Do we need pictures? Illustration of the earliest printed books.


St. John’s holds an important collection of incunables, i.e. books printed before 31st December 1501. The process of printing with movable type was invented around 1450 in Mainz by Johannes Gutenberg, as recorded by the Cologne Chronicle of 1499, a text which preserves the testimony of the first printer of Cologne, Ulrich Zell, who had previously worked with him (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 42).

There are 143 incunables in St. John’s Special Collections. The majority were 17th century donations, and most of them have a 16th century binding. In the early modern period, a book was generally purchased unbound and then given a binding by its owner. These benefactors therefore probably donated incunables they had acquired earlier on, in the second part of the 16th century, a hundred years after their publication.


Although the earliest printed book held by the Library dates back to 1465, most of its incunables were printed between 1476 and 1500.


Their places of printing represent the main bookmaking towns of the time, which were concentrated in present day Germany, Italy and France, with Lyon, Nuremberg and Venice producing most. There is also, however, a good showing of English early printed books, with eleven incunables produced in Westminster by the first English printer, William Caxton, and other books produced in smaller centres such as Oxford and St. Albans.

Distribution of the places of printing of St. John’s incunables

This incunable collection, mostly composed of folios, reflects the domination of Latin, while showing the variety of languages that were beginning to make their way in books of the time: Anglo-Norman, English, French, Italian, Ancient Greek, Arabic are all represented.Languages_graphic

The emergence of the vernacular in printed books is closely associated with the appearance of printed book illustrations: between 1460 and 1466 the first books were printed in German as were the first books to contain printed illustrations (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 48).

By printed illustrations, we refer to actual pictures reproduced through a printing process, and not only adorned initials or decorative elements. The printing of images preceded textual printing and was very common by the time the latter began. Woodcut illustrations, with relief designs, would be transferred to textiles and paper by stamping or rubbing, later on with a press, and were very popular. The most common items to be produced in this fashion were playing cards and devotional images. These would be pasted on walls, doors or inside boxes, or even sewn into clothing. Print making was a craft of its own, and with the invention of typography, it met a related, though separate, art: book printing (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 39–40).

Between 1440 and 1470, text and image printing combined in two ways.

The first of these was the production of blockbooks, derived from printmaking, which are books with text and images cut into woodblocks and printed on the recto only by rubbing.  Blockbooks declined not long after 1475; their woodblocks were often reincorporated in typographic books.

The second technique, the combination of typeset text and prints, represented a technological innovation. This began during the same period: historiography has traditionally attributed to Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg the first illustrated printed book, but more recent analyses of book catalogues have revealed that other illustrated incunables had been produced in South Germany and Italy at about the same time (ca. 1460) or even slightly earlier (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 55).

St. John’s does not own any blockbooks, but does have a considerable number of illustrated incunables. The purpose of this exhibition is therefore to examine the interaction of the two separate crafts of printing, text printing and image printing, that became widespread in 15th century Europe and met in the incunable.

1 – Alexander Carpentarius (fl. 1429), Destructiorum vitiorum, printed in Cologne by Heinrich Quentell ( -1501) in 1480. 724 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s Collge Library, HB4/Folios.2.6.5, f. d8v-e1r.


It is appropriate to start with a book printed in the German region, since printed books and printed book illustrations originate from there. This is the first edition of a contemporary work on vice. Cologne was an important centre for book making, and Heinrich Quentell had by that time a lot of experience with printed book illustration: his publication of the first Low German Bibles between 1478 and 1480 took biblical illustration a step further, fixing a pictorial style that would last for generations (Strachan 1957, 11). This book shows a fine woodcut border unusually highlighted in yellow at the beginning of the text. Borders were seldom made of one block, but several strips would be put together to make a frame. This example is quite striking: although the borders were definitely made with several blocks, the left and upper borders were made with the same one. This frame is a beautiful combination of foliage, single characters and animals, and a vivid Magi scene at the bottom.

