Renaissance Science – VI

There is no doubt that the fifteenth and sixteenth century introduction of print technologies in Europe, making possible the advent of the printed book, was one of the most important developments in the history of not just Renaissance science, but the history of science in general. Many people go much further and list the invention of movable-type, as one of the most important or significant inventions in the whole of human history. The ‘in Europe’ is important, because two of those technologies, moveable-type and woodblock printing, were both known and used in Asia long before their introduction in Europe. It is also important to note that despite extensive research no evidence has ever been found of a technology transfer of moveable-type printing from Asia to Europe and the introduction into Europe appears to be a genuinely independent reinvention.

The Chinese artisan Bì Shēng (972–1051) invented the earliest systems of moveable-type around 1040 CE, one in ceramic materials the other using wood. Another wood-based system was invented by the mechanical engineer, Wang Zhen (fl. 1290–1333), in the fourteenth century. Metal moveable-type, made of bronze, definitely existed in China in the thirteenth century. Bronze moveable-type was also in use in Korea in the thirteenth century.


A revolving table typecase with individual movable type characters arranged primarily by rhyming scheme, from Wang Zhen’s Nong Shu, published 1313. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As already stated, there is no evidence of a technology transfer and moveable-type was independently invented in Europe in the fifteenth century. There were tentative experiments with moveable-type early in in the century that came to nothing and the European invention is generally attributed to Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (c.1400–1468), who is usually known simply as Johannes Gutenberg.


Gutenberg-Statue in Straßburg No portraits of the man are known to exist Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gutenberg was born sometime around 1400 in the city of Mainz, the youngest son of the patrician merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden. Almost nothing is known about his early life, but he turns up living in Strasbourg working as a gold smith in 1434. He moved back to Mainz at some point. He was involved in various, possibly dubious, schemes to make money and it’s not really known how or why he developed his system of moveable-type printing. He supposedly announced his system of printing in 1440 but it wasn’t until around 1450 that his printing press was in operation.

Gutenberg’s real claim to fame is not just that he developed a system of metal moveable-type but that he created a complete system of mechanical printing. As well as the metal type, he modified a wine press to produce a printing press and developed a printing ink. Normal ink is too fluid to be used effectively in a printing press, so Gutenberg developed a more viscous, oil-based ink which stuck to the type, rather than running off.


In this woodblock from 1568, the printer at left is removing a page from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks Source: Wikimedia Commons

For his press Gutenberg’s business partner was Johann Furst Fust, who lent Gutenberg 800 guilders for the enterprise. Also involved was Furst’s future son-in-law Peter Schöffler. Having conceived his legendary Bible project around 1451, Gutenberg borrowed another 800 guilders from Furst Fust, and printing began in 1452. The Bible began to appear around 1455. In 1456 Furst Fust sued Gutenberg for misappropriation of funds and Gutenberg Europe’s first printer-publisher became Europe’s first bankrupt printer-publisher. Furst Fust and Schöffler took over the publishing house.

Between the 1460s and 1470s Gutenberg’s invention spread rapidly, first throughout Germany and then over the borders into other European countries.


The rapid spread of moveable-type printing throughout Europe in the first fifty years Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gutenberg had nothing to do with the humanist Renaissance, although one of his first printed products was a wall calendar, which as we will see later was an integral part of Renaissance science. However, as his invention crossed the border into Italy it quickly became part of the humanist movement.

The first printer-publishers in Italy were Arnold Pannartz and Conrad Sweynheym, who set up a press in the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco in 1464. Their output was from the beginning humanist orientated. Their first book was by Aelius Donatus a Roman grammarian of which no copied survived. Next, they printed Cicero’s De oratore followed by religious books by Lactantius and Augustinus.

An important innovation was their typeface. German printers following Gutenberg used Blackletter or Gothic typefaces. The humanists had developed a new hand script based on capital Roman letters and Carolingian miniscule, which they mistakenly thought was original antique Latin script. This was modified to make the two different scripts compatible becoming Roman or Antiqua script. The Pannartz-Sweynheym type face was halfway between the German Blackletter typefaces and the humanist Roman script, as was expected from the humanists.


Specimen of a typeface by Pannartz and Sweinheim, considered to be the earliest form of Roman type, c. 1465. Source: Wikimedia Commons

n 1467 Pannartz & Sweynheym left Subiaco and set up a publishing house in Rome, where they continued to publish religious and humanist texts until 1472 when they, like Gutenberg before them, went bankrupt.

Very early, Venice established itself the centre of book printing in Italy and the Venetian printer-publishers, created full blown Roman or Antique type faces to print humanist literature. Most notable in this development were the type designer Nicholas Jensen (c. 1420–1480) and humanist scholar and publisher Aldus Manutius (c.1450–1515), who founded the Aldine Press, which specialised in printing classical Greek and Latin texts.

Aldus Pius Manutius, illustration in Vita di Aldo Pio Manuzio (1759) Source: Wikimedia Commons



The John Rylands Library copy of the Aldine Vergil of 1501, printed on vellum and hand-coloured Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Regiomontanus (1436–1476), also a humanist scholar about whom we will have more to say later, and who established the worlds first scientific publishing house in Nürnberg in 1471, is credited with being the first printer-publisher to bring the Antiqua type faces back over the border into Germany.

Another humanist scholar Niccolò de’Niccoli (1364–1437) dissatisfied with the Roman script for writing humanist manuscripts developed the more flowing Italic script, which in turn generated the Italic type face.


Sample of Niccoli’s cursive script, which developed into Italic type. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whilst the invention of moveable-type played the major role in the creation of the printed book, it is important to recognise that the possibility of generating reproduceable illustrations in printed books played a very major role in the production of science books, in particular in several areas of Renaissance knowledge, as we shall see later. Image reproduction was made possible by three different print technologies, woodblock printing, engraving and etching, and we will now take a brief look at the histories of each of these.

