July 18, 2017

Books of Hours

        I’ve been working for some time on a project inspired by Books of Hours, so before I share my pieces, here’s a little background.  The book of hours developed towards the end of the 13th century out of the texts outlining the daily Divine Office to be performed in monasteries, as an abbreviated version for use by lay people.  They were prayer books, but they were also status symbols as the only book (if any) most families were likely to own.  Lavishly illuminated books of hours were enormously valuable, but with the advent of printing, simpler, mass-produced versions became affordable for the rising middle class as well.  In either form they were enormously popular, and from about 1275-1525 more books of hours were produced than any other title.
        The luxury illuminated books of hours are the most famous.  While most books of hours are illustrated with religious themes, some have secular scenes that offer valuable and fascinating clues about daily life, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In addition to the illustrations that are entire scenes, decorative borders are common and range from botanical designs, to abstract embellishments, to detailed trompe l’oeil arrangements of plants and insects.  I enjoy the appearance of the text, too, usually in gothic script and often with fancier initial letters.  Of course, I’m showing examples of printed volumes rather than the more famous and colorful manuscripts.
        I’ve been interested in books of hours for their appearance, but recently began thinking about the content, as well.  A book of hours generally contains a calendar of the church year, excerpts from the  gospels, and a cycle of psalms and prayers to be observed at various times through each day and on particular occasions.  The content of books of hours was never officially standardized so there is quite a bit of variation in both contents and order.  Some elements are very common, others more personalized.  The early books were all made to order on commission, but even the mass produced editions were often adapted to a particular market with variations for geographical region and price point.
        I’ve included pictures to represent a couple of different styles of border, both made in segments for ease of printing.  One appears to have hand rubrication, the others printed.  I also have two illustrations for the month of July.  The first is a pleasing family scene, but I don’t know whether it represents an episode from the life of Mary, or a stage in the life of a human, both of which were popular themes for books of hours.  The other July is an engraving rather than a wood block print, but I included it because it represents the other popular theme, daily life through the seasons.  You can see how such illustrations are great resources about clothing, tools, practices, etc.
        Here's a previous post featuring a printed book of hours, and in another post before too long I will share what direction I took these various ideas.

[Pictures: July from Ces presentes heures a lusaige de Paris printed by Thielman Kerver, 1540 (Image from University of Virginia Library);
Book of Hours at King’s College, Cambridge, 1498 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Horae in Laudem Beatissimae Virginis Marie as usum Romanium printed by Thielman Kerver, 1556 (Image from Les Enluminures);
July from Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis of Marguerite of Valois, 1597 (Image from University of Virginia Library).]

July 14, 2017

Paris in Relief

        In honor of Bastille Day, here are a few images of Paris.  You may notice that there are no images of the Bastille - I looked, but found only boring engravings.  You may also notice that there are no images of the most famous French landmark of all, the Eiffel Tower.  That’s because I already did a post with relief block prints of the Eiffel Tower, and you can go back and see them there.
        I begin with two views of Notre Dame, back and front.  They have wonderfully different styles, Latour’s back being all bold shapes in strong black and white, and Zber’s front of the cathedral being skritchy and textured, and slashed all across by the falling rain.  I like how he lets the carved texture of the background become stormy clouds.  Latour’s sky, on the other hand is very calm, but it does interestingly show a second block of pale grey for added depth.
        Next up is an iconic Paris café, with white-aproned waiter.  I wonder about the shapes and textures in the window, almost abstract and not clear whether they represent the interior of the café, reflections in the glass, or what.  I like that it doesn’t matter that I don’t quite know what I’m seeing; it works anyway.
        And lastly, Sacré Coeur and Montmartre, lit up after dark.  I’m not sure how many blocks, or even how many shades of grey ink went into this, but the effect is very dramatic.  I like the contrast between the detailed foreground and the solid mass of background buildings, but with more detail again on Sacré Coeur for focus.  And the layered fringes of chimneys are cute.

        On this Fête Nationale, let these relief block prints help you cheer “Vive la France!”

[Pictures: Notre-Dame Cathedral, wood block print by Alfred Latour, 1919 (Image from Jerry Martel);
Notre Dame, Paris, wood block print by Fiszel Zylberberg (Zber), 1936-41 (Image from ArtShik);
Aux Deux Magots - Paris, linocut by Géraldine Theurot, 2011 (Image from A Little Market);
Montmartre, woodblock print by Jun’ichiro Sekino, 1959 (Image from JohnnyBass10).]

