By-the-Book Durer

By Eagle, Joanna Shaw | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 11, 2000 | Go to article overview
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By-the-Book Durer

Eagle, Joanna Shaw, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Remember the anxiety over potential year-2000 problems last year?

In 1498, German artist Albrecht Durer capitalized on similar fears, of a midmillennium apocalypse. He issued "The Apocalypse," the first of his "large books" illustrated with sheets from 14 woodcuts.

Depicting St. John the Divine's "Book of Revelations," it is the appropriate centerpiece for the exhibit "Book Arts in the Age of Durer" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). The display of more than 100 Renaissance books and prints marks the cooperation of several Baltimore institutions: BMA, Walters Art Gallery and Sheridan Libraries of the Johns Hopkins University.

It also celebrates a long history of collecting in the city. Collectors included William and Henry Walters, Etta and Dr. Claribel Cone, Blanche Adler and T. Harrison Garrett, who contributed the Apocalypse prints exhibited in this show. (Miss Adler was an honorary Baltimore museum curator who filled in gaps in the Print Room with her own purchases.)

Henry Walters opened the Walters gallery in 1909 and personally amassed some of the works in the exhibit. In 1905, he found a bookseller's shop near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, and bought the dealer's entire stock of more than 1,000 early books. He donated about 5,000 publications to the city when he died in 1934.

Visitors to the BMA show can see the bound copy of Durer's "The Large Passion" with 11 sheets from it. The curators also included early editions of Durer's "The Life of the Virgin."

The Durer works are the high points, but other prints illustrate the book arts preceding him. The time was the great "rebirth," or Renaissance, in Europe.

Herbals of flora and fauna, surgical treatises with anatomical drawings and maps showed an emerging and intense interest in the natural world. Second-century Alexandrian astronomer and geographer Ptolemy wrote the "Guide to the Delineation of the World" based on his observations in Egypt, though his treatise only reached Italy about 14 centuries later.

Printers in Bologna, Italy, created the first atlases in 1477. One of the exhibit's woodcuts - "View of Venice From Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (Journey to the Holy Land)," printed by Erhard Reuwich of Mainz, Germany, in 1486 - demonstrates the new interest in rendering topographical correctness.

Reuwich accompanied Bernard von Breydenbach, dean of Mainz Cathedral, on his pilgrimage and recorded places they visited. "View of Venice" is one of a series of large and detailed foldout topographical views of cities along the journey.

Much work was still done by hand, as "The Entombment" from a "Book of Hours" (circa 1465-70) illustrates. It is created in the medieval illuminated manuscript tradition.

"Blockbooks," or bound codices, represented a major advance. Printers created the pages of books - both the illustrations and text - from single blocks of wood. One in the exhibit is "Resurrection" from the colorful blockbook "Biblia Pauperum (Poor Man's Bible)" (1470). Susan Dackerman, BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs, says it was hand colored with stencils.

Johann Gutenberg (circa 1400-68) of Mainz revolutionized bookmaking by inventing movable type around 1456. He used movable type to print a Bible with 42 lines per page. The Walters gallery " `Leaf' From the Gutenberg Bible: 2 Maccabees" is a sheet from Gutenberg's Bible, the first to be printed.

Gutenberg produced books using interchangeable and reusable parts. Printing had originated in China and Korea but was not known in Europe at this time. Gutenberg concentrated all his energies on printing the entire Bible, a great technical accomplishment.

The printing press made possible more copies of books that could be printed faster and cheaper, and book production increased like never before.

* * *

Durer came along at just the right time and had the right connections.

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