is printed in 1511 as an album with text at the back of the woodcuts.

Along with his personal creations, Marcantonio Raimondi, is known as the first reproductive printmaker, since 1505, especially after Raphael’s paintings. As soon as the Life of the Virgin woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer are released in Italy, he replicates them with his burin, including Albrecht Dürer’s monogram. 

The subjects of the independent prints and series and illustrated books are evolving: even though many of them (40%) remain religious in the beginning of the 16th century, many works of men of letters, historians, philosophers, authors from antiquity to the Middle-Ages are published. With the progress of printmaking techniques, the publication of medical books is developed (anatomy with woodcuts in De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, surgery with books by Ambroise Paré illustrated with woodcuts) and the natural sciences, especially botany.

The masterpiece of Italian physician and botanist Pierandrea or Pietro Andrea Mattioli or Matthioli, the Discorsi di M. Pietro Andrea Matthioli medico senese, ne i sei libri della materia medicinale di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeο (i.e. his comments on Dioscurides’ work), is not just a translation of the work of the Greek physician of the antiquity, but a personal work describing all plants he knew, those he discovered himself during his journeys and those he received from friends and colleagues. Each study is accompanied by the illustration of the plant.

Intaglio printing becomes a more and more used technique in the 16th century, providing a more fine and exact image, in particular for images that needed to be accurate and detailed such as cartography and scientific images. In 1570, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is released, an atlas of the globe by Abraham Ortelius, cartographer, printmaker and publisher, who obtains for his edition the cooperation of printmaker Frans Hogenberg. Clergyman George Braun (1541-1622) publishes from 1572 to 1618, the 6 volumes of Civitates Orbis Terrarum, most of the prints of which are the works of Frans Hogenberg. It contains 350 panoramic prospects, bird-eye views and map views of big European, African, Asian and American cities.

Even though Gerardus Mercator started from before to create “modern maps”, the first atlas published is the work of Abraham Ortelius. The first edition of the Theatrum in 1570 was followed by 31 enriched reprints up to 1612. In total 228 plates are engraved and approximately 873,000 copies come out from the press. The plate is printed in black and white with the representation and the isolated words (intaglio printing), then the texts are printed on the same paper (relief printing) on the appropriate points, placed in a special chase, with lighter pressure, as well as the text at the back. Some maps are coloured with brush. The Theatrum orbis terrarum parergon; sive veteris geographiae, which is the continuation of the Theatrum, is an atlas of the ancient geography with classic and biblical subjects.

The art of Renaissance combines the return to antiquity with innovations in techniques. Printmakers find an endless source of inspiration in ancient legends, Greek and Roman literature, but also in ancient monuments. And the progress in the printmaking methods enables them to create masterpieces, reproducing both drawings and modern painting works. 

Even though the religious inspiration with traditional subjects remains predominant in printmaking, a new trend shows up which was used in a few illustrations of the previous century: in the 16th century, prints forming images with various scenes are multiplied. Jan Sadeler, who engraved the drawings of Marten de Vos in an oblong album, the Boni et mali scientia, forms images from the Bible with double representation and Cornelis Cort reproduces the fresco of Livio Agresti, presenting two scenes of the Passion of the Christ: the Last Supper in the foreground and the Foot Washing behind the famous marble twisted columns of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which, according to the tradition, would come from the Temple of Solomon.