I – A technique

Book illustration is an art with its tradition and techniques.

  • An inherited pictorial tradition

2 – Bible, translated by Niccolò Malermi (1422- ), with additions by Hieronymus Squarzaficus, printed in Venice by Vindelinus de Spira (fl. 1470-1477) on 1st August 1471. 2 volumes in folio, in Italian. St. John’s College Library, HB4/Folios.2.2.1, f. b2v-b3r.


This beautifully illustrated book, a fine example of Venetian printing produced for a pan-European market, is the first Bible printed in Italian. The first Bible printed in any modern European language was a German edition produced by Johannes Mentelin in Strasbourg in 1466 (Strachan 1957, 9). This one came not long after, and it is interesting that illustration was added to the first vernacular version, implying that the image and the text complemented each other in speaking to the reader. The illustration is done by hand, which is often the case in Italian early printed books. Although the first Italian incunable with printed illustration dates back to 1462 (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 69), some Italian bookmaking towns, renowned for their manuscript production, like Florence, did not fully embrace printed illustrations straight away. A possible reason for this could be that Italian productions were considered luxury items and required elaborate decoration that was not deemed possible with print. Moreover, the mechanical production of the book seemed too cheap a process at first for the readership of the princely Italian courts, devaluing highly prized handmade objects (Sander 1942, XIX–XXI). The importance of the illuminators, renowned for the high quality of their production, and protected by guilds, also made it difficult for printers to employ woodcut designers.

  • The woodcut

3 – Jacobus de Cessolis (fl. 1288-1322), De ludo scachorum, printed in Westminster by William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491/1492) around 1483. 168 pages in folio, in English, Latin and French. St. John’s College Library, Safe, f. a5v-a6r.


This is an example of the late move toward book illustration of the first English printer, William Caxton. He first worked in Bruges in collaboration with the Flemish printer Colard Mansion, and there he produced the first book printed in English in 1473, the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, which he had translated himself. When he came back to England, he set up a press in Westminster, but it took him five years to introduce illustration in his books: the Mirror of the World, printed in 1481, contains 11 diagrammatic woodcuts. He probably lacked the artists, the woodblocks and the expertise at first (Driver 2004, 7–8). Moreover, Caxton’s interest really lay in the language, rather than the bookmaking: he is better known for his translations and his style, which contributed to the development of the English language, rather than the appearance of his books. Only 19 out of the 100 surviving productions from his press are illustrated, and nearly all their 381 cuts were prepared or bought between 1480 and 1485. He had six men cutting under his supervision and six working abroad for him, and it seems that De ludo scachorum and the Canterbury Tales, which are also on display in this exhibition, were cut by the same English carver (Hodnett 1935, 1).

4 – Abū Maʿshar ( -886) , Madkhal ilá ʿilm aḥkām al-nujūm (Introduction to astronomy), printed in Augsburg by Erhard Ratdolt (1447?-1527/1528) on 7th Ides February 1489. 70 leaves in quarto, in Latin and Arabic. St. John’s College Library, HB4/6.a.3.25(1), f.a2v-a3r.


5 – Scriptores astronomici veteres, printed in Venice by Aldo Manuzio (1449/1450-1515) in October 1499. 752 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, B-T / F – 31 / SCR, f. Iviiiv-Iixr.


These two books illustrate clearly the circulation of woodblocks. No copyright law protected designs, which circulated widely across Europe. Surviving contracts for the rent of woodcuts prove that they were intended to be sold on (Blum 1928, 5). Legislation encouraged this: in England, foreign merchants and artists were guaranteed the freedom to import and sell their products by an act passed in 1484 (Duff 1906). This was important because no woodcutting tradition developed in England in the 15th and even the 16th century: nearly all woodcuts were imported from the continent (Leo S. Olschki 1926, XXI).

