Picturing Knowledge and Curiosities: Venetian Renaissance Illustrated Books in Special Collections

This blog post is by Rose Z. King, a voluntary intern in Special Collections, who worked on the Venetian Renaissance prints, drawings and illustrated books in Scottish Collections project. The current foyer display on level 12 of the Library is one of the outcomes of the project.

By the late fifteenth century, Venice was an active centre and dominant force in the international book market. The city printed and distributed more volumes than any other Italian city. Most notably, many classics, a number of devotional texts, and a plethora of treatises ranging in subject from anatomy to architecture, were elaborately illustrated there for the first time.

Doni: I mondi del Doni (1552) Woodcut attributed to Titian (Sp Coll SM 399)

Doni: I mondi del Doni (1552)
Woodcut attributed to Titian (Sp Coll SM 399)

Many of the carefully integrated woodcut and engraved images found within these books are didactic in intent, as well as strikingly detailed and delightfully entertaining in aesthetic quality. Few of the illustrations have been confidently attributed to known Renaissance artists and draftsmen, however. Moreover, their visual appeal and impact culturally (both past and present) remain relatively understudied. In order to deepen an understanding, a major collaborative research project on Venetian Renaissance prints, drawings and illustrated books in Scottish collections – funded by The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Research Workshops in the Arts and Humanities – has sought to provide an exploratory survey on the visual materials represented in Scottish libraries and museums. This project has been lead by Dr Laura Moretti at the University of St Andrews and Dr Linda Borean from the University of Udine and a website is being developed to share the findings of all the partners involved.

Francesco Marcolini: Le ingeniose sorti (1550) (Sp Coll SM 1721)

Francesco Marcolini: Le ingeniose sorti (1550) (Sp Coll SM 1721)

At the University of Glasgow, Venetian books from our Hunterian and Stirling Maxwell collections were identified and surveyed for the project. Among the more than 600 sixteenth-to seventeenth-century Venetian books individually examined, roughly 30 percent were found to be illustrated. Additionally, a brief survey of incunabula found a significant number of beautifully hand-illuminated printed texts. The subjects best represented include: medicine (most particularly anatomical and obstetrical imagery), emblems and iconography, travel and exploration, mythography, and architecture. These findings demonstrate that the University of Glasgow’s collections can offer the public a considerable glimpse into the history and development of Venetian book illustration.

Giovanni Matteo Alberti: Giuochi festivi… (1686) (Sp Coll SM 1563)

Giovanni Matteo Alberti: Giuochi festivi… (1686)
(Sp Coll SM 1563)

Participation in the project has revealed the significant quantity and quality of Venetian books preserved and available for reference here at the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. On display in our level 12 foyer case until April 2017 is a selection of books showcasing the more peculiar items – in subject and design – uncovered: a curious book of fortune telling, a woodcut attributed to Titian, one of the earliest books on Egyptology, and an engraving of a lavish 17th century regatta along Venice’s Grand Canal.

The preliminary work undertaken as a pilot for this project in identifying Venetian illustrated books in Special Collections is described in an earlier blog post.

Lorenzo Pignoria: Vetustissimae tabulae aeneae (1605) (Sp Coll SM 1433)

Lorenzo Pignoria: Vetustissimae tabulae aeneae (1605)
(Sp Coll SM 1433)



Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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5 replies

  1. This is fantastic!!! I’m giving a senior seminar on early Venetian illustrated books here at the University of Guelph next Fall – I’m an art historian and Director of the School of Fine Art & Music. Guelph also has the finest collection of Scots archives in Canada, a big Scottish studies program and fantastic Scottish chapbooks currently on display!! Glad we’re so in sync!!!

  2. Unfortunately unable to visit but, do you have an inventory of these for research?

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