July 11, 2017

Garden Apartments

        When we left for vacation I had nine (9!) blocks carved and ready to print, and when we returned I had lots of work to do to take care of all the mail, bills, errands, laundry, etc, that are the aftermath of being away.  Today was the first chance I had to print, so here’s the latest piece.  (Only eight more to go.)
        From the technical perspective, this was too big with too much dark space to print with regular water-based ink.  Water-based ink dries too quickly, so that the first areas inked are already drying by the time the last areas are inked and the paper is pressed.  So this was a job for Caligo Safe-wash oil-based ink.  I just bought some colors of Caligo and this was my first use of the phthalo green.  Not only did the slow-drying consistency work well for my purposes here, but I really love the color.  I want to print with dark green quite often, and usually mix some black with the standard Speedball green to get it, but piney phthalo green is so much prettier.  Extra bonus: the green has hardly any odor compared with the Caligo black.
        From the creative content perspective, this is the sixth piece in my ongoing series of little fantasy towns in interesting places.  “Series” is a loose term; I never planned any particular number, or brainstormed ahead of time where the different towns would be.  It’s really more of a recurring theme.  The idea of little magical towns, of fantastical places for fantastical beings to live, is one that has always appealed to me since I was a kid.  I was making fairy houses of natural materials forty years before the current trend for commercially made fairy house miniatures, and I can remember one summer drawing lots of pictures of little thatched cottages falling from the sky in raindrops.  Now, of course, when a fun theme for a magical town occurs to me, I make a block print.  The others so far in the series have been Tree Palace, Sky City (available as note cards here), Aspidochelone, The Open Book, and Bookby-upon-Shelf.  For this garden village I had fun thinking about what plants in the garden might be inhabitable, and what beneficial insects might be living there along with the small people.  I just hope the rabbits and chipmunks don’t destroy the whole town!

[Picture: Garden Apartments, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 7, 2017

Venice in Relief (III)

        I’m back from Venice where I saw this amazing wood block print, along with its blocks, in the Museo Correr.  This aerial view map of Venice from 1500 is by artist Jacopo de’Barbari (Italy, c 1445- c 1516) and it measures 1.3x2.8 meters.  Take a moment to consider what actually went into an undertaking like this wood block print.  First of all, it’s a map and therefore required all the surveying, detail, and accuracy a map requires.  Every street, every square, every building, is depicted accurately, at least as far as we can tell from the landmarks that are still extant (which in Venice is a lot!)  Secondly, it’s an aerial view, in a time long before any human had ever actually been that high up.  The view was created using the exciting new tool of geometric perspective, and required both imagination and mathematical precision.  Finally, there’s the work of carving and printing an image so large.  It was made from six blocks of
pear wood, which are also on display along with the printed map.  (They are under glass in a fairly small, dim room, so I apologize that the photos aren’t great.)  It took de’Barbari three years to produce this epic wood block print.
        Try to see the detail of the carving.  My photo shows the carving of San Giorgio island and a big puffing cupid head, which are the bottom center of the whole map.
         So what’s the significance of the aerial view?  Well of course for one thing it has to show the whole city’s layout to be a map at all, as opposed to simply a cityscape as all the other block prints of Venice in my previous posts (I and II).  But beyond that, this image places the viewer in heaven; you see Venice as a god might see it, identifying the human with the divine in the new humanist spirit of the renaissance.  I think it’s hard for us today to imagine the groundbreaking excitement of this wood block print as a sort of demonstration and manifesto of all that humans (especially Venetians!) could accomplish.  It illustrated the commercial and maritime power of Venice, the power of surveying and geometry to tame the world, the power of the human imagination and craftsmanship to capture and define it, and the power of the new technology of printing to spread all these ideas and technologies as never before.  Venice was the European capital of printing at this time, so this monumental exemplar of printing advertised Venice’s accomplishments in that field, as well.  It was a huge hit immediately upon its publication, and its success was lengthy.

[Pictures: Venetie MD (Aerial View Map of Venice), wood block print by Jacopo de’Barbari, 1500 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Wood blocks for Venetie MD, and detail, photos by AEGN.]

July 4, 2017


        To follow up my post on the mythical golden city of El Dorado, here is the 1849 poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Gaily bedight, 
   A gallant knight, 
In sunshine and in shadow,   
   Had journeyed long,   
   Singing a song, 
In search of Eldorado. 

   But he grew old— 
   This knight so bold—   
And o’er his heart a shadow—   
   Fell as he found 
   No spot of ground 
That looked like Eldorado. 

   And, as his strength   
   Failed him at length, 
He met a pilgrim shadow—   
   ‘Shadow,’ said he,   
   ‘Where can it be— 
This land of Eldorado?’ 

