Previous page Page 2 of 4 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Eastern printing
Western printing
     Saints and playing cards
     The spread of printing
     The illustrated book
     The power of the press
     Woodcut, engraving and etching

18th - 19th century
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Saints and playing cards: c.1400

In about 1400, more than six centuries after its invention in the east, the technique of printing from wood blocks is introduced in Europe. As in the east, the images are printed by the simple method of laying a piece of paper on a carved and inked block and then rubbing its back to transfer the ink. And as in the east, the main market is holy images for sale to pilgrims. Playing cards are another early part of the western trade.

Later in the 15th century, technical advances are made in Germany which rapidly transform printing from a cottage industry to a cornerstone of western civilization.


Gutenberg and western printing: 1439 - 1457

The name of Gutenberg first appears, in connection with printing, in a law case in Strasbourg in 1439. He is being sued by two of his business partners. Witnesses, asked about Gutenberg's stock, describe a press and a supply of metal type. It sounds as though he is already capable of printing small items of text from movable type, and it seems likely that he must have done so in Strasbourg. But nothing from this period survives.

By the time he is next heard of in connection with printing, he is in Mainz. He borrows 800 guilders in 1450 from Johann Fust with his printing equipment as security. The resulting story of Gutenberg and Fust is a saga in itself.


Gutenberg's great achievement in the story of printing has several components. One is his development of the printing press, capable of applying a rapid but steady downward pressure. The concept of the press is not new. But existing presses (for wine, oil or paper) exert slow pressure - uneconomical in printing.

More significant are Gutenberg's skills with metal (his original trade is that of a goldsmith). These enable him to master the complex stages in the manufacture of individual pieces of type, which involve creating a master copy of each letter, devising the moulds in which multiple versions can be cast, and developing a suitable alloy (type metal) in which to cast them.


All this skilful technology precedes the basic work of printing - that of arranging the individual letters, aligned and well spaced, in a forme which will hold them firm and level to transfer the ink evenly to the paper.

The printing process involves complex problems at every stage, and the brilliance of the first known products from Gutenberg's press suggest that earlier efforts must have been lost. If not, the decision to make his first publication a full-length Bible in Latin (the Vulgate), printed to the standards of the best black-letter manuscripts, is a bold one indeed.


No date appears in the Gutenberg Bible (known technically as the 42-line Bible), which was printed simultaneously on six presses during the mid-1450s. But at least one copy is known to have been completed, with its initial letters coloured red by hand, by 24 August 1456. The first dated book from these same presses, in 1457, is even more impressive. Known as the Mainz psalter, it achieves outstanding colour printing in its two-colour initial letters.

These first two publications from Germany's presses are of an extraordinary standard, caused no doubt by the commercial need to compete with manuscripts. The new technology, so brilliantly launched, spreads rapidly.


The spread of printing: 1457-1500

An invention as useful as printing, in a Europe of increasing prosperity, readily finds new customers.

The first Italian press is founded in 1464, at the Benedictine town of Subiaco in the papal states. Switzerland has a press in the following year. Printing begins in Venice, Paris and Utrecht in 1470, in Spain and Hungary in 1473, in Bruges in 1474 (on a press owned by Caxton, who moves it to London in 1476), in Sweden in 1483. By the end of the century the craft is well established in every European kingdom except Russia.


During the early decades, German printing predominates. More books are published in Germany than anywhere else (by 1500 there are printers in some sixty German towns); German printers carry the craft secrets abroad; and foreign printers come to Germany to study as apprentices.

The earliest typography is therefore in the Black-letter style of contemporary German manuscripts. But by the end of the century the most fashionable and influential printing is being done in Italy, with a corresponding change in appearance.


From the 1470s, when Nicolas Jenson establishes a press there, Venice becomes a city known for the quality of its printing. Its preeminence in the field is firmly established by the end of the century through the publications of Aldus Manutius.

These Venetian printers develop type faces more open and elegant than the German black-letter tradition, deriving them from the scripts of the Italian humanists. In doing so, they provide the book trade with two of its most lasting typographical conventions - Roman and italic.


The illustrated book: 15th - 16th century

In the early years of European printing some illustrated books are produced by the laborious method of eastern printing, in which the shapes of the letters and the lines of the illustrations are carved alike in the surface of a wood block. Printed on one side only, these sheets are in effect individual prints which are then folded and bound into the form of a book. Known as block books, usually telling simple versions of biblical stories, they are sold at fairs. They are particularly popular in Germany and the Netherlands.

At the same period genuine illustrated books, with conventionally printed text, are also beginning to be published.


Books printed by Gutenberg's method are ideal for combining text and illustration on the same page. Movable type can be set in any shape round a wood block. The raised surfaces of both type and image will receive the ink together and can transfer it to the paper at a single impression.

The pioneer in this field is Albrecht Pfister, a printer in Bamberg, who publishes several illustrated books beginning with Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (The Farmer of Bohemia) in about 1461. By the end of the 15th century ambitious publications such as the Nuremberg Chronicle (a 1493 history of the world) have page layouts as elaborate as any modern magazine.


