Saturday, August 26, 2006

Giovanni Branca and the Wood Cut

I’ve written before about Branca’s unique take on the theatrum machinarum. Unlike the grandiose volumes of Ramelli or Besson, Branca created a little octava printed with craptastic wood cuts. This difference in production needs some consideration.

One of the problems with studying the processes behind the theatrum machinarum is that they are not completely books. The work of Errard and the early Besson were printed largely without movable type. Instead of the screw press, the plates were printed using a roller press. These presses were also used for the creation of maps. And historians of maps have done a far better job of documenting this unique history of printing than bibliographers.

There are three stages to the process of creating a print or a map: creation, reproduction, and distribution. The process of creation was firmly in the realm of the author. Besson, for example, created a series of pen and ink-wash drawings. Ramelli created both detailed drawings on vellum and line drawings for the benefit of printers. Woodward (xxx) notes that map-makers needed three distinct types of knowledge to create their works: geography, topology, and chorography. Topology is certainly and firmly within the realm of most of the authors of the TM. Indeed, these skills of land measurement derive from those skills of Roman agrimensori that had survived the Middle Ages.

The authors had to do two things: draw and write. The writing of manuals to describe various measurement tools and instruments (vis. Besson’s Cosmolabe) became an increasingly important means for proto-engineers to establish their criteria. Mahoney provides an in-depth discussion of Colbert’s problems with finding and qualifying engineers. Mathematical instruments were also popular among a wide variety of scholars and minor nobility. Jessica Wolfe discusses the role of instruments as part of a broader trend in humanist studies towards instrumentalism.

Much of the writing was done in the vernacular. Indeed, the use of vernacular languages became increasingly popular as evidenced by the short-lived Accademia Veneziana. This institution published many works in the vernacular between 1556 and 1561, when it run afoul of the Inquisition and was shut down.

These early engineers also had to draw. Creating maps and sketching out plans for machines and fortifications was an important part of their tasks. The original sketches of Besson, and particularly Ramelli, demonstrates a particular level of skill. Drawing was more than just an occupational skill. It was considered an important task for all courtiers. As noted by Castiglione:

"From painting, which is in itself a most worthy and noble art, many useful skills can be derived, and not least for military purposes: thus a knowledge of the art gives one the facility to sketch towns, rivers, bridges, citadels, fortresses and similar things, which otherwise cannot be shown to others even if, with a great deal of effort, the details are memorised." (Quoted in Woodward, pg. 20)

Actually creating the plates took a fair bit of work. The author of the work prepared both the text and a draft of the plates for the engraver, the plates were engraved, the presswork was completed, and the prints were marketed and sold. The relationship between the various engravers, printers, and publishers was very fluid. Printmaking was a tough business and competitors were constantly seeking ways to undermine or acquire their competitors. Engraved plates became currency in this fluid arena. They were borrowed, rented, sold, reworked, and used as collateral for loans. Following Besson’s death, his widow likely sold his plates to make ends meet. Similarly, in January of 1574 Antoine Lafréry of Rome held several of Venturino Tramezzino's plates as collateral: 31 scudi for 5 plates.

After the author’s work was done, the engraver’s began. Copper plates began as ingots or cakes that were beaten flat either by a coppersmith or perhaps by the printmaker himself. Both Agricola and the Encyclopedie contain details on the processes of copper extraction.

Prior to engraving, the plates were scraped smooth with a knife and cleaned with soft chestnut carbon and pumice stone, without scratching the surface. To transfer the engineer’s drawings, the engraver waxed the plate slightly, took a drawing or print to be engraved, varnished it, and laid it face down on the waxed plate, tracing through the main lines to the wax beneath. He detail could be copied directly onto the plate. Straight lines and hatching was done by assistances. Lettering was left until the end. Engravers differed in skill at lettering and some even specialized in creating beautiful script or block letters. Engravers worked under a window, at a bench covered with cowhide, and held the plate on a small leather cushion filled with sand. Burins were constantly sharpened with an oiled stone. The best were from the Levant.