Erhard Ratdolt was born in Augsburg, but moved to Venice where he began printing. He specialized in scientific publishing, particularly astronomical texts. For his edition of Hyginus’ Poetica astronomica in 1482 and 1485, he used woodblocks of gods and goddesses with zodiac signs. He eventually went back to Augsburg, taking the woodblocks with him and reusing them in two editions of Abū Maʿshar’s Flores astrologiae in 1488 and 1495, and in Leupoldus’ Compilatio de astrorum scientia in 1489 (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 54–55). He thereby introduced woodblocks with Florentine and Venetian characteristics into Augsburg’s printed output. The woodblocks in question were also used in this edition of Abū Maʿshar’s Introduction to astronomy. But it is very interesting to note that the woodblock of the sun appears reversed in the book (right) produced by the celebrated Venetian printer Aldo Manuzio in 1499: Ratdolt may have made use of an Italian pattern that was later adopted by Manuzio, or the latter may have copied the pattern from one of Ratdolt’s editions – this would explain the mirror image.

  • Colour

6 – Geoffrey Chaucer ( -1400), Canterbury Tales, printed in Westminster by William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491/1492) in 1483 or 1484. 314 leaves in folio, in English. St. John’s College Library, Safe, f. a8v.


This rare coloured second edition of the Canterbury Tales is one of the highlights of St. John’s collection. Caxton chose Chaucer’s work as the first product of his Westminster press in 1476/7, making it the first book printed in England. This first edition did not contain any woodcut illustrations or initials, only guide letters for initials to be added by hand. His second corrected edition, produced in 1483/4, was enriched with 22 woodcuts depicting the pilgrims. Caxton may not be known for the quantity or the quality of his book illustrations, but from these woodcuts sprang a tradition of illustration that can be tracked to the 18th century in printed editions of Chaucer’s works (Driver 2004, 8). St. John’s copy was  the only one known in 1926 (Leo S. Olschki 1926, XX), and though others have been inventoried since, it remains exceptional through the life given to its characters by its colouring.

II – The people involved

There are three important perspectives to consider when looking at book images. The primary one is that of the reader for whom images are included.

  • The reader

6 – Geoffrey Chaucer ( -1400), Canterbury Tales, printed in Westminster by William Caxton (ca. 1422-1491/1492) in 1483 or 1484. 314 leaves in folio, in English. St. John’s College Library, Safe, f. b1r.


Besides his lack of resources and his interest lying in language over illustration, another reason that could account for Caxton’s tardy introduction of pictures into his books was the taste of his market. Although he made a point of publishing books in the vernacular, working on translations himself, his output was aimed at those who could afford books, usually a literate elite who did seemingly not need images to access text. Caxton might have realised that book production had to make space for images in order to be more successful, or he might have been led to realise it through readers’ feedback. Indeed, in the preface of the second edition of the Canterbury Tales, he explains a dissatisfied purchaser of the first edition brought to him the manuscript ‘by whiche I haue corrected my book’: he says that this manuscript was ‘a book whyche hys fader had and moche louyd / that was very trewe’ without mentioning if it contained any illustration (Driver 2004, 7–8).  Even if it did not, the fact that the corrected edition included woodcuts definitely shows the importance of illustrations in books in vernacular, importance that can only be accounted for by their readership.

  • The artist

7 – Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), Liber chronicarum, printed in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger (ca. 1440-1513) on 12th July 1493. 328 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.c.3.lower shelf.5, f. XLVIIv-XLVIIIr.

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Another highlight of St. John’s incunables, the Nuremberg Chronicle, as this book is most commonly known, was specifically produced for wealthy book buyers, ready to invest in a big, lavishly illustrated book. Nuremberg was, after Cologne, the second largest city of the Holy Roman Empire, and home to many rich merchants. Two of them, Sebald Shreyer and his son-in-law, Sebastian Kammermeister, commissioned the printing of the Latin version of this history of the world and its famous cities, which was written by Hartmann Schedel, a Nuremberg physician and humanist. They also paid for its translation into German. It was intended to be a luxurious one: it included 645 different woodblocks, which, used several times each throughout the book, make up a total of 1,800 separate illustrations in the text. These depict characters, cities and scenes of the narrated episodes, and were innovative in their size and number, as well as in the use of the artistic technique of the ‘white-line’ where contour lines adjoining shadows became white rather than black (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 66).

