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Ross G Caldwell  Ross G Caldwell is offline
Join Date: 07 Jul 2003
Location: Béziers, France
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Ross G Caldwell 

A good summary of the history of woodcut impressions is given by Bennett Gilbert, in "The Art of the Woodcut in the Italian Renaissance Book: A Catalogue and Historical Essay from the Grolier Club/University of California, Los Angeles Department of Special Collections Exhibit." (New York: The Grolier Club; Los Angeles: UCLA, 1995).

See especially this paragraph (the numbers 22-31 in the text refer to the notes in the original essay)

"The First WoodcutsThe first images printed in Italy were single-leaf woodcuts. No more than 200 Italian single-leaf woodcuts survive from the fifteenth century, as opposed to the thousands extant of German origin. Many are fragments. This fact has led earlier scholars to believe that few were made or that there was no production or trade at all until printing had become well-established in the last quarter of the century.22 Yet as early as 1838 William Chatto had correctly concluded that the importation of German woodcut playing cards and saints' images was a competitive factor in an established market. He discussed the 1441 edict of Venice's Council of Ten, well-known for a century, forbidding these imports in order to protect the trade of the native craftsmen.23 Kristeller in 1922 cited documents establishing the existence of vendors of reproduced images of saints on paper in Bologna in 1395 and Florence in 1430.24 Schizzerotto has described an inventory of more than 3,500 prints sold by a dyer at Padua in 1440.25 To this the recent discovery of H. D. Saffrey must be added: a description, dated 1412, of the use since 1396 of an "ymago de facili (sic) multiplicabilis in cartis" for the cult of Catherine of Siena.26

This evidence implies a wider context of similar objects put to similar uses, of which there are a few traces. From the earlier literature there are sightings of now-lost woodcuts dated 1418, 1423, and 1437. But we still have today, in a side-chapel in the Duomo of Forli, the marvelous woodcut of the Madonna del Fuoco, named for having survived a fire in 1428.27 Finally, Erwin Rosenthal not only convincingly dated two woodcuts to before 1450 and two others to before 1420 or 1430 but also suggested in 1962 what Saffrey's discovery of 1984 tends to confirm: that early Italian woodcuts have an air of the Trecento about them.28

The likely story is this. Sometime in the late fourteenth century, the demands of a renewed and augmented popular devotion created a large market for images. The press and the woodblock served this market with images of the saints. By the 1440's there was a flourishing trade in these images in Venice and probably in most of Northern Italy29, which began to show their influence even in other lands.30 Late medieval popular culture and painting produced a trade in the woodcut imagery that flooded fairs and marketplaces and thence onto the walls, cupboards, chests, and books of homes on the eve of the introduction of printing into Italy.31"

There is one early date that Gilbert has missed. "... we noted that playing cards were known in Sicily in the late fourteenth century; by at least 1422, they were not only being used, but made, there. Professor Antonino Giuffrida, of the Archivio di Stato in Palermo, has informed me that the Archivio three fifteenth-century notarised documents, discovered by Professor Bresc, referring to playing cards. The earliest is a contract, dated 31 August 1422, whereby one Petrus de Matrona, aged 16, engages with one Petrus de Florito of Palermo, to print, collate, colour and sell playing cards ('ad stampandum nayppis, incollandum, colorandum, et vendendum')..."
(Dummett, "Game of Tarot", p. 31).

Thierry Depaulis told me he also overlooked this entry while writing a history of early card-printing, and confirmed that it is the oldest record of printed cards anywhere.
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