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Printing a Mediterranean World

0 Comments 🕔04.Dec 2013

Two excellent recent studies exemplify very different approaches to the history of early modern prints. Sean Roberts’s Printing a Mediterranean World has a single focus, Ptolemy’s Geographia as it was translated into terza rima by fifteenth-century Florentine Francesco Berlinghieri and published in 1482 by the Florence-based German printer Niccolò Tedesco under the title, Septe giornate geographia [Seven Days of Geography]. Roberts characterizes Berlinghieri’s book, filled as it was with more than 30 large engraved maps and in some exemplars magnificent hand embellishments, as an ambitious project ‘in between’ many supposed dyads and therefore central, comprising ‘a connective tissue’ between print and manuscript, classical knowledge, and late-fifteenth-century humanism – and, Florence and Constantinople. For in 1483 two copies of Berlinghieri’s book, with added manuscript letters of dedication and extensive hand-painted decorations, were sent as diplomatic gifts from Medicean Florence to each of Mehmed the Conqueror’s two sons, Bayezid II and Cem.

Earlier studies by Bronwen Wilson, Joseph Monteyne, and Rose Marie San Juan have offered trenchant investigations into the role of print in making manifest cosmopolitan cities in the early modern world such as Venice, London, and Rome, respectively.[1] Roberts’s lucidly written account seeks to work on a larger scale, choosing the ‘Mediterranean world’ as his unit of analysis. Indeed, Berlinghieri’s Septe giornate is a canny choice that allows Roberts to study geographies on a number of different levels, from the lists of names and locations published in the various Ptolomeic texts known by fifteenth-century Italians or Ottomans, to the identification of Ptolemy’s listed places with cities known and inhabited by Berlinghieri’s readers. Of the unknown or supremely famous owners of Berlinghieri’s text  – manuscript copies were intended for such luminaries as Federico da Montfeltro and Lorenzo de’ Medici – one is particularly struck by Cem, who was not only Bayezid II’s half-brother but also his political rival. After a failed coup attempt, Cem fled his brother’s realm to Cairo, Rhodes, and, eventually, Rome.  The manuscript letter of dedication in Cem’s copy (now in Turin) explicitly expresses a hope for Cem’s rise to the throne occupied by his brother, while also indicating that another copy of the book had been presented to the ruling sultan.  Bayezid’s copy instead omits mention of the gift of the same book to Cem. It is poignant to speculate how Cem might have reacted upon reading, or having translators read to him, these dedicatory passages in a book that mapped the territory he had traversed westward into his exile.

More likely, as with many dedicatees, Cem never attended closely to the text:  as Roberts astutely points out, books given as political gifts were of primary importance “as an integral component of diplomatic performances” (p. 166). As a result, the book’s material richness – the thick watermarked paper, the elaborate painted frontispiece, the lavish hand-coloring that made any black-on-white ‘print aesthetic’ irrelevant – may have spoken more loudly than Berlinghieri’s rhymed verses. As a consequence it is a shame that Roberts’s book, published in the prestigious series, I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History, does not include any color illustrations, a lack only minimally mitigated by the color image of the British Museum’s hand-colored impression of the Battle of Zonchio on the book’s jacket.

If Roberts explores the Mediterranean world through a focus on a single printed book, Ad Stijnman takes a very different tack in Engraving and Etching 1400–2000. Encyclopedic in vision, it moves well beyond the early modern period to cover more than six centuries of printmaking. Given the ambitiously broad chronological span and the close attention paid to technical issues, one might compare Stijnman’s book with the standard introductory textbooks by Bamber Gascoigne or Antony Griffiths but Engraving and Etching 1400–2000 is paradoxically both more focused and more expansive than these other two exceptionally useful volumes.[2] Unlike Gascoigne or Griffiths, Stijnman does not treat relief printing except in passing, choosing instead to deal exclusively with intaglio printing, in which the ink is printed from concavities in the printmaking matrix, rather than from its top surface. Nor does he discuss planographic or photomechanical processes, which form part of the spectrum of printmaking techniques presented by both Gascoigne and Griffiths. At the same time, Stijnman aims for a broader audience, not only of students but also of more advanced or specialized readers who might be collectors, historians, or practitioners. Indeed, Stijnman’s own experience as a maker as well as a scholar of prints is apparent, and not only in the book’s inclusion of some impressively accomplished prints of his own, for example, as an example of the technique of blind embossing. This palpable personal understanding brought on by hands-on practice – what Pamela Smith would call the underlying artisanal epistemology – brings Stijnman’s book perhaps closer to Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture, an eminently readable genealogy of photographic and digital images in traditional printmaking by a photographer and printer known for his technical finesse.[3]