The technical brilliance of early European woodcuts is astonishing (and in the hands of masters such as Dürer, the craft becomes great art), but the cutting away of all the white parts of an image is a laborious and perverse way of proceeding.

Within the first century of printing two more congenial methods become available - engraving and etching. Both are described as intaglio ('cut in' in Italian) because they excavate grooves in the surface of a copper plate. In engraving, slivers of metal are gouged out with a sharp tool (the burin). In etching, acid is used to eat away the copper along lines drawn through a coating of wax (which protects the rest of the metal surface).


A copper plate created by either of these methods will produce a finer and more delicate print than a wood block. The disadvantage is that intaglio prints require a different kind of press, where the inked copper plate and a sheet of paper are together passed between two rollers, like a great mangle. Intense pressure forces the paper into the grooves of the metal to pick out the ink.

Images of this kind from copper plates are separate from the text. They have to be bound into the finished book, acquiring the name of 'plates'. From the late 16th century a volume with plates becomes the standard form of illustrated book.


From incunabula to mass communication: 1457 - 1525

In the first half-century of European printing the book rapidly displaces the the manuscript of earlier generations, providing equal elegance at less cost. Printed books of the 15th century are known as incunabula (Latin for the 'cradle' of printing). Though very rare now, incunabula were surprisingly numerous then; 1700 presses in some 300 towns are estimated to have produced about 15 million volumes by 1500.

Even in their own time these incunabula are special and expensive objects. But printing has another trick up its sleeve - in the long run one which is much more significant.


The profusion of presses in Europe by the early 16th century means that the machinery is in place for a different and entirely new form of production - the rapid printing of pamphlets, or even single sheets, which can be used in a war of propaganda.

This potential lies dormant until an unexpected opportunity arises. It comes through an intellectual controversy of unprecedented violence - the Reformation. After Luther's challenge to the Roman Catholic church, the printing presses feed and fan the flames. Pamphlets fly in all directions. The printed page finds a new role as an arena of almost instant debate. The 'press' acquires a new and significant meaning.


The first artists' prints: 15th - 16th century

When the first European prints are published, in the early 15th century, they are the work of craftsmen supplying a demand for cheap holy images or for playing cards. Artists only become interested in the possibilities of the medium from the 1450s. They are first attracted by the newest technique at that time, intaglio engraving in copper.

The pioneer in the field is extremely prolific, creating more 300 engraved plates, but he is known only as Master ES from the two initials with which he sometimes signs his plates. The first two known artists to specialize in engraving begin work at the same period, the 1460s, but in different places - Mantegna in Mantua and Schongauer in Colmar.


The greatest printmaker among Renaissance artists is, like Schongauer, a German. But unlike his predecessors, he excels in woodcut and etching as well as engraving.

Albrecht Dürer, familiar with metal from his early training as a goldsmith, begins engraving copper plates in his twenties and rapidly develops a mastery of the technique. He is more unusual in tackling at the same period, the 1490s, the much more mechanical craft of the woodcut (where each area of white in the image has to be scooped from the block of wood). But Dürer's large and completely assured woodcuts immediately demonstrate that this too can be an artist's medium.


The third form of printing in which Dürer shows his originality is etching. This is a technique invented during his lifetime (the first etchings are printed, probably in Augsburg in about 1500, from iron plates at this stage rather than copper). Dürer first tries the new medium in 1515. He only etches six plates. But he is the first to demonstrate the informality of etching, which can give the artist almost the same freedom as sketching in pencil.

From the end of the 16th century etching is virtually the only form of printing to attract the artist until the arrival of aquatint and lithography. Later masters, such as Rembrandt, develop the potential first shown by Dürer.


Mezzotint: 17th - 18th century

The first printing process to achieve a fully tonal effect is pioneered in the late 1650s by prince Rupert of the Rhine (living at the time in Germany after the defeat of the royalist side in the English Civil War). It is immediately given a name reflecting its ability to print halftones - Mezzo Tinto (Italian for 'half tinted'), or the mezzotint.

Hard work is involved in creating a mezzotint. A copper plate is roughened all over by rocking across it a curved metal blade with sharp teeth. The resulting rough metal surface holds the printer's ink in all its recesses, and if inked all over will print a velvety black tone.


This blackness can be modified in any part of the print, through every tone of grey to pure white, by rubbing the plate's pitted surface to differing degrees of smoothness (any area rubbed completely smooth will hold no ink and thus will print as a white patch).

With this technology the printers of the 17th and 18th centuries can reproduce every subtle shade of tone in an oil painting. For the first time entirely convincing portraits are reproduced in fairly large numbers - at a cost which remains high, but which is much less than the previous custom of having oil copies made. A good mezzotint is like the very best black-and-white photograph.


Previous page Page 2 of 4 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF PRINTING