An expert in luxury publication, Anton Koberger ran a large printing workshop able to cope with the demand of such a project. Yet it took 2 years to produce the 2,500 copies (1,500 in Latin, 1,000 in German), even though most of his presses, around 15, were allocated to the work. On its completion in 1493, Koberger also printed a separate broadsheet advertisement to promote it to the wealthy of Nuremberg:

‘Nothing like this has hitherto appeared to increase and heighten the delight of men of learning and of everyone who has any education at all: the new book of chronicles with its pictures of famous men and cities which has just been printed at the expense of rich citizens of Nuremberg.’

It was not intended for a scholarly audience, but for a wealthy lay readership who had enough money and education to afford and enjoy it. Despite this, it did not sell as well as hoped, partly because it was pirated very early on by an Augsburg printer, Johann Shönsperger, who copied the Nuremberg woodblocks and recut them to produce an edition with 2,165 illustrations – proof that the images were the real asset of such books. Consequently, many books remained unsold and the consortium failed (Pettegree 2011, 42).

The contracts behind the consortium have survived, and give a rare insight into the arrangements between the printer and the artists in charge of the woodcuts. The latter were renowned, and their names are among the earliest that have come down to us for woodcut designers. Michael Wolgemut and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff were painters often employed by Koberger for his publications. For this particular undertaking, the two artists had to provide sketches showing how their designs would fit with the text on the page, and one of them had to be present in the printing workshop throughout the production process. They were to earn 1,000 guilders, plus a share in the profit (Pettegree 2011, 41).

  • The printer

8 – Alexander of Hales (ca. 1145-1245), Expositio super tres libros Aristotelis de anima, printed in Oxford by Theodoric Rood (fl. 1478-1486) on 11th October 1481. 480 pages in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.3.lower shelf.3, f.aiv-aiir.


9 – John Lathbury, Liber moralium super threnis Ieremiae, printed in Oxford by Theodoric Rood (fl. 1478-1486) on 31st July 1482. 580 pages in folio, Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.3.lower shelf.2, f. aiv-aiir.


These two books testify to the printer’s control of the pictorial programmes of his books and to their overall typographical character. They were produced by the first Oxford printer, Theodoric Rood, whose first publication was the Expositio in symbolum apostolorum in 1478. Though their content is different, the opening text is encircled by the same illustrated frame. Rood had probably devised a pictorial programme which he could reuse for different texts. The text determines the organization of the page; the illustrated border adapts itself to the typography.

III – Functions of images

Images performed several functions, including decoration, clarification, promotion, content.

  • Decorating the book

10 – Simplicius of Silicia, Hypomnemata in Aristotelis Categorias, printed in Venice by Zacharias Callierges (fl. 1499-1523) on 26 October 1499. 320 pages in folio, in Ancient Greek. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.1.lower shelf.1(2), f. Aβr, f. Aαv-Aβr.

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This is a very fine example of elaborate decoration that comes close to being an illustration. Upper borders and an initial have been inserted at the top of the page to highlight the beginning of the chapter and its title. The abstract pattern of the interweaving foliage attracts the eye which could be tempted to remain on it if it was not then drawn to the beautifully typeset text in Ancient Greek that fills the page. It is also interesting to note that the decorative elements are printed in a different colour, red or gold, which would probably have required two press runs, and therefore increased the production costs and time.

11 – Breviary (Salisbury), printed in London by Richard Pynson ( – 1530) in 1497. 135 leaves in quarto, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.A.4.11, flyleaf-f.Air.


