The latest research into the emergence of printmaking technology in early modern Europe is challenging accepted thinking about the development of colour printing. A seminar at CRASSH will reappraise these assumptions in the light of new archival evidence.

These book illustrations have not been systematically described as colour prints and are not known to art historians.

Dr Elizabeth Upper

Colour pictures surround us – so much so that we ignore many of them.  The average waste bin contains dozens of printed images that would once have been considered little short of miraculous.

Five hundred years ago, when printing was a new technology and only the well-off could afford to buy books, ink was made from soot and nut oil, and paper was manufactured by hand from cotton rags, images that were printed in colour were rare and correspondingly precious.  The appearance of these images in books and as objects in their own right marks progressive breakthroughs in the development of the mechanical printing press, an invention that revolutionised communication.

Research into the emergence of colour printing has revealed that colour-prints were produced in a significant quantity centuries earlier than has been widely supposed – and that there was a dynamic relationship between the skilled artisans who created images for printing and a host of other artists, including sculptors, metalworkers and armourers. 

An exploration of archives and collections of rare books by Dr Elizabeth Upper, Munby Fellow in Bibliography at Cambridge University Library, has revealed many hundreds of examples of colour prints that have hitherto been overlooked by scholars. She suggests that much remains to be learnt about the making of the colour images that illustrate thousands of rare books held in the world’s libraries.

Parallel work in into the history of printmaking as a technology, carried out by Professor Sean Roberts at the University of Southern California, throws a light on the pioneering activities of early printmakers in working with materials (wood, copper, steel and bronze) and processes as they competed with each other in the creation of increasingly sophisticated images that ranged from art to maps. 

Tomorrow (30 April), Dr Upper and Professor Roberts will be talking about their complementary research into printmaking in early modern Europe at the first of this term’s seminars on the theme of Things, held at CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) at the University of Cambridge. 

There are two categories of prints: relief (in which the design is raised from the surface, like woodcuts) and intaglio (in which the design is sunken into the surface, such as etching and engraving on metal). Dr Upper’s expertise lies primarily in the area of relief and, as the Munby Fellow, she has access to the unrivalled collections of rare books held by Cambridge University Library. Woodcuts are associated with black and white images, but they were frequently coloured by hand as a secondary process using a wash, for example.

The study of the history of English prints is based on the assumption that none were printed in colour for the 250 years between the first in the Book of St Albans in 1486 (a guide to gentlemanly pursuits that is resplendent with printed colour images) and the mid-18th century, when technical innovations suddenly allowed for the cheap and (relatively) mass production of pictures printed in accurate colours.

Research by Dr Upper in the libraries and collections in Europe and the USA challenges the existence of this gap. “It’s certainly true that colour prints are the needles in the haystack – but there are many more needles than we thought,” she says. “This suggests that the technology of colour printing was much more firmly established than scholars have generally realised in both centres of book production – such as Augsburg in Germany – and in provincial presses across Europe.”

Dr Upper is currently looking at the many examples of Tudor woodcuts printed in colour to create images that have added visual impact. Cambridge University Library has many, some of them dating back as far as the early 16th century. They are present in copies of books such as the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) and the King James Bible (1611), where they can be discerned through careful examination of how the colour was applied. Colour washes often sit inside the printed lines while printed colours often overlap; the blocks are misregistered, or not exactly aligned; beaded lines of ink can often be seen at the edge of blocks; and the layer of colour is often printed under (not over) the black outline.

“These book illustrations have not been systematically described as colour prints and are not known to art historians. Many show innovative techniques or use colour in surprising ways.  Because there has been such a pervasive bias against colour in the study of graphic art, there is still no standard descriptive terminology. This means that printed colour cannot be recorded, so these prints cannot be identified in catalogues,” she says.

“This lack of documentation has led to the belief that early colour prints did not exist, with a few well-known exceptions, and that colour printmaking is a later technology. So entrenched is this view that histories of colour printing often start c 1700. But vividly printed images from the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s are hiding in plain sight, and their production challenges long-held assumptions in fields as diverse as early modern visual culture and the history of medicine.”

Professor Roberts is especially interested in Europe and its connections with a wider Mediterranean world between the 15th and 17th centuries and his recent research has centred on the relationship between art, technology, maps and books. His talk will draw on his work on the crucial role that trade secrecy, industrial espionage and other skulduggery played in shaping early European prints.

“We’re accustomed to consider engraving as a rudimentary artistic medium that was widely understood. However, for the early makers and viewers of these remarkable images, the technique used to produce them was anything but transparent,” says Professor Roberts.

“Artisans laboured diligently to assert exclusive knowledge of the process and to discourage its diffusion among potential rivals. Not only painters but also metalworkers, sculptors and book printers tried – sometimes with desperation – to claim engraving as a proprietary technology. The Italian artist Andrea Mantegna, for example, sought to force rival engravers out from the city-state of Mantua. Similarly, the Florentine map-maker Francesco Rosselli claimed a monopoly of advanced tools acquired in Hungary. In his famous Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the historian Giorgio Vasari spun a web of myths, lies and misdirections to convince readers of the primacy of Italian printmaking.”

In the course of his research, Professor Roberts has traced the movement of artisans and their tools throughout Europe, across the Alps and over the Mediterranean as printmaking technology spread from region to region. In this way, his work questions the geographical boundaries that have traditionally led to the characterisation of prints along the connoisseurial divide of German and Italian schools.

For this session with Elizabeth Upper and Sean Roberts, the 'Things' seminar series is working with the 'Seeing Things' programme, a collaboration between CRASSH and the EMSI of the University of Southern California.  There will be three further Things seminars this term .

The Munby Fellowship (, founded in memory of the late ANL Munby, a greatly respected scholar in the field of bibliography, is an annual fellowship to work on bibliographical research within Cambridge University Library. The Rare Book collections of Cambridge University Library ( are of international significance, and include material from the first European printing presses in the 15th century up to the present day, and publications from all parts of the world.

Elizabeth Upper is editing Printing Colour, 1400-1800: Histories, Techniques, Functions and Receptions (Brill: forthcoming 2014) with Ad Stijnman, which is the first handbook of colour printing techniques during the hand-press period. Sean Roberts is the author of Printing a Mediterranean World: Florence, Constantinople, and the Renaissance of Geography (Harvard University Press, 2013) and co-editor of Visual Cultures of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe (2013), and his next book is provisionally entitled Sabotage! Rivalry, Secrecy, and the Making of Renaissance Prints.

For more information contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, 01223 761673.

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