Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

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

Among the most popular devotional works to be printed in the late fifteenth century was the Bible itself, first published in an Italian translation by Niccolò Malermi (or Malerbì) in Venice in 1471. In 1490, an edition of Malermi’s Bible appeared that was a landmark in the history of Venetian book illustration (33.66). Prior to that time, books with woodcut illustrations had been fairly rare. In Venice, many handsomely printed works received their decoration—including the initial letters for which a blank space had been left in the text—from the miniaturists who had formerly illuminated manuscripts. Around 1490, some of these artists began to shift their talent to the design of woodcut illustrations. The Malermi Bible is typical of these early illustrated books in its richly decorated opening pages, resembling those of contemporary manuscripts, and in the numerous small column or vignette cuts that enliven the text pages.

Scholars have distinguished two divergent approaches to Venetian woodcut illustration in the 1490s, the so-called popular style of the Malermi Bible, characterized by lively narrative scenes, redolent of everyday life, and the “classical style,” characterized by greater clarity and restraint in the composition and by more ideal and monumental figures, harmoniously posed. Among the best examples of the latter manner are the five new cuts that appeared in the Italian edition of Johannes de Ketham’s medical treatise of 1493/94. One of these, the illustration of a dissection, is sometimes colored in red, olive, yellow, and black (38.52), either through means of hand-impressed woodblocks or through the stencil method.

In the 1490s, vernacular literature, including translations of the classics, began to receive extensive illustration. One of the most popular ancient authors was the Augustan poet Ovid, whose collection of mythological tales was the main source from which artists, scholars, and the public at large drew their knowledge of pagan mythology. In 1497, the first illustrated edition of the Metamorphoses appeared in an Italian translation, filled with small woodcuts that narrate the stories, usually including several episodes in each scene. These woodcuts continued to be used in successive editions of the work (22.16), providing an influential model for painters and practitioners of the decorative arts. The culmination of Venetian woodcut illustration is usually considered to be the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499 (23.73.1), the only illustrated book produced by the famed Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius. While the beauty of the scenes that illustrate this curious antiquarian romance have led scholars through the years to associate them with such major artists as Bellini, Mantegna, and even Raphael, many now concur in attributing the woodcut designs, of a uniformly high quality, to Benedetto Bordon (ca. 1455/60—1530). Best known as an illuminator of manuscripts, Bordon was also an author, publisher, and designer of prints, including a monumental woodcut frieze of the Triumph of Caesar (27.54.118-.128) that he produced in collaboration with the blockcutter Jacob of Strasbourg. Some scholars believe that Bordon also had a hand in the illustration of the 1497 Metamorphoses.