The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Cracks in Etched Plates

Originally, I was going to do a crocodile post about the binding of this architecture book by Jacques Androuet du Cerceau:

Title page of Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

But after I thought about it, it seemed more appropriate to talk about the prints in the book.1 Andrea Cawelti guessed right: the wavy lines on this image correspond to cracks in the plate, which retained ink and printed.

Plate III, Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

Other prints in this book show the same type of defects:

Detail of plate xxxvi. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

As well as some corresponding to cracks at the edge of the plate:

Two different cracks, plate xiiii. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish
plate xix. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

Several prints also show plate scratches:

Scratches and crack, plate xxxiiii. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

and a certain ink smudginess:

Smudges, plate xxxiii. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

In addition to these blemishes, several plates have one-sided beveled edges:

Beveled edges on one side, plate xx. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

and one print shows a plate corner missing:

The lower corner of plate xx is missing. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage Photo by Caroline Duroselle-Melish

Clearly something was wrong with the set of plates used for this book.

Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (1511-1585/86) was a royal architect who published a series of practical books on architecture intended for a broad public. Androuet du Cerceau was very involved with the publication of his books. Before moving to Paris in the early 1550s, he ran a printmaking shop in his native town of Orleans where the etchings in his books were produced. His series of titles Livre d’architecture comprised three different books first published respectively in 1559, 1561, and 1582. These were intended to provide prospective home owners (and armchair readers dreaming of building a house) with practical information about the basic principles of architecture, how to build a house and how much it cost. Their success explains why several editions were made of each of these books. Our copy, published in 1615, corresponds to the second edition of the third book, originally printed in 1582; it reused the same set of plates.2

Clearly some of the defects visible in the prints of the 1615 edition were already visible in 1582. But it is also obvious that some of the cracks are larger in the second edition: for a comparison see a copy of the 1582 edition available from the Université de Tours. For example, the plate corner missing in our copy was still standing in this copy of the first edition.

Recently, the biologist Blair Hedges has argued that the wear and tear of engraved or etched copper plates is not related to their printing and the tremendous pressure applied by the roller of the press on the plate, but to the corrosion of the plate and its polishing before its use in later print runs, causing the thinning of the plate and of the lines.3 While corrosion was likely a factor contributing to the deterioration of plates over a period of time, early modern printmakers also knew that, even within a single print run, the quality of impression would deteriorate after the printing of a certain number of prints. Antony Griffiths has explained this in his recent book,4 and he also details the various print capacities of engravings versus etchings and other techniques based on the shallowness of lines.

In the case of Androuet Du Cerceau’s etchings, I suspect that the first cause of their defects was the poor quality of the copper plates used for this project even before any printing had started. The third Livre d’architecture was published in the midst of the religious wars when it might have been difficult to find high quality copper plates, which were very expensive anyway (copper was then solely produced in Germany in Europe). A combination of corrosion, poor storage conditions, and repeated printing then likely created the defects appearing on the 1615 prints, leaving us with the fascinating (but messy!) illustrations we see today.

  1. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, Livre d’architecture, Paris: Pour Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, 1615. Folger NA2625 .A63 1615 Cage
  2. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, Livre d’architecture de Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, Paris: pour Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, 1582
  3. S. Blair Heges, “Dating Old Maps with the Print Clock”, The Portolan, Fall 2008, pp.25-33; “Image Analysis of Renaissance Copperplate Prints” in Computer Image Analysis in the Study of Art, ed. David G. Stork, Jim Coddington, Proceedings of SPIE-IS &T Electronic Imaging, vol.6810, 2008 
  4. Antony Griffiths, The Print Before Photography … London: British Museum Press, 2016, pp.51-58

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