This little book contains the Sarum rite, the Catholic liturgy as practiced at Salisbury which predominated usage in England prior to the Reformation. It was produced by Richard Pynson, who was the chief rival to Wynkyn de Worde.  De Worde was a Dutchman who accompanied Caxton on his return to England, and took over the Westminster press after Caxton’s death in 1492. Pynson worked in London too, but he was not English either: he was from Normandy, and had probably learnt printing at Rouen. Both experimented with illustration in order to broaden their clientele. Without a wealth of expertise in woodcut production, the influence of such prominent continental printers in England delayed a native tradition of book illustration: most images in books produced in England were imported from the continent or copied from continental examples (Baer 1976, 114). Pynson used woodcuts belonging to Antoine Vérard, a Parisian printer reputed for his lavishly illustrated books, in a later book, the Kalendar of Shepherds, in 1506 (Leo S. Olschki 1926, XXI).

The book opens on an evocative image showing the transmission of knowledge in a classroom, where books are given a central place.

12 – Joannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476), Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemaei, printed in Venice by Johannes Hamman (fl. 1482-1509) on the day before the calends of September 1496. 216 pages in folio, in Latin and Ancient Greek. St. John’s College Library, B-T / F-28 / PTO / REG, f. a3v-a4r.


This astronomical work opens with a full-page illustration incorporating an armillary sphere at its centre. It is set on a table between two scholars, clearly indicating the topic to be discussed in the present volume. The elaborate border adds to the impact of the opening, implying the status of the subject.

Astronomy calls for images that show the shape and movements of constellations; astronomical works were often illustrated.

13 – Pierre Desrey ( -1520), Postillae super Epistolis et Evangeliis Dominicalibus ac festivitatibus de sanctis, printed in Troyes by Guillaume Le Rouge on 31st March 1492. 436 pages in folio, in Latin and French. St. John’s College Library, Cpbd.b.2.upper shelf.7, f. aiv-aiir.

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The importance of this double-page spread of illustration is particularly striking. The Gospel was a good text to illustrate, as the scenes they contain were easy to depict and would definitely appeal to the memory.

14 – Giovanni d’Andrea (ca. 1270-1348), Super arboribus consanguinitatis et affinitatis, printed in Heidelberg by Heinrich Knoblochtzer around 1495. 10 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, HB4/6.d.5.8(3), f. 1v-2r, f. 5v.

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This booklet bound at the back of other works offers a remarkable example of the uses of printed images in clarifying a text. Family history is by nature difficult to put into words, as it very quickly gets confusing. Family trees are a more economical way to show family relationships. Before moving to Heidelberg, Knoblochtzer worked in Strasbourg where he had some new woodcuts made from a master who signed some of his works with the letter ‘b’.

  • Promoting the book

15 – Nicasius de Voerda ( -1492), Lectura libri Institutionuz, printed in Cologne by Johann Koelhoff ( -1493) on 6th April 1493. 266 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, R.scam.2.18, flyleaf-f. air.


This title page would still have been quite unusual at the time as it took a while for an entire page to be dedicated to this purpose. The possibilities of typography began to be explored and used to highlight certain words, making them stand out from the page. Beneath the title is a woodcut bearing a depiction of the Crucifixion imposed on a double-headed eagle crowned in the imperial way. This is the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire which incorporated Cologne as a free city. The book is an analysis of the Institutes, a 6th century codification of Roman law ordered by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, a corpus which would have been important in the Empire.

16 – Bishop Giannantonio Campano (1429-1477), Works, printed in Rome by Eucharius Silber (fl. 1480-1510) on the day before the calends of November 1495. 304 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, HB4/6.d.5.10, flyleaf-f. Ir.


