Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Woodcut Book Illustration in Renaissance Italy: Venice in the Sixteenth Century

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By the end of the fifteenth century, Venice dominated the publishing market, with a majority of the books printed in Europe issuing from her presses. One of the most distinguished publishers active in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century was Aldus Manutius, famed for his editions of Greek works, for pioneering new typefaces such as the italic, and for the magnificent Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (23.73.1). Another innovation introduced by Aldus was the intimate handheld book in octavo format. Other publishers soon picked up on this novelty, as can be seen from a 1519 Italian edition of The Golden Ass by the late classical author Apuleius (56.608.1). It is hard to imagine a more enjoyable read than this pocket-sized illustrated version of Apuleius' entertaining tale of a young man accidentally transformed into a donkey. This book provides an example of the kind of illustration developed in Venice around the turn of the century, when the shaded style, in which forms are modeled with parallel hatching, replaced the pure outlines of earlier Venetian woodcuts.


By the end of the fifteenth century, Venice dominated the publishing market, with a majority of the books printed in Europe issuing from her presses.

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In the mid-sixteenth century, Francesco Marcolini da Forli, renowned for his typography and his fine printing, was one of the most important publishers. Marcolini had a particular interest in architecture; he composed treatises on clocks and on engineering, designed a much-praised wooden bridge in Venice, and published a number of architectural texts, including the early editions of Sebastiano Serlio's Regole generali (43.65.12; 41.100.136; 41.100.137) and Il terzo libro (41.100.135; 37.56.2) and, in 1556, Daniel Barbaro's splendid edition of Vitruvius, illustrated in large part by Palladio (34.64.4; 45.82.3; 41.100.218). Marcolini is perhaps best known for his fortune-telling book of 1540, Le Sorti, one of the most fascinating publications of the sixteenth century (37.37.23). This book was the third of its kind, and can be seen as a response to an equally lavish picture-book/fortune-telling game devised by Sigismondo Fanti of Ferrara and published by the Giunta in Venice fourteen years earlier (25.7). Whereas Fanti's book required the use of dice to learn one's fortune, Marcolini's was designed to work with a pack of cards. The rhyming responses to the list of questions in Marcolini's Le Sorti were penned by the well-known Renaissance poet Lodovico Dolce, one of several authors with whom Marcolini enjoyed a close friendship. Foremost among these was Pietro Aretino, whose writings, prior to 1547—when the publisher traveled to Cyprus—were all issued by Marcolini. As a leading member of the informal association of artists and writers known as the Accademia dei Pellegrini, Marcolini also had close ties with the painters Titian, Tintoretto, Giuseppe Porta, and Francesco Salviati, and the engraver Enea Vico. Salviati provided designs for woodcuts in at least two of Marcolini's publications, Le Sorti and Aretino's Life of the Virgin of 1539. Another book by Aretino, the Stanze, published by Marcolini in 1537, contains an unusual frontispiece in the form of a chiaroscuro woodcut that is usually attributed to Titian (37.37.2).


Titian had many links with the world of Venetian publishing and was known to collaborate with blockcutters in the production of prints, such as his vast multiblock Submersion of Pharaoh's Army (27.54.87-98) and his dynamic Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (22.73.3-119). One of Titian's students, Jan Steven van Calcar, designed the magnificent woodcuts for the anatomy book of Andreas Vesalius (53.682). Another gifted student, Giovanni Maria Verdizotti, compiled and translated a collection of moral fables—adding some new ones of his own invention–and drew the beautiful illustrations that accompany them (48.165). The handsome and accurate representations of the human figure in the former and the atmospheric landscapes in the latter are so successful that many scholars have been tempted to attribute them to Titian himself.


Some have suggested that it was the plague of 1575–76, which wiped out nearly a third of the Venetian population, that brought the city's great age of book production to an end. Another factor was the increasing restrictions of the Counter Reformation. As freedom of the press was replaced by fear of the Inquisition, works of literature and science ceased to issue so copiously from the presses. Marcolini's rival, the prolific and influential publisher Gabriel Giolito, had to appear before the Inquisition; and Marcolini's Le Sorti, with its recourse to magic and its occasionally anticlerical or ribald responses, was added to the Index of Prohibited Books.

Wendy Thompson
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art