July 27, 2010

Woodcuts in the "Nuremberg Chronicle"

        The “Nuremberg Chronicle” is a history of the world from Creation to the publishing of the book in 1493.  It was printed in Nuremberg, Germany (hence its common English name, which is not what the book was actually titled).  It was a popular book and many copies have survived, making it one of the most-studied early incunabula (printed, not hand-written books.)  I imagine the histories of the various countries and cities must be pretty interesting, but what I’m enjoying are the illustrations of medieval cities, which I find particularly charming.
        Early block printed illustrations have certain characteristics that make them a little different from modern ideas about illustration and art.  For one thing, they were not the work of individual artists.  The Nuremberg Chronicle’s illustrations were done in the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, and were group endeavors involving people with several different specific skills.
        First there were people who drew the designs, both original and by adapting existing pictures.  They had no qualms about borrowing or stealing from any source that seemed useful, and they never worried themselves about things like permissions or citations.  Of course, they also never got credit for whatever creative and technical genius of their own they brought to their designs.  Most of these people are anonymous, although it is known that Wolgemut himself drew some of the designs and that Albrecht Dürer was apprenticed in Wolgemut’s workshop during some of the time that the Nuremburg Chronicle was under construction.  However, which designs Dürer might have been involved with is unknown.
        When the drawings were completed they were used as guides by another set of craftsmen who actually carved the wooden blocks.  These printing block carvers (called Formschneider) were not really considered artists, and they, too, were anonymous.  Because they were reproducing drawings, the woodcuts almost always consist of black lines on white backgrounds, just as drawings do.  The carvers had to stick with a design they were given and couldn’t get creative and take advantage of the range of possibilities of the relief print medium as more recent artists did and do.
        Finally, after the carvers did their work, the final set of craftsmen involved in making these prints were the printers who actually got the images onto paper.

        Usually I’m attracted to block prints that have more of a balance of black and white, but nevertheless I do like these.  (Some copies of the illustrations were colored in later with watercolor, but I much prefer the plain black and white versions.)  I like the lack of proper perspective, but notice that buildings in the far distance are smaller.  I like the crowded, jumbled look, but apparently these views are quite accurate when compared with the skylines of cities that still have a number of their medieval buildings.  I like the hints of reflections in the water.  I like the intricate details of texture in the roofs and towers.  I like the trees and stylized landscapes.  These are exactly what fairy tale cities ought to look like.

[Pictures: Bresslau, Frankreich, Bonpolnishemland, Genua, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.     Thanks to Liondancer and Aristeas at Wikimedia Commons for making these great scans available.]


richtea said...

Thank you for your great article on the Chronicle. I have recently discovered it myself. Can't wait to see one in the flesh one day!

Great blog too :)

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for the comment - I'd love to see the Chronicle for myself someday, too. At least we know there are lots of surviving copies, so we have a good chance!