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.]

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