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The Collation

Myth-busting early modern book illustration, part one

There’s a common core of misconceptions that many readers of this blog will be accustomed to dispelling thanks to their interest in Shakespeare and Early Modern Europe. “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” doesn’t mean “Where’d you go, Romeo?!” Historic window glass didn’t “flow” to become thicker at the bottom over time. The printing press didn’t destroy manuscript culture. But what about myths we propagate without knowing it? When this came up in discussion at the Teaching Book History workshop (described last month by Sarah Werner) our self-deprecating laughter quickly turned to earnest requests for examples. 

  1. For a quick review of how engravings are made and printed, see the 7 February 2012 Collation post “Woodcut, engraving, or what?
  2. Hedges is a biology professor and print collector; this research is the result of his realization that the “molecular clock” he uses to date divergences among species based on the random mutations in the genome over time could be used as a model to create a “print clock” of accumulated changes in a printing surface over time.
  3. Hedges’ work also takes into account variations in inking (an under-inked plate will also make paler, thinner lines), re-touching of plates, and other variables too numerous to detail here.
  4. Hedges, S. B, 2006. A method for dating early books and prints using image analysis. Proc. R. Soc. A : Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 462:3555-3573. Download PDF here. Also see Electronic appendix PDF.
  5. Hedges, S. B. 2008a. Image analysis of Renaissance copperplate prints. Proc. SPIE 6810: 681009. 20 pages. E-print. “SPIE” gave up trying to make its name match its acronym in 1981, having previously been the Society of Photographic Instrumentation Engineers, then the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers.
  6. Hedges, S. B. 2008a. Image analysis of Renaissance copperplate prints. Proc. SPIE 6810: 681009-18.
  7. See Hedges, S. B. 2012. Wormholes record species history in space and time. (main article). Biology Letters (E-print) and Hedges, S. B. 2012. Wormholes record species history in space and time. (supplement). Biology Letters (E-print).


Erin – greetings. I think the major factor in plate-erosion must surely have been simply the heavy wiping to remove surface ink – both before and after taking each impression. Watching someone clean and re-ink a plate is highly instructive in this regard. That said, I don’t doubt periodic refurbishment also played a part. All best wishes, Laurence.

Laurence Worms — January 14, 2013

Good to hear from you, Laurence! I’m glad you mentioned wiping the plate, since Blair Hedges specifically addresses that in his 2006 article, but I didn’t mention it here for lack of space. (For people unfamiliar with wiping a plate, see for example this clip).

Wiping the plate before and after each impression is a vigorous activity, but if that were the cause of the measurable thinning of the lines over time, there wouldn’t be a jump in deterioration between editions of an early-modern illustrated book. Instead, the deterioration would be gradual, with prints made late in the run for the first edition looking quite similar to prints made early in the run for the second edition, and that isn’t what Hedges’ evidence shows for the 16th and 17th centuries (once protective coatings started to be put onto copper plates before they went into storage there was no longer a need to polish off scratches and corrosion).

Erin Blake — January 14, 2013

Thanks for this informative piece. I’ve been wondering about corrosion and copper plates for a while. Somewhere in the 17th century(*), there was a re-edition of a work by Bruges engraver Hubert Goltzius on coins. The re-edition apparently used heavily corroded plates which weren’t cleaned, possibly because they wanted to preserve the very fine detail used by Goltzius.

(*) I tend to forget these details but I can look them up if you want to. Perhaps Goran will be able to provide a copy in the Folger.

Steven Van Impe — January 14, 2013

Thank you for your fascinating blog post. I will immodestly mention my collaboration with two wonderful archaeologists–Mark Pollard and Pete Bray–analysing some early modern copperplates.

I hope that those in the humanities and sciences have the opportunity to work together more often concerning questions in book history.

All best

Anna Marie

Anna Marie Roos — January 14, 2013

Fascinating! This piece will fit well with my discussion of EM printing and bookmaking technologies and Hamlet tomorrow. I’m looking forward to part two (and beyond?)!

M. Chappell — January 14, 2013