Venetian book illustration

Woodcut of "Temistitan" (i.e. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital) in Bordone's "Isolario", 1547. Sp Coll BC14-y.5

Woodcut of “Temistitan” (i.e. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital) in Bordone’s “Isolario”, 1547. Sp Coll BC14-y.5

Guest blogpost by Filipa do Rosario Andre, a junior honours History of Art student on placement in Special Collections. Filipa has been identifying examples of 16th and 17th century Venetian book illustration in our collections.

Senior lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, Dr Laura Moretti, is currently undertaking a project on the collection of 16th and 17th century Venetian art in Scotland. As part of this she wanted to know what examples – in the form of illustrated books – are held in the University of Glasgow Library Special Collections; since this is not always easy to tell from the online catalogue, my project has been to work through the early printed Venetian books, closely examining each in turn, to confirm whether or not they contain illustrations.

I found a variety of intricate woodcuts and engravings that gave me an insight into how imagery was included in early printed books and how this might depend on the technology to which the publishers had access, as well as their financial capabilities to commission these illustrations. Two main types of illustration are found in these books: woodcuts, a relief illustration technique; and engraving and etching, intaglio techniques. To make woodcut illustrations, the artist would carve an image into a block of wood, leaving the drawings level with the surface and cutting away the areas not to be printed. For engraving and etching on the other hand, the artist would use sharp tools or acid to cut lines into the surface of a copper plate that would then be inked and wiped clean. The ink was left only in the engraved/etched lines and would be transferred to the paper when the plate was pressed against it. As illustrations would print in mirror-image, the artist had to draw the image in reverse, which required great technique and precision.

Engraving from Ericus's Athropoglottogonia, 1697. Sp Coll BC4-e.17

Etching from Ericus’s “Athropoglottogonia”, 1697. Sp Coll BC4-e.17

The illustrations were certainly not the only interesting and beautiful aspect of these books; their very varied bindings were fascinating too. Some were made of materials that would range from board to leather and velvet, sometimes decorated and embellished according to taste and what their owner could afford. This made me realize how I was not aware that bookbinding was such a beautiful artistic craft of great antiquity. I came across books in Latin, Italian, Greek, and Arabic; books about physics, mathematics, geography and biology, as well as classical philosophy and literature texts, many replete with handwritten marginalia and sometimes personal thoughts annotated by their past owners.

In addition to learning a lot about libraries in general and the processes of labeling, cataloguing, and fetching books, I have become more aware of the art of illustrations in general, and of what can be said to be the visual component of books. And, to be honest, I found Special Collections to be an extremely exciting place. Every time I walked into the stack – the large climate-controlled room where all of the books are stored – and saw the ingenious mobile shelving full of books from all eras, I felt a little overwhelmed. One inevitably feels the weight of history, of the times during which these objects lived and everything they have witnessed, as well as the way in which they can convey so much knowledge in themselves while being, at the same time, surviving embodiments of their past collectors’ choices, interests and ideas.

What really struck me, however, was the importance of the role of Special Collections: how an interestingly well-pondered balance must be kept between the wish to preserve these books for future generations as the valuable evidence that they are and the strong tendency to “over-protect” that often comes associated with so much respect and value being given to objects. This tricky dilemma is, I feel, beautifully handled by the Special Collections staff. These books are not cloistered and inaccessible due to their value and rareness but, instead, they are made available for current students and researchers to easily benefit from. This happens because the primary function, usefulness and mission of such an endlessly rich and diverse resource is not at any point forgotten, which I believe we should all (especially students) be extremely thankful for.

Categories: Special Collections

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3 replies

  1. Interesting to see a couple of lute players… probably to maintain the symmetry with the other walking couples depicted.
    all best


  1. Picturing Knowledge and Curiosities: Venetian Renaissance Illustrated Books in Special Collections – University of Glasgow Library

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