News of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572

When the Swann Auction Gallery catalog for the March 15 sale crossed my desk, I flipped through as usual, looking for things that might fit the Folger’s collection development policy. I wasn’t paying too much attention, since it was primarily a sale of Americana, but a German illustrated news sheet of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre caught my eye, so I went to the online auction site for more information:

Auction sale thumbnail

(Click image for full view)

It turned out to be one of Franz Hogenberg’s so-called Geschichtsblätter (“history broadsheets”), a series several hundred prints depicting the Wars of Religion that Franz Hogenberg and his successors published from 1569 to 1637.1 I knew the Folger had a two-inch-thick bound volume of these illustrated broadsheets, so we almost certainly had this print, plate 33 from the 34-plate series of “French Religious Quarrels (1565-1573).” It hardly seemed worth the trouble to go upstairs and check the card catalog (most Continental imprints are not yet in  Hamnet) or go downstairs and check the book itself, since the chances of that one plate being damaged or missing were so slim, but in a fit of professional zeal (or maybe I was just procrastinating on something else, I can’t remember) I did it anyway. Paging through the relevant section of the volume while checking numbers in the lower left, I got to plate 32: 

Plate 32

Battle of the River Rhône near Le Pouzine, 28 March 1570

And was amazed to discover it was immediately followed by plate 34:

Plate 34

The King's Army Defeated near La Rochelle, 16 March 1573

Sure enough, plate 33 really was missing, not just stuck to plate 32 or mis-bound. Looking closely at the volume, it seemed pretty clear that the unknown 18th-century collector who compiled it for binding simply hadn’t been able to find the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre print. Since the prints were sold individually and in sub-sets in their own day, in several different issues, surviving series are often incomplete and of mixed origin,2 so the real surprise wasn’t that a plate was missing, but that this plate was missing.

By this time, the auction was just two days away, so I did a quick check of recent prices for Hogenberg prints, a quick check of my remaining portion of the rare acquisitions budget, placed an online bid that seemed reasonable, and waited. Luckily for the Folger, there wasn’t much competition for the print. It went for a hammer price of $550, the low end of the $500-700 estimate (other items in that sale went for many times the high estimate, others didn’t sell at all, which is pretty typical of an auction).  With the buyer’s premium (the percentage automatically added to the hammer price of any auction purchase) the final cost came to $660. I haven’t decided yet whether or not to put it up for adoption at next year’s Acquisitions Night — it was purchased with unrestricted funds, so the option is open, but I’m guessing it’s not likely someone would want their name, or the name of someone they wish to honor, associated with such a gruesome topic.

This particular copy is interesting because it not only has the original German verses below the image, but also French text (in prose) pasted above the image:

Plate 33

The Murder on Saint Bartholomew's Day in Paris, 22 August 1572 (click image to enlarge)

The illustration is a continuous narrative, not the single scene it appears to be at first glance. In the left foreground, in daylight, Protestant leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny is shot and wounded by a gunman in an upper-story window as he rides home from meetings at the Royal Palace on 22 August 1572. A few steps further, the scene transforms into the night of 24 August, with torches providing circles of light. Coligny lies in bed in the upper right, recuperating from having been shot, when he is suddenly set upon and stabbed. Next, the attackers pitch him out the window to the left. In the background, other murders take place.

Once upon a time, it would have made sense to improve the imperfect volume in the Folger collection by inserting the newly-acquired plate 33 between plates 32 and 34, making it easier for people to read the book. Today’s curatorial ethics frown on such aggressive intervention. Instead, notes in their catalog records will link the two items (at the moment, though, the print only has a brief accession-level record in Hamnet). Not everyone has the catalog record to hand when consulting an item, so I also plan to put a note on the book’s call number flag and the print’s pocket card (the 3 x 5 slip of paper on the front of standard print folders at the Folger).

Lastly, a visual quiz for people who read the Woodcut, engraving, or what? post. Here’s a detail from the print. Is this a woodcut, an engraving, or an etching?

Detail of Folger Shakespeare Library ART 266905

Put your answer, and any follow-up questions, in the Comments, below.

  1. Ursula Mielke, compiler. Frans Hogenberg: broadsheets, 2 vols. New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts, 1450-1700, ed. Ger Luijten. (Ouderkerk aan den IJssel: Sound & Vision Publishers, in co-operation with the Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2009), 1:3. []
  2. ibid. 3-5 []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

7 Comments

  1. Hi Erin,

    I stumbled upon your post and was glad to see that the Folger got this item from Caren Collection II. Caren Collection I is the basis of The Newseum collection and Caren Collection III is a monster- better and larger than both collections put together!

    I love the Hogenberg news prints and have a volume of approx 300 of them plus some individual ones with period color.

    I hope one day to find sponsors to tour highlights of my third collection around the country.

    Best,
    Eric

    • Thanks for stopping by, Eric. If you happen to remember how you came came across this St. Bartholomew’s Day print in the first place, I’d be interested in hearing more of its story.

  2. This seems like it must be an etching because of the extensive cross-hatching and other places where many lines are busily crowded together. I can’t see wood being strong enough to withstand many trips through the press before tiny segments would start to break off.

  3. I agree about the etching–I’m not always adept enough to make the identification based on the details that Terry, above, does, but I did spot the tell-tale plate mark in the reproduction of the entire image!

  4. I’m also for etching (assuming Erin isn’t tricking us with a print that has both engraving and etching). The free, wavy lines on the horse’s neck, and especially the lines indicating grain on the door, have to have been etched.

  5. I was looking at this in some reproduction recently, so glad to see it here. Re: the quiz about the technique, I’d say etching — the hand on the right has a wobbliness about it that seems unlikely in an engraving. Etchings when observed close-up seem a bit like drawings made in ink — think a .3 Pilot pen — lines of more or less even thickness with a sensitivity to the motions of the hand that you don’t get in engravings. (I think?)

  6. Etching it is. Thanks for the great observations!

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