The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Myth-busting early modern book illustration, part two

The last round of book illustration myth-busting looked at how copper plates wear out (and how they don’t wear out). This time, I’d like to take a bucket of archival research and dump it on a related myth. How many acceptable impressions can you get from an engraved copper plate before it needs reworking? Conventional wisdom says “not too many,” or “not nearly as many as with woodcuts,” or “somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred.”

How about 6,425?

That’s not the kind of answer you’d get from a fine-art engraver, but we’re not talking about art here, where extremely fine lines and a limited supply are part of the appeal. We’re talking book illustration. 6,425 is an answer appropriate to a capitalist printing house needing to get its money’s worth from an investment. 6,425 is the answer that Karen L. Bowen and Dirk Imhof got from following the history of a single copper plate through the Plantin-Moretus archives. 1

The copper plate in question was an engraved pictorial title page for Cesare Baronio’s Annales ecclesiastici, a plate that was in use from 1601 until 1658. Bowen and Imhof found dated payments for the cost of the initial engraving and for four reworkings in the printing house’s account books, not including changes to the lettering. 2 They were also able to count the number of copies printed between each reworking. The result: between ca. 1,900 and 6,425 impressions in each state (i.e., between re-workings) for a total of 18,257 impressions over the life of the plate.

Of course, the Annales ecclesiastici title page plate is only a single example. The same precise calculations haven’t been made for other early modern printing plates (and probably couldn’t be; that enough information survived for the Annales ecclesiastici plate is already astonishing). One thing we do know, though, is that in 1574, Christopher Plantin assumed 1,000 impressions between reworkings when calculating production costs for books being sent to Philip II in Spain. 3

And for those of you who noticed that that the words “state” and “impression” in this post (about engravings) do not mean the same thing as “state” and “impression” in letterpress printing, stay tuned for a future post on the disciplinary language barrier between printed pictures and printed words. (Note to self: remember to write future post on the disciplinary language barrier between printed pictures and printed words.)

The engraving as shown in a 1601 title page from a copy of Annales ecclesiastici held in the Austrian National Library (click on image to see full book in Google Books)


  1. Karen L. Bowen and Dirk Imhof, “18,257 Impressions from a Plate,” Print Quarterly, 22 (September 2005), pp. 265–279.
  2. The timing of the re-workings was also verified visually, by examining dated title pages, in case something had been touched-up without having made it into the account books.
  3. Karen L. Bowen and Dirk Imhof, Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 175, 177, 359, and 363.

One Comment

  • Great post.
    While working on the prints of Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), Rijksmuseum curator Ger Luijten found records indicating that Goltzius could get 2,000 impressions off a single plate.

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