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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Woodcut Book Illustration in Renaissance Italy: Florence in the 1490s

In Venice at the end of the fifteenth century, both hand-illuminated printed books and books with printed illustrations, often handcolored, found a ready market among the most distinguished families. In the aristocratic city of Florence, by contrast, nobles—with the Medici setting the tone—continued to prefer the luxury of the entirely handmade book. Printing began to catch on only in the 1490s, catering mainly to the demands of a middle- and lower-class public. One of the first illustrated books to be published in Florence, a small mathematics primer (19.24) of 1491/92, was probably intended for aspiring merchants, as suggested by both the dedication and the content of many of the word problems. The fiery preacher Savonarola, who exercised such influence in Florence in the last decade of the fifteenth century and was responsible for the “bonfire of the vanities” that may have destroyed many beautiful works of Renaissance art, was well aware of the power of both the press and the image. Savonarola encouraged the publication of his sermons in small, illustrated pamphlets that could circulate easily among the populace (25.30.95). Love stories also had a wide circulation. Among the most distinguished of these were the works of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s court poet Poliziano, who composed his poetry in Italian as part of an effort to promote the Tuscan vernacular (25.30.22), and Italian translations of a romantic tale written in Latin by Aeneas Piccolomini, who would later become Pope Pius II (25.30.17).

The illustrations that decorate the last three publications are characteristic of the Florentine approach to woodcut illustration. While Venetian woodcuts of the 1490s and earlier were carried out in pure outline, lending themselves to handcoloring, Florentine woodcuts were generally shaded with parallel lines that give a sense of depth and sculptural form. Figures are often isolated against a black ground, enlivened by flecks of white that may have a descriptive or purely ornamental function, and scenes are usually framed by decorative borders of black and white.

One of the most richly illustrated printed books of the Florentine Renaissance was the Quatriregio, or Four Realms (21.4.1), a lengthy poem composed circa 1400 by the Dominican monk Federico Frezzi that had already gone through five unillustrated editions. Although the Quatriregio was published in 1508, the woodcuts were most likely created in the mid-1490s. With over 100 woodcut illustrations, some of which feature pagan deities, the book might seem a rival for the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, but this tale of spiritual pilgrimage belongs more to medieval tradition than to the humanist movement and, like most Florentine printed books, was probably intended for a middle-class audience. The blocks from this and other books of the 1490s, some of which may have been designed by artists such as Domenico Ghirlandaio and Francesco Rosselli, continued to be used throughout the sixteenth century, serving as illustrations, for example, to the collection of sacred plays or Rappresentazione published by the Giunta in 1555 (25.30.57-94).