Printing and Illustration

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Printing and Illustration


Printing Press. Few technological innovations have had as profound an impact on intellectual culture as did the introduction of mechanical printing with movable type—the printing press. The medieval university had created an immense appetite for books, which grew along with literacy in the late Middle Ages. However, prior to the press, these tomes were copied out by hand, either by the individual student or by professional scribes and stationers hired for the task. Early manuscripts were written on parchment, or vellum, made by carefully removing the hair from the skin of a sheep, goat, or calf and scraping, drying, and trimming it to produce a medium that excels even modern papers in strength and durability.

Papermaking. Both parchment and hand copying were labor intensive and therefore expensive, and this fact limited book production and consumption to ecclesiastical and state institutions and wealthy individuals. When the technology for making paper from cotton fibers reached western Europe from the Islamic world in the twelfth century, paper quickly became the medium of choice for textbooks, enabling ordinary students to make their own copies of important texts, helping to accelerate the dissemination of scholasticism, and contributing to the rapid growth of the Latin university system throughout Europe.

Impact. Manuscript books had drawbacks. Besides being costly, hand copying permitted errors to creep into texts and virtually limited illustrations to certain luxuriously crafted, hand-colored treatises, where they served to decorate, not inform. These factors were ameliorated by the

press. Once type was set, a thousand identical sheets of paper, containing several pages of text each, could be printed in a single day. Prices fell, bringing pamphlets and even books within easy reach of the growing urban middle class and fueling an information revolution. Printing presented new challenges to political authority and social stability. Arguably, the Protestant Reformation would not have succeeded had it not been for the press, which permitted religious and political ideas to be inexpensively and widely circulated in vernacular languages. This development, in turn, fostered vernacular literacy, a hallmark of the Renaissance. The Catholic authorities also realized the potential of the press, and it became a powerful tool for the Counter Reformation in the hands of the Jesuits in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Illustrations and Type. Printing brought together several extant technologies, which were adapted to give the press the basic form it had in early modern Europe. The screw press itself was a modification of the wine press, which was used to squeeze grapes. By 1400 such presses were used to print illustrations from blocks of wood that were cut out in such a way as to leave raised lines that could be inked (bas-relief). The real revolution came with the development of easily replicated, movable type, from which entire pages of text could be set and printed as a block. A type designer styled and cut a set of master dyes for each font, and these sets were used to punch the type itself, which was made of an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony.

Gutenberg. Various people were beginning to experiment with mechanical printing in the 1440s, but the man credited with successfully merging these technologies is Johannes Gutenberg, whose Bible is the earliest surviving European printed book (circa 1455). Gutenberg set up shop in Mainz, Germany, and printing spread from there to other towns on the Rhine River and its tributaries and then to France, reaching northern Italy by the 1460s. The early German printers created fonts that resembled the German manuscript minuscule and are generally called black-letter Gothic, variations of which were still in use in the early twentieth century. However, when presses were set up in Italy, Roman type fonts were created to mimic the lighter, humanist hands of Renaissance Italy, and these quickly dominated Latin scientific printing and were the forerunners of modern styles.

Standard Editions. Printing and humanism went hand in hand. Authors worked closely with printers to see that pages were free of typesetting errors, and print houses employed scholars with expertise in Greek and oriental languages (Hebrew, Syriac, and occasionally Arabic) to produce the many humanist editions of classical treatises and commentaries that began to issue forth. With mechanical printing it was possible to replicate thousands of similar pages without introducing scribal errors, enabling humanists to produce standard editions by scrutinizing manuscript copies and restoring what they judged to be the original text. Sometimes university-educated men, such as the German astronomer Johannes Regiomontanus, set up their own presses to facilitate scientific publication. Scholars were authors and editors of early books and were also a major market for printed editions, especially academic treatises, so it is hardly surprising that they would work closely with presses and with the network of trade fairs that sprang up at regional centers such as Frankfurt, Lyon, and Venice to provide a means for widely marketing books.

Improved Artistic Quality. The marriage of printed text and printed illustration revolutionized scientific writing in particular, especially natural histories and medical and biological treatises. The ability to replicate an illustration meant that it was worthwhile to invest time and expertise in it. The artistic quality of illustrations quickly improved, as artist-illustrators, some of whom were trained by the masters of Renaissance painting, were contracted to make realistic woodcuts of specific flowers, animals, and parts of the body. By 1500 woodcuts were widely used in scientific books and for reproducing maps. Roughly contemporary with the spread of early presses, illustrators began to experiment with metal-plate engraving, which produced an even higher quality print but required greater control over metal fabrication techniques and the use of a new kind of press, the roller press.

Pedagogical Tools. Dependable, artistic illustrations completely changed the way pictures were used. Once serving as decorations for expensive manuscripts that were elaborated to delight the eyes of wealthy patrons, illustrations began to serve as pedagogical tools, since they could be reproduced accurately. An outstanding example of the synergy between printed word and scientific illustration is Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (On the Architecture of the Human Body, 1543), in which various anatomical illustrations are beautifully depicted by an artist trained in the workshop of the Renaissance painter Titian and keyed to the text by letters, much as in present-day books. This technique permitted text and illustration to work together and brought the artistic talents of painters to bear on naturalistic portrayals of plants, minerals, and animals. This development in turn focused scholars’ attention on precise description and eventually on classification of natural forms. The result was an explosion of information of unprecedented accuracy and quality at the time that global exploration was bringing home specimens of previously unknown species to be introduced to Europeans.


Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

James Moran, Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times (London: Faber & Faber, 1973).

John W. Shirley and F. David Hoeniger, eds., Science and the Arts in the Renaissance (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library/London: Associated University Presses, 1985).