Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Botanical Emblem Book

 From the University of Cincinnati Rare Books Library, Germany, 7" x 5", late 17th Century 

Seeing an emblem image on a computer screen is  pale shadow of experiencing one in its original context. While the content may be amplified by the brilliant backlighting, there is much lost in translationto the new medium. Think of a potato chip, a very bad one; now think of a deluxe health-food-store variety, thicker and heavier. Stay with me. Now think of freshly minted dollar bills, so thin they stick together. Between touching those bills and turning a parchment page is the difference between handling the cheapest and most expensive potato chip. Parchment paper is “crunchier,” too. You can hear the ancient paper crinkling as it’s handled. The ink has been impressed into thick paper by the pressure of tooled blocks, so that the fibers beneath the surface are thoroughly saturated. The pages splay out from leather bindings suspended like large plant leaves.
  As the images were printed in various sections (signatures), then folded, trimmed and sewn, there is an irregularity to the ink quality. (Possibly, the most consistently high quality specimens were reserved for a wealthier clientele.)  Through centuries of compression, the ink has transferred to opposing pages. Images, often printed on the right side of an open book have a blank page facing—which after centuries of compression bear a faint smudged impression of the ink. If the book has been stored flat, those verso ink deposits become darker, just from the increased weight of the pages.
  The craftsmanship is exquisite and breathtaking, too—considering there was no instant “white-out” tool or even a means of reduction (except the ancient grid method of proportioning down). It is difficult to believe that only the humble magnifying glass enabled such sharp focus and details. There must have been mechanical/optical aids of some kind which permitted that high degree of precise craftsmanship.
  This image is taken from a German botanical survey published in the late 17th Century. It seems to be a survey of beneficial herbs and flowers, which began earlier in the century. I believe that at least three artists worked on the volume successively, as there are slight deviations in style and ornamentation. In addition to the lush foreground detail, there is always a middle ground and distance which are depicted selectively with a painter’s eye—not a clunky common line width which marks earlier works. See the scores of images, I believe that the backgrounds are details of specific landscapes where the various plants thrive. Dover Books take note.
  I highly recommend visiting the rare books department of your local library or university. You might be able to access obscure and beautiful volumes of emblem images handed down through centuries, and untouched for decades. This is a vital art form! Though long slumbering, it awaits a Renaissance in the digital age. We now have the resources to survey and catalog the entire world treasury of existing volumes—and to imbue it with imagery and text expressive of our era and culture. For a brief summary of the Emblem tradition, see the earlier post, “A Forgotten Genre" at my other site