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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Petrarch's Trionfi

The image shown here is from a fine illustrated edition of Petrarch’s Trionfi and demonstrates all that was best about Italian book production in the first century of printing. The compact and elegant Roman typeface is legible and easy on the eye, and Petrarch’s poetic text is made prominent by the use of a larger font and by its clear separation by white space from the prose commentary of Bernardo Lapini da Siena which occupies much of the page. Illustration, text and ornaments all combine to form a harmonious whole.

In the Halberstadt Bible the illustrations are plain and functional; here they are decorative, as are the border and initial letters. The classical motifs of urns, putti, pedestals and dolphins seen in the former and the swirling interlacing embellishments of the latter together evoke the exuberance and elegance of Italian Renaissance design.

Woodcut illustration of a horse drawn procession depicting Love, with Cupid and crowdsWoodcut depicting the triumphal procession of LoveAlthough his sonnets and canzoni are now generally regarded as his best works, it was the Trionfi, a work in terza rima, for which the Italian poet Petrarca, or Petrarch (1404-74), appears to have been most esteemed a century after his death. It survives in over 300 surviving manuscripts, many lavishly illustrated, and some of the numerous printed editions in which it subsequently appeared from 1470 onwards are illustrated too.

Venice was the leading city of the Italian book trade but it was in Florence that the first book illustrated with engravings on copper plates was produced, in 1477. Woodcut, however, remained the predominant illustrative technique until the mid-16th century, and when the printer Piero di Piasi produced this edition of Trionfi he chose to use woodcuts.

The full-page woodcut illustration shown here is one of six, each depicting a different ‘triumph’, or victorious procession (this one is Love), all copied from a series of anonymous Florentine copperplate engravings.

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