   ‘Over the Mountains 
   Of the Moon, 
Down the Valley of the Shadow,   
   Ride, boldly ride,’ 
   The shade replied,— 
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’ 

        Poe wrote this poem during the California Gold Rush, so the search for actual physical gold was very much on people’s minds.  He keeps it ambiguous enough, however, that it can equally apply to any much-desired treasure, physical or intangible.  Most people seem to interpret it as a pessimistic reminder that we spend our lives chasing impossible dreams, but I think it can be read a little more optimistically.  A human may not be able to get over the Mountains of the Moon or through the Valley of Shadow, but perhaps the pilgrim spirit can.  After all, the spirit doesn’t say, “Give it up; it’s hopeless.”  He says, “Ride, boldly ride!”

[Picture: In search of Eldorado, illustration by William Heath Robinson, early 20th c (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

June 30, 2017

Words of the Month - Italian English

        As everyone knows, English loves to borrow words from other languages.  But we don’t just borrow any old word; the words we borrow give us all kinds of clues about our attitudes towards other languages and their speakers and cultures.  What do we admire?  What do we look down on?  What do we consider different and foreign?  What do we feel we need additional words to talk about properly?  Today’s Words of the Month are a case study in borrowing: loan words from Italian into English.
        We begin in the renaissance, when Italy was the banking center of Europe.  English people may have borrowed money, but they certainly borrowed Italian words to get bank (late 15th c), bankrupt (1560s “broken bench”), and manage (“handle” 1560s).
        When speakers of English under Elizabeth I were starting to feel good about their language after centuries of inferiority complex, both a cause and effect in the linguistic cycle that brought English to that point was the exuberant borrowing of words from all over Europe.  From Italian we borrowed the words for what we admired most about Italian culture: art and architecture.  (And remember that our friend Sebastiano Serlio was one of the Italian architects whose ideas were spread so widely and influentially, although Andrea Palladio is an even bigger name.)
cupola (1540s), motto (1580s, from heraldry) fresco and stucco (1590s)
portico (c1600), villa, grotto, and balcony (1610s)
With a touch of literature: novel (1560s), stanza (1580s)
        In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Italy had an enormous influence on the development of baroque and classical music, and English borrowed Italian musical terms wholesale.  
baritone (c 1600), opera (1640s), solo and sonata (1690s)
violoncello (shortened to cello in 1857), finale, trombone, tempo, oboe (a word Italian had borrowed from French hautbois) (all first appeared in English in A Short Explication of Such Foreign Words as are Made Use of in the Musick Books, 1724)
concerto (1730), soprano (1738), aria (1742), adagio (c1746), bravo (1761), pianoforte (1767), falsetto (1774), crescendo (1776)
        Not all borrowings are for things we admire, however.  English also borrowed bandit (1590s), stiletto (1610), vendetta (1846), and Mafia (1875) from Italian.  Why borrow words for crimes when speakers of English could just as easily have spoken of thieves, daggers, vengeance, and organized crime in native English words?  Sometimes it puts a romantic spin on a criminal, if a bandit seems more exotic and dashing than a footpad. But in many cases, by borrowing words for crime or other undesirable elements of culture, speakers put themselves at a distance.  These are Italian criminals and Italian crimes, not good, wholesome English behavior.  Vendetta and Mafia entered English with the waves of immigrants entering the United States during the Ellis Island period, and remind us of some of the stereotypes English speakers held about Italian immigrants.
        The one area where languages almost always end up borrowing from one another is food, and through the centuries English has adopted many Italian food words along with the foods themselves.
artichoke (1530s), macaroni (1590s), broccoli (1690s)
And through the late nineteenth into early twentieth century waves of immigration: 
lasagna (1846), salami (1852), pasta (1874), spaghetti (1885-90), 
mozzarella (1911), zucchini (1915), pepperoni (1919), pizza (1935), pesto (1937)
        Finally, here are a few bonus Italian words with interesting histories
umbrella (c1600, first used in English by John Donne)
vista (1650s)
casino (1744, but gambling house 1820)
graffiti (1851, from Pompeii)
lagoon (1670s, of Venice)

[Pictures: Portico and cupola on Chiesa di Santa Maria al Giglia a Montevarchi, wood block print from La Cento Citta d’Italia illustrate, 1896 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
The Concerto, linocut (four blocks) by Cyril Powers c.1935 (Image uploaded by user on Pinterest);
Pasta, linocut by Haley Polinsky (Image from Etsy shop HaleyPolinsky).]

