The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Pietro Mattioli and the Everlasting Woodblocks

Yes, last week’s Crocodile Mystery was a close-up image of a woodblock. This woodblock, in particular:

woodblock showing flowering plant
Folger 245- 324f woodblock 1

And in fact, it is the woodblock that was used to print this image:

hand-colored woodcut of a plant with small green leaves and white flowers
“Lactuca florescens,” a variety of lettuce. (245- 324f, leaf CXXXVI)

You can compare this section of the woodblock with the (hand-colored) print that it created:

left: detail of woodcut, right: same detail of print
Don’t forget, the woodblock and print will be mirror images of each other.

So what’s going on here? What is this book and why is the woodblock used for one of the illustrations still with it?

The answer to the first part is pretty straight forward: the book is a copy of Pietro Andreas Mattioli’s incredibly popular commentary on De Materia Medica of Dioscorides, a first century treatise that was (and still is) a foundational text on the medical uses of plants. This particular copy (245- 324f) is the 1562 Czech version of the text.

Title page of Mattioli's Czech translation.
Title page of Mattioli’s Czech translation.

Mattioli was a Siena-born physician who became court physician in Prague to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, and to Ferdinand’s successor, Maximilian II. He had a strong interest in botany and pharmacology, and studied as many copies of the Dioscorides as he could get his hands on. His commentary on it was first published in Italian in 1544 (unillustrated) and in Latin 1554 (with small illustrations). It proved popular in the scientific and medical communities throughout Europe and, with the help of the Hapsburgs, full-page illustrations were made, and it was translated into Czech in 1562.

The over 600 woodblocks for this Czech edition were a joint venture between two artists, Giorgio Liberale (who had previously created the smaller illustrations for the 1554 Latin edition) and Wolfgang Meyerpeck, and were used in many subsequent editions as well. Which brings us to the second question, how did the woodblock stay with this copy of the work?

In this case, it’s actually “reunited with” rather than “stay with.”

After the Czech edition and a 1563 German edition, the woodblocks went to Venice, to the print shop of Vincenzo Valgrisi—the printer with whom Librerale had worked to produced the 1554 Latin edition. Valgrisi used the woodblocks to print yet more editions, and that practice continued for many years, even after the deaths of both Mattioli and Valgrisi.

However, after the early 1600s woodblocks fell out of general use for botanical illustrations, as authors and printers began to favor the greater detail was possible to achieve more easily by using engraved plates.1 The Mattioli woodblocks seem to have been stashed away until the mid 18th century, when the noted French botanist Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau purchased them. It is unclear how Duhamel found out about the existence of the woodblocks, but he liked them enough to use some of them in his 1755 publication Traité des Arbres et arbustes. This appears to have been the last gasp for those woodblocks, as the ones used in this publication seem to have been lost. However, that still left many others still extant, and Duhamel held onto them. They were passed down within his family for several centuries until the mid 1950s when some began appearing for sale. Then, finally, in 1989, three rare book dealers brought together 110 surviving Mattioli woodblocks to be sold.

title page of catalog for Mattioli woodblocks sale
A limited edition “portfolio” of the 110 woodblocks, including historical and descriptive essays (from which much of the information in this post was drawn).

The Folger acquired this woodblock, along with the 1562 Czech edition of Mattioli’s work and a second woodblock, in 1994 as part of the Mary P. Massey collection of herbals.2 It is uncertain where and when Massey acquired the woodblocks, but a brief comparison with the 1989 catalog indicated that she probably acquired them sometime earlier than that large sale.

Today, the Mattioli woodblocks are somewhat a victim of their own success and survival—because so many of them survived and became available for sale, many libraries have been able to acquire a woodblock (the Wellcome Library, for example, acquired on in 2009). So they have become something of a curiosity and a fun “look see” piece, but not much more.

However, in researching and writing this post, I have had to take a step back and realize just how cool it is that these woodblocks survived at all, let alone in a large enough quantity to have been rendered a curiosity. For one thing, woodblocks were/are effectively consumable parts of the printing process. While durable in the printing process, woodblocks were susceptible to cracking, bug infestations (if you look carefully you can see worm holes in the block, above), and fire; or were repurposed for other woodcuts. In fact, the back of the woodblock we’ve been talking about has another image on it, likely created after the image for Mattioli.

woodblock showing a portrait of a woman(?)
Who am I? The reverse side of the woodblock.

Of course, the Mattioli woodblocks are not the only ones to survive. The woodblocks for Vesalius’s foundational book of anatomy also survived, and were used for a 1934 reissue of the illustrations. Unfortunately, they were held at the University of Munich and were destroyed in the second World War, when Munich was bombed. Another set of woodblocks, for the works of Dodoens and Clusius (among others), are held by the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. And other individual blocks survive as well.

But still. When you consider the thousands of woodblocks that were made over the centuries, the fact that only a small percentage survive today makes those surviving all the more remarkable.

So how did the Mattioli woodblocks survive? Part of it was the size and quality of the woodcuts created by these blocks. As you can see from the images, these woodcuts used every bit of the blocks that they could, and the result are stunning, nearly full folio-page illustrations. They are particularly fine examples of the medium, as well; they have a vibrancy and a level of detail that was hard to match, even in later engravings. Duhamel certainly thought so, when he chose to use these mid-16th century woodblocks in his 1755 work, despite nearly two centuries of technological improvements to illustration.

And another part was simply the great historical equalizer (as one of my professors liked to say): luck. Luck that they were stashed away in Valgrisi’s printshop, even after they were no longer used. Luck that they remained untouched by human or natural intervention. Luck that Duhamel learned of them and took custody of them. Luck that his family kept them protected for another two hundred years.

Whatever the reason for the longevity of these woodblocks, they provide an interesting insight into the production process of a multi-edition work, and a good reminder of the physical nature of the printing process.

  1. Unsure how to tell if a print was made from a woodblock, engraving, or etching? Check out Erin’s fantastic post, Woodcut, engraving, or what?
  2. See Owen and Rachel’s recent post on some of the collections within the Folger’s collection.

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