Preserving the Cutting Edge

Preserving the Cutting Edge

Bruce Moran - University of Nevada


Woodblocks, considered as material facts that traveled, carried information about the technical knowledge, craftsmanship, and social processes needed to produce them and, as recycled objects, contributed to shared practices of visualization. Mattioli, Pietro Andrea and Handsch, Georg: New Kreüterbuch Mit den allerschönsten vnd artlichsten Figuren aller Gewechß, Houghton Library, Harvard University, 1563. Photograph by Bruce Moran.

The project focuses upon the techniques (and difficulties) of woodblock cutting in the making of printed botanical images, as well as upon the use and reuse of images in two distinct traditions of early modern herbals. The main focus will be upon the woodblocks cut for a project linking plant anatomy with plant chemistry/alchemy organized by the Berlin court physician and Paracelsian chemist Leonhard Thurneisser (1531-1595/6). Of over 1,900 woodblocks cut for the project, only 37 were used in an initial volume (Historia sive description plantarum) published by Thurneisser in Latin and German in 1578. After disappearing from view, many of the woodblocks were rediscovered in the mid 17th c. and became part of another project, distinct from the Paracelsian tradition, designed by Thomas Pancovius (1622-1665) in 1654. The project included the phenological tables of Theophilus Kentmann (1552-1610), the son of Johannes Kentmann (1518-1574) and known for the production of images of plants from live prints. Another edition of Pancovius’s text followed in 1656, and this was followed by an emended volume, reedited by Bartholomaeus Zorn with additional woodblock illustrations, in 1673. Among the cutters used by Thurneisser, one, Wolfgang Meyerpeck, or Meyerbeck (the younger), is of particular interest, since immediately prior to entering into Thurneisser's service he had helped design the blocks resulting in one of the most important editions of the Commentarii of Dioscorides of P.A. Mattioli (1501-1577), that appeared in Czech (1562), German (1563), and Latin (1565). It is from the Latin edition that we know that Meyerpeck, along with Giorgio Liberale, were responsible for the images. The woodblocks for this edition continued to be used after the appearance of metal engraving, having been purchased by the 18th c. botanist, Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-1782), and used as part of Duhamel’s Traité des Arbres et Arbustes (1755). Many of the Meyerpeck woodblocks, cut from planks of pear wood, were discovered to be still in the possession the Duhamel family in 1950s and were dispersed through auction and resale in the mid 1990s. The Houghton library at Harvard University has three Mattioli woodblocks designed and cut by Liberale/Meyerpeck which lend themselves to the examination of cutting techniques. 

In sum, the project relates generally to shared practices of visual representation and to various techniques, including nature printing and the cutting, printing, and coloring of woodblock illustrations, that figured among the various strategies employed (however imperfectly and sometimes dishonestly) in the process of distributing visual knowledge of nature in early modern Europe. In focusing upon the Thurneisser and Mattioli woodblocks, I will not be concerned with identifying which images are pictorially linked to others, an obvious feature of early modern plant illustration. Instead, I will focus upon questions concerning how botanical woodblocks were made and how woodblock printing helped define standards of visual representation through direct statements about plant subjects as woodblock images were used and reused to support distinct agendas among changing economies of curiosity.

  • Bruce T. Moran, Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2005.