June 27, 2017

Classical X Games

        How’s this for a vacation activity?  This woman appears to be parasailing or windsurfing on a fishy sea monster!
        This wood block image was apparently a printer’s device used by a printer in Nuremberg in 1562.  Since it’s freestanding rather than illustrating any particular text, I have no information about the identity of the woman, or what’s actually going on here.  Is she a nymph or a goddess, or an athlete?  Is she riding the fish by necessity or for recreation?  Who devised the sail and harness, or tamed the fish, if indeed it’s tame?  Will she take off from the fish and parasail as it pulls her?  Or is she surfing fishback?  Who is the companion riding alongside our intrepid bathing beauty, on a sort of sea pony of his own?  And is that a cupid swimming in the background?  So many questions; so many possibilities.  What do you think is happening in this scene?  And just as interestingly, what do you think the artist who designed this block was thinking in the sixteenth century, presumably before either surfing or parasailing was known in Nuremberg?

[Picture: Wood block print from Sechzehen Predig by Georg Eckhard, printed by Christoff Heussler, 1562 (Image from Provenance Online Project flickr).]

June 23, 2017

Window on the World

        Here’s a fun surreal piece by Neil Brigham.  Surrealism has broad overlap with fantasy, and this could illustrate the high-tech version of my Extraordinary Book of Doors: pictures that become portals.  If only travel were so easy!
        Although primarily a printmaker, Brigham does occasionally do scratchboard, and the fineness of lines on this piece make me wonder whether it might be scratchboard.  Unfortunately, Brigham’s web site gives no details about individual pieces.  The look is the same, in either case.  It’s whimsical, fun, and a little mysterious.

[Picture: illustration by Neil Brigham, image from Neil Brigham’s web site).]

June 20, 2017

Pride and Prejudice and Fantasy

        Yes, I’m one of those countless fans who lists Pride and Prejudice among my all-time favorite books.  But as we all know, there’s nothing speculative about Jane Austen’s fiction, so what’s a fantasy fan to do?  Easy - read one of the myriad Pride and Prejudice adaptations with a fantasy twist.  You may wish to start with the most famous…
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen with additions by Seth Grahame-Smith - All right, I admit that I haven’t actually read this one.  I was duly amused by the title, but assumed that having seen the title, I had got the joke.  If I were more interested in zombies, I might have read it anyway, but I see nothing in the reviews to entice me, despite its blockbuster success.  Opening line: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

        There are a downright stupefying number of P&P adaptations and sequels, so it’s no surprise that many of them should contain fantasy elements.  Among the offerings I see which I have not read - and have no intention of ever reading:
Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange - Tagline: A married man in possession of a dark fortune must be in want of an eternal wife.
Vampire Darcy’s Desire by Regina Jeffers
Darkness Falls Upon Pemberley by Susan Adriani - in which Elizabeth is the vampire
The Pemberley Vampire Hunters by Huw Thomas
Mrs. Darcy versus the Aliens by Jonathan Pinnock - Tagline: The truth is out there, though it is not universally acknowledged.
The Ghosts at Pemberley by Fenella Jane Miller
From Pemberley to Manhattan by Laís Rodrigues - involving time travel
Death Comes to Netherfield by Jacqueline Steel - involving a zombie plague and Dracula
Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret by Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian - involving demons and were-creatures of all sorts.  Opening line: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when the moon is full over Regency England, the gentlemen are all subject to its curse.
Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon by Maria Grace - I confess this seems a little more enticing than the others, but my library system doesn’t seem to have it, so I’ll probably never read this one, either.

        Of P&P variations I have read, I’ll mention two that are mystery rather than fantasy:
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James - A fine mystery, but James struggles sporadically with the Austen style for a chapter or two before giving up the unequal effort.
Jane and The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron - Okay, I admit this is neither fantasy nor Pride and Prejudice, being the first of a mystery series featuring Jane Austen herself as the detective.  But I include it because it’s excellent.  Barron does a great job capturing Austen’s voice; the historical setting is well researched, accurate (to the best of my knowledge, anyway), and intriguing; and the mysteries are thoroughly enjoyable.
        And finally, the P&P fantasies I’ve actually read:
Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris - which includes cursed artefacts and something like voodoo, maybe some mind control… I confess to remembering very little about it, except that it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense and I was thoroughly disappointed.
Heart Stone by Elle Katharine White - Pride and Prejudice and Dragons, which I enjoyed tremendously.  The magical world is well-crafted and interesting, and the translation of Austen’s characters and plot into this magical world is generally very well done.  This is not Regency England with dragons, but rather a purely fantasy world so that White can make things up as she wants without any jarring historical inaccuracy.  I enjoyed that White redeems several of Austen’s “villains” so that you don’t know everything about everyone ahead of time.  The romantic tension dissipates a little too soon, but it’s replaced by action adventure to provide suspense for the climax and finale.  Tagline: They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay.

[Pictures: video cover design of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies;
cover design of Mrs. Darcy versus the Aliens by Pinnock;
cover design of Heart Stone by White.]