16th century book illustrations

I once wrote about medieval book illustrations of Niobe and showed the difference between the sophisticated hand drawn illustrations and the crude wood-cut engravings of the late 15th and early 16th century.

Just a couple of decades later some of the engravings got a lot better while others are still quite crude. Like this engraving is just so much more sophisticated than the woodcut-prints of just a couple of decades before. The lines are much softer, the perspective is a lot better and there is much more detail in the image. It looks much more realistic as well.


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The Death of the Children of Niobe. Engraving after Francesco Salviati. 33.9 x 45.2 cm. 1541. Bartsch XV (Les Graveurs de l’École de Marc-Antoine Raimondi), 42, 13.

niobe 213

Apollo and Diana killing the sons of Niobe, 1542, Refinger.

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Apollo and Diana killing the daughters of Niobe, 1542, Refinger.

But this doesn’t mean that all the crude wood-cut engravings were gone by then. On the contrary. It was in the 16th century popular with emblem books that showed simple images with a text that had a moral meaning. Like these emblems from 1546:


For example these emblems came with the text:

Behold a statue of a statue, marble drawn from marble. Insolent Niobe dared to compare herself to the Gods. Pride is the vice of woman, and is shown by the hardness of face and by the kind of feeling that’s found in a stone.

The idea was that people but  especially women should be warned against the sin of pride which was one of the seven cardinal sins.

The reason they used simple images was probably because they wanted people to focus on the moral message of the text not to impress them with stunning images. The images were just to help getting the message across.

And these book illustrations from mid 16th century:


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Slaughter of Niobe’s sons, Wood-cut engraving, Giovanni Antonio Rusconi (1520-1579) commissioned by Gabriel Giolito de’Ferrari, 1553.

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Wood-cut engraving, Vergilius Solis, 1526-1563




In the 16th century it was still totally fine to “borrow” other artists art and change it only a bit and then call that your own. That hadn’t changed at all.

What did change is that we see much less illuminated illustrations in the 16th century. This is because the printing press made handwritten books (almost) redundant. The only people still buying something like that by the 16th century were very rich people that could afford to pay someone to design and write just one book a year instead of printing the same book for thousands of readers.

But of course the rich and the educated still wanted to distinguish themselves and read something “better” than the rest and that’s why their books had Latin texts and references to classic Greek and Roman myths that uneducated people wouldn’t have heard about and wouldn’t be able to read.

Like in these illustrations from 1557:

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Wood-cut engraving, 1557, Bernard Salomon

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Philips Galle, 1557, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

I like this engraving by Philip Galle. It clearly shows how much engraving techniques had improved in just a couple of decades. The image is more sophisticated and the intended audience probably were as well since the accompanying text was all in latin and more than just a name or a word to guide the reader.


Ciao amici miei, Hilde


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