Woodblock printing was by a long way the oldest of these technologies and was in the early days of printed book productions the most frequently used method of illustration reproduction. In woodblock or woodcut printing the image to be printed in cut into the prepared flat surface of a block of wood, inked and then pressed onto the surface to be printed. It originated in China as a method of printing on textiles and later also to printing on paper, The earliest surviving examples of woodblock printing date to before 220 CE. The method spread throughout East Asia from China. Interestingly, despite its widespread use throughout Asia, it didn’t arrive in Europe until around the early of fourteenth century, when it was used to print textiles. Woodblock printing on paper began in Europe around the beginning of the fifteenth century with religious images and playing cards. During the first half of the fifteenth century woodblock prints became quite popular, but the quality of the prints declined steeply. With the advent of the printed book and the demand for woodblock illustrations grew the quality began to improve with, for example the painter and illustrator Michael Wolgemut (1434–1519) setting standards. Wolgemut’s most famous apprentice, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), became possibly the greatest ever creator of woodblock prints. A woodcut is usually produced by two craftsmen, the illustrator or artist, who draws the image on the block and the block cutter, who actually cuts it.


Block Cutter at Work woodcut by Jost Amman, 1568 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest known printed book, the Chinese Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra dated to 868 CE, was entirely printed using woodcuts and not moveable-type.


The Chinese Diamond Sutra (868), the oldest existent woodblock printed book in the world. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Buddhists were very fond of woodblock printing because they believed that objects with texts of the Buddha’s words are talismanic, so they mass produced leaflets with such texts using woodcuts to print them. A book like the Dunhuang Diamond Sūtra is known as a block-book. There was a brief period in the fifteenth century, mainly around 1460, 1470, when block-books were produced in Europe, usually with religious themes. Strangely it appears that none of the known surviving block-books predates the invention of moveable-type printing. It seems that they were offered as a cheaper alternative to moveable-type printed books but never really caught on.

The next technology for producing illustrations in printed books is engraving. Engraving is very similar to woodcut printing, but the image is cut, scratched or engraved into the surface of a sheet of metal, usually copper, rather than a block of wood. The earliest known printed objects produced in Europe using engraving are some German playing cards probably dating from the late 1430s. Engraving had long been used by gold and silver smiths to decorate metalwork, including amour musical instruments, jewellery etc. It is thought that the idea to use engraving as a print technology developed out of the process whereby goldsmiths filled the groves of an engraved pattern with chalk or similar to make an impression on paper, as a record of their work. It was also common practice when making an elaborate engraved breastplate, for example, to engrave one half of the pattern, left or right, then to make an impression to use to make the other half, thereby ensuring that the pattern was truly symmetrical.

The German artist Martin Schongauer (c.1450–1491) made the greatest early development in the art of producing engraved prints.


Martin Schongauer (German, Colmar ca. 1435/50–1491 Breisach) Griffin, 15th century German, Engraving; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1927 (27.54.5) via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, it was, once again, Albrecht Dürer, who became the great master of producing engraved prints. Although engraving allows the reproduction of much finer lines that woodcuts and so more delicate and accurate images, it is also more expensive that woodcuts and more difficult to integrate with moveable-type when printing. These factors led to a dominance from woodcuts over engraving in the early book production.


St. Jerome in His Study (1514), an engraving by Northern Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

The final print technology for producing illustration is etching. Like engraving, etching uses metal sheets to hold the images to be reproduced but instead of the images being cut into the surface with a tool it is burnt in using acid. The basic technology of etching goes back into antiquity and was used, for example, to decorate jewellery. The earliest examples from the Indus valley date back to the third millennium BCE. Etching used by gold and silver smiths to decorate guns, armour and other metal objects was well-known in Europe in the Middle Ages. The application of etching to printing is thought to have been the work of the German artist and metalworker Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470–1536), who produced etched prints using iron plates.


Daniel Hopfer Three German Soldiers Armed with Halberds, c. 1510. An original etched iron plate from which prints would be made. National Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons

The oldest dated etching is by Albrecht Dürer from 1515. Dürer only produced six etchings before returning to engraving as his preferred technique. The move from iron to copper etching plates is thought to have been made by the Italians, once a suitable chemical agent had been found.

As a technology for printing illustrations in books, etching didn’t really become established until the eighteenth century. One major problem was the production of the etching fluids. These were often of very poor quality and contained contaminates, which cause damage during the etching process. In the first couple of centuries of book production, it was woodcuts that dominated illustration reproduction only very gradually being replaced by engraving.

As we shall see in later posts the printed book and especially the illustrated book played a very central role in the development of various areas of Renaissance knowledge. The ability to mechanically reproduce illustrations in large quantities playing a very central role. Before this, however, as I have briefly indicated above the early literary humanists were quick to adopt the new medium, creating their own distinctive typefaces to give themselves a clear identity in print and also from the beginning producing printed editions of the works of their classical role models such as Cicero and Quintillion, as well as printed editions of the first humanist scholars such as Plutarch.



Filed under Book History

6 responses to “Renaissance Science – VI

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this.

    Printing with moveable type is not so powerful in languages written in characters since several thousand characters are needed to set standard texts. Far few type are needed for printing alphabet languages. This may explain why there seems no evidence of printing with moveable type spreading from Asia to Europe.

  2. Me enviáis las comunicaciones en castellano ! plis!

  3. “Gutenberg was born sometime around 1400 in the city of Mainz, the youngest son of the patrician merchant Friele Gensfleisch zur Laden. Almost nothing is known about his early life, but he turns up living in Strasbourg working as a gold smith in 1534.”

    Wow! Either he lived to be 130+ years old, or he had a time machine!

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