Stijnman’s book consists of four lengthy chapters, followed by five information-packed appendices. It is tempting to characterize each of the chapters as ‘how-to’ texts, for indeed they describe in great detail how to engrave and etch; how to coordinate working together, both as a team at the press and as part of larger networks of supply and distribution; how to fashion the metal or non-metal printing matrix; and how to prepare the matrix for the press and how to print it. Yet such a characterization would miss the historical richness of Stijnman’s accomplishment.  A single example of the countless insights his book offers will have to suffice here: Stijnman informs us that after an impression is printed in the press, in order to dry properly it needs time ranging from a few hours for the water in the paper, dampened before being placed in the press, to some days or weeks for the viscous ink (the composition and making of which was detailed earlier). A metal stacking rack in common use since the twentieth century is illustrated – as is a detail of the late-sixteenth-century print possibly engraved by Jan Collaert II after Stradanus of Scultura in aes [Engraving in copper], in which a man lays prints to dry across ropes arrayed along the workshop’s walls. Stijnman’s text also refers to the practices of drying prints on cords or laths under the ceiling, on a table, or on the floor, and he gives the technical pros and cons of these alternatives as well as offers pictorial indications of their historical use in still more printed images from Italian, Dutch, and German technical treatises published between the early seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries. Historians of technology and active printmakers in particular will find Stijnman’s annotated bibliography of such practical manuals ranging in date from the mid-sixteenth century through 1979 (appendices 4 and 5) of special interest.

After reading Stijnman’s monumental tome one thinks back to Niccolò Tedesco, the printer of Berlinghieri’s Septe giornate geographia discussed by Sean Roberts, better able to imagine his Florentine printshop bustling with activity and experimentation in 1482. As Roberts indicates, print historians have sometimes taken Niccolò to task for the caption errors, scratched plates, and general sloppiness of the printing of the engraved maps. Yet Roberts also notes that Berlinghieri’s book “unquestionably represented the largest such undertaking in the history of [Florence’s] print industry.” Furthermore, Niccolò’s workshop was not only occupied with the task of making these intaglio maps, but also had to contend with the relief printing of the text and the decorative initials and borders. With Stijnman’s insights in mind, one wonders, for instance, how all those engraved maps and sheets of letterpress printing were hung or laid to dry – and appreciates all the more the practical skill that made “printing a Mediterranean world” possible at all.

Reviewed by Lisa Pon of Southern Methodist University

Printing a Mediterranean World: Florence, Constantinople, and the Renaissance of Geography
by Sean Roberts
Harvard University Press
336 pages / 25 halftone illustrations / 2013
ISBN: 9780674066489

Engraving and Etching 1400–2000: A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes
by Ad Stijnman
Archetype Publications and Hes & De Graaf Publishers
672 pages / 220 color and 83 halftone illustrations / 2012
ISBN: 9789061945918



[1] Bronwen Wilson, The World in Venice: Print, the City, and Early Modern Identity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005); Joseph Monteyne, The Printed Image in Early Modern London (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010); and Rose Marie San Juan, Rome: A City Out of Print (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

[2] Bamber Gascoigne, How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink Jet (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004); and Anthony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[3] Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan:  Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Richard Benson, The Printed Picture (New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 2008).

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