Curator's Insights: Beyond Words

Looking at Images in a Different Way

"There's a rich variety of images in early modern printed books, increasingly so in the 16th century. The images are pretty, but that's not the only point of them," says Caroline Duroselle-Melish, curator of Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare and the Andrew W. Mellon curator of early modern books and prints. "Let's also look at the images in a different way."


1493 edition of the works of Terence, a Roman playwright. Folger Shakespeare Library.
1493 edition of the works of Terence

Among the books on view is a 1493 edition of the works of Terence, a Roman playwright. "The woodcuts are each made up of several woodblocks, so it's a little like a puzzle. You put one piece by one piece by another piece on one page, and then the next page includes two of the same pieces in a new image. This is a way of creating different images with a limited number of woodblocks, which were costly and time-consuming to make," she says. "Just to see this creativity is fascinating."

Beyond Words also includes a woodcut in a Czech herbal (a guide to plants) from 1562 and the woodblock that produced it. "We are very lucky to own examples of print matrices that were used to print images in books we own," she says. In the woodblock, "you can see the lines in relief and traces of the knife and tools used to carve it," revealing the work required to make it. "We forget how much time it took to make an image."

"We forget how much time it took to make an image."


Woodcut in a Czech herbal (a guide to plants) from 1562 and the woodblock that produced it. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Woodcut in a Czech herbal and the woodblock that produced it

Producing illustrations involved many participants, from the author and artist to the printer. Engravings or etchings—which offer finer detail than woodcuts—were printed on a rolling press, operated by a printmaker and not by a letterpress printer. Usually, she says, "you would have the text printed first. Then the pages would go to the printmaker, where the images would be printed. And sometimes this would create some problems."
As an example of those difficulties, Beyond Words includes a 1572 edition of a book by Girolamo Ruscelli on the coats of arms of famous men. "There were more than 130 engravings printed with the text, which, for a mid-16th-century book, is very ambitious." Duroselle-Melish says. "Most illustrated books at the time included woodcuts, which were easy to print with text. By contrast, printers and printmakers were not used to working together." Partly for that reason, most copies of the book have printing errors. The Folger copy is open to "an engraving that is not completely straight and is printed slightly over the text," she points out. Most likely, "the printer of the text didn't leave enough space for the printing of the image," leaving no way for the printmaker to place it correctly.
Beyond Words also features one of the most famous book illustrations of the early modern age—Martin Droeshout's title page engraving of Shakespeare for the 1623 First Folio. Duroselle-Melish offers visitors a different way to look at this image, too, by contrasting it with a dissimilar work by Droeshout on the sinful nature of man and the aspiration of the soul, which is pictured as a phoenix. "Although Droeshout's best known work is Shakespeare's portrait, he engraved numerous images depicting different subjects. He needed to do so to make a living out of engraving."


Engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, 1517. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, 1517.

Among the exhibition's highlights are works by two early 16th-century artists. Hans Baldung Grien, one of the first to experiment with color printing, produced an elegant chiaroscuro woodcut border for a 1515 title page. The exhibition also includes an image by the Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, depicting a dialogue between an author and Austerity, Friendship, and Love. Raimondi is well-known for his prints after paintings by Raphael, but this is the only image by Raimondi to be used in a book. "It's from 1517, which is a very early use of an engraving in a book," Duroselle-Melish says. 
The exhibition also offers a new approach to the Folger's early book illustrations as a whole. With the exception of the First Folio, Duroselle-Melish has tried not to include books that have been exhibited in the past 10 years—and has chosen many that have never been displayed at all. "I would say," she says, "that 50 or 60 percent of the items have not been shown before," producing a deep, fresh, and different look at early book illustrations at the Folger.