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Rare Woodcuts on Display at Library

A trove of rare 15th- and 16th-century woodcut-illustrated books goes on display today at the Library of Congress as part of the new exhibit, “A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books.”

The more than six-dozen books, part of a gift from former Sears, Roebuck and Co. Chairman Lessing Rosenwald, include Bibles, meditations on the Passion of Christ and commentaries on the Gospels. Additionally, secular works such as an edition of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” a medical book, a military manual and an early arithmetic book are also showcased.

Rosenwald, who purchased the books from a British collector at a series of Sotheby’s auctions in the late 1940s, deeded the titles to the Library in 1943 as part of a larger gift of illustrated books. The books arrived there after his 1979 death.

“This is just a sample of one of the strongest parts of the Rosenwald collection,” said Daniel De Simone, the collection’s curator, noting that the entire Rosenwald gift includes 2,653 titles.

The exhibit, which primarily spans from 1480 to 1520, “documents the transition” from late Medieval woodcuts, which were typically “devoid of perspective” with “unformed” figures and objects, to early Renaissance woodcuts, with their more pronounced perspective and clearly defined human forms, De Simone said.

“As the images progress from the Medieval period, there was a greater and greater influence of Old Master artists,” such as Filippino Lippi and Alessandro Botticelli, he added, emphasizing that developments in painting spurred advances in the woodcut.

In addition to reaching the “very large audience” who still couldn’t read (despite improving literacy rates at the time) often with Biblical and other religious images, the woodcut-illustrated books offered an additional commercial appeal, said De Simone. “By illustrating their books they are differentiating their product from others,” he added.

Woodcuts are made by carving an image onto a piece of wood, which is then dipped in ink and printed in reverse on paper or vellum. Improvements in Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type printing press allowed printers working in the mid- to late-1400s to combine text and woodcut images in the first mass-produced, identical illustrated books.

Chief among the Renaissance artists practicing this craft was Albrecht D rer, a German engraver whose work was influential throughout Europe. A pair of D rer woodcut images — one used to illustrate the title page of a commentary on the epistles and the lives of the evangelists, another representing St. Michael fighting the dragon — are among the show’s highlights. Other prominent woodcut artists represented in the exhibit are Urs Graf, Benedetto Bordon and Antonio Tempesta.

However, the exhibit’s most significant offering is a 1495 edition of the Gospels, “Epistole e Evangelii,” which features 144 woodcut images, said De Simone. “It defines the Florentine woodcut,” he noted.

It’s also anonymous, as are most of the images represented in the show.

Although some artists, such as D rer and Graf, signed their work, they were the exception, said De Simone.

“The designers of the woodcuts and cutters who fashioned the woodblocks were, for the most part, craftsmen who produced the wood blocks without having their name attached to their work,” he explained.

Accordingly, De Simone, himself a veteran of the rare book trade, hopes the exhibit will help drum up interest within the “scholarly public” of art and book historians to unearth additional information about the executers of these works.

The Rosenwald collection, considered one of the most important collections of illustrated books in the world, is “worth a fortune,” said De Simone, though he declined to specify how much. It “could not be duplicated.”

“A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books” will be on display through July 9 in the South Gallery of the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. On April 21, a symposium on woodcuts in early printed books will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. in the James Madison Building’s Mumford Room. The event is free and open to the public.

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