The Illustrated Body: Printing, Anatomy, and Art in the Renaissance

Monday, February 23, 2015 - 10:00am to Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 5:00pm

In the second half of the fifteenth century, in the years following the invention of printing with movable type, and the appearance of the earliest printed books, printers began looking for ways to enhance and beautify their texts with illustrations. An ideal means of printing images in books turned out to be the carved woodblock, traditionally used to print textiles. Woodcuts are so compatible with letterpress printing because both are relief processes, in which only the raised printing surfaces of drawings or letters are inked, the non-printing areas having been cut away. Thus, once an image had been carved into a woodblock, and the block had been assembled into a page along with lines of type, and locked in a chase, both text and image could be printed together.

Printers now found new purposes for woodcuts, which at first had been used in a limited way primarily for playing cards and single-leaf portraits of saints. They illustrated devotional texts and Bibles to teach and inspire the faithful, who could identify more easily with the divine through the power of images, and it is not surprising that the first woodcut-illustrated book printed in Italy was Cardinal Torquemada’s Meditationes, printed by Ulrich Han in Rome in 1467.

With the waning of the Middle Ages and the development of the new humanistic spirit came new types of books and new readers. Woodcut book illustration began to flourish around 1475: woodcut images appeared in books of popular fables such as Aesop’s Fables, not only to beautify the page, but also to amuse the reader, and underscore the moral lesson of the tale. Woodcuts served as mnemonic aids and helped to create memory systems and memory places, as in Publicius’ Ars oratoria. They filled the pages of instructional manuals, mathematical and scientific texts, guidebooks, and architectural treatises; and brought to life the texts of classic authors such as Ovid, Virgil and Livy, as well as the many early editions of Dante. The popularity of woodcuts continued through most of the 16th century, until printers turned to engravings in response to a demand for greater precision and detail.

This exhibit was mounted in conjunction with “The Illustrated Book: Printing, Anatomy, and Art in the Renaissance,” an international symposium held at UCLA on February 27-28, 2015 to celebrate the 500th anniversaries of the death of the great scholar-printer Aldus Manutius, and the birth of Andreas Vesalius, father of modern anatomy.

The books displayed in the exhibit have been drawn from Library Special Collections’ extensive holdings of Renaissance books, including the great Ahmanson-Murphy Aldine Collection, the Ahmanson-Murphy Early Italian Printing Collection, the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana, the John A. Benjamin Collection of Medical History, and History and Special Collections for the Sciences. These "illustrated bodies" document the changing face of woodcut illustrated books over the course of almost one hundred years, and represent a great variety of styles, ranging from the blunt woodcuts of Aesop done in a popular folk style, and the mysterious line drawings of Aldus’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, to the magnificently-detailed anatomical woodcuts of Vesalius’ Fabrica.

The exhibit was curated by librarians Russell Johnson and Jane Carpenter. Karen Konnect of konnectDesign created the design elements; Octavio Olvera designed and executed the exhibit installation; and Cindy Newsome provided planning assistance and administrative coordination.


Library Special Collections (Research Library)