Branca’s work is notable due to his use of woodcuts. Woodcuts were primarily used north of the Alps, and were strongly aligned with the book trade. Woodcut prints were far cheaper to produce than engraved plates, and therefore lacked both permanency and value. Size for size, woodcuts cost about a tenth or twelfth of copperplates. Consequently, they often served as prototypes for etched or engraved works.

Printing followed the process of etching. Zonca himself provides one of the best overviews of contemporary printing practice (which was subsequently plagiarized by Zeising). Inking was time consuming. Good ink required boiling vine-black with beer or white wine. Stiffer inks were required for new plates and in the summer. After 300 impressions the ink could be made softer. If the ink was too soft, red or purple impressions called "fla fla" resulted due to too much oil. Before inking, the plate had to be cleaned and heated, probably by a shop-boy or apprentice. The fire was made from chestnut or hornbeam charcoal. According to seventeenth century printing manual written by Domenico Tempest, 80 or 100 impressions could be produced each day. Woodward estimates that it would require about 12 minutes to ink a large plate. Zonca also reported that an engraved copper plate could produce about 1000 impression before requiring retouching, and 2000 after retouching. For etchings, he reports 500 and 1000 impressions respectively. Copper plates were often inked in tandem. While one was being pressed, the second was being inked.

A roller press was used to take impressions. The paper was dampened to increase its malleability and to prolong the life of the copper plate. After the impressions were taken, the prints were hung to dry. They were then pressed to remove the crease caused by the hanging line. If the ink wasn't dry, an image of the underlying print was copied onto the back of the print.

The impressions were constantly checked, often with “counterproofs”: putting a clean sheet on a fresh print and running it back through the press. The counterproofs could be used as a guide for retouching the plates.

Works typically contained other elements than those specified in the drawings and words of the engineer. The engineer—or perhaps the publisher—often included a dedication which served to win patronage and gain funding, and to deter plagiarism. Printers could also get some rudimentary protection from plagiarism. They could get both a license and a privilege. The license was issued by the guild and rigorously enforced. While it gave the printer the right to print engravings, it did not offer protection. It was the optional privilege that acted as a rudimentary form of copyright protection.

Getting a handle on printing costs poses some challenges. Woodward notes that during this time, a master would have to work for between 20 and 35 days for subsistence, and a worker between 30 and 50. And in 1566, a large plate of reale size (30 x 43 cm) would require about 8 working days to engrave and an octavo about one day (based on the records of the map engraver Paolo Forlani). The reale size of maps (43.4 cm x 29.5 cm) compares favourably with the size of a medium folio such as Ramelli’s (45 cm x 29 cm).

Woodward also calculates a rough estimate of the breakeven point for maps of a reale size for seventeenth century Rome: 15 days of rent, taxes, and other overhead of about 6 scudi, 8 scudi for the artist, 20 scudi for the engraver, and 6 scudi for the copper plate, for a total of 40 scudi. For printing 500 impression, the printer was paid 5 scudi, two apprentices were each paid 2 scudi, and the seller 1 scudo. A ream of paper cost 2 scudi. Printing required a week, adding 3 scudi for the presswork. Manufacturing costs total only 15 scudi, as compared to the creative costs of 40 scudi. The total cost was about 55 scudi for 500 reale sheets of maps or prints. Woodward estimates that a print may have sold for about 0.25 to 0.5 scudos. Therefore, breakeven point was 110-220 impressions.

Woodward also gives a nice summary on the importance of visual media in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Since I have no better place to put it:

“It was the ability of the figurative print to disseminate and maintain a standard syntax of representation that partly accounted for their efficiency in conveying information. Such standardisation had been achieved through the development of systematic hatchings to show the third dimension, a trait important for both maps and figurative prints. The range of graphic printed matter was staggering: engineering drawings or pattern books, herbal or anatomical manuals, emblem books, fortification and hydrological drawings, and maps and plans of all kinds infused the culture with useful information. These new kinds of figurative prints were not as numerous as traditional religious pictures in the sixteenth century, but they provided the natural sciences with the ability to compare and classify in 'paper universal theatres,' replacing memory in a permanent form and transmitting information from one individual to the next without much loss of accuracy. The figurative prints thus laid the groundwork for the taxonomic breakthroughs of the following century.” (Pg. 100)