This book opens with a ‘striking’ image showing a gigantic bell almost ringing out the author’s name and works. Shading gives the illustration volume, and the way it cleaves a poem (Carmen) in two makes it leap into the foreground, as if it had just swung forward. The image is a rebus on the name of the author, Bishop Giannantonio Campano, which literally means ‘bell’ (campana in Latin). More word play appears where the word pulsat (‘beat’) in the motto coincides with the bell’s clapper. On the upper part of the bell can be found the printer’s device, a group of letters where it is not easy to identify the printer’s initials. Considering how rarely books showed an image on their front page, this well-designed opening would have been very engaging.

  • Adding to the content

17 – Euclid, Elements, printed in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt (1477?-1527/1528) on 25th May 1482. 276 pages in folio, in Latin, Arabic and Ancient Greek. St. John’s College Library, B-T / F-17 / EUC, f. c1v-c2r.

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This is the first edition of a major work in mathematics. Its publication marked a step forward in the diffusion of Euclid’s principles. The outer margins of every page contained geometrical figures which illustrate the different elements described. These are essential to the comprehension of the work as Euclid’s geometry is very visual. Formerly, students would learn from scientific manuscripts where they had to insert diagrams by hand in the blanks left in the text. The Flemish university town of Louvain pioneered printing schemes and diagrams in scientific texts (Kok 2013, xxv). This represented a significant step forward in scientific publishing. Ratdolt produced several luxury copies of this edition, in two of which he included a dedicatory epistle printed in gold: he experimented with coloured printing and is credited with being the only printer of the period to have mastered the technique of printing in different colours (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 55).

18 – Pietro de Crescenzi, (ca.1233-1320), Ruralia commoda, printed in Speyer by Peter Drach ( -1504) around 1490-1495. 158 leaves in folio, in Latin. St. John’s College Library, R.scam.2.19, f. Giiiiv-Gvr.

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Peter Drach’s customers are well known because his account book survived: we know his books were intended for wealthy buyers, mostly members of the clergy (Pettegree 2011, 38–39). This very successful medieval work about life in the countryside was the first printed text on agriculture when it was published in Augsburg in 1471. Since then, seven editions had been produced in different countries, so it was a safe investment for Peter Drach, who could expect this book to sell well. It also had the advantage of being generously illustrated with woodcuts depicting scenes of rural life. The same woodblock is often used several times, sometimes on the same opening (as shown here), a very common practice in early printed books, and not one that was problematic for contemporary readers, whose mindset was more attuned to repetitions and cycles in life. There were fewer images in the premodern world, and so they tended to be appreciated in a more contemplative way. It was also a way of keeping the production costs down.


The encounter between printed images and printed text is explained by the close connection existing between those two crafts as well as the high demand for both pictures and books towards the middle of the 15th century.

The close connection between the two trades is evident as soon as one begins to have a closer look at 15th century books. Many cannot be classified according to the traditional categories: incunables with blockbook parts, or blockbooks with typographic passages are examples of the hybridization discussed by Paul Needham, for whom a book can be the product of an intersection of several crafts (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 76–77). The demands of the 15th century marketplace drove this experimentation with book illustration.

Single-leaf prints were very common and circulated widely. Their popularity is not reflected by the number that survived: their status as ephemeral objects, used in daily context, worked against their long-term preservation in any quantity. Books were also in high demand, and the invention of printing seems to have been stimulated by this demand rather than vice versa: manuscript book production had been increasing for several centuries reaching a high point between 1451 and 1470 (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 42). It therefore comes as no surprise that illustrated books were very successful in the later part of the 15th century, and it is estimated that one third of incunables contained illustrations (Daniela Laube in De Simone 2004, 49).

Yes, incunables needed pictures. They largely benefited from an already successful parent technique, the woodcut, which widened their market and readership as they were made both more attractive and more accessible.

Interestingly, the relationship between  printed images and printed text evolved in the 16th century, when the book became essentially typographical (Paul Needham in Parshall 2009, 40). The design of the page came to be determined by the layout of the text above all, which led to the development of formal programmes of decoration that could fit in the typographical  plan (Barbara A. Shailor in Needham et al. 1999, 12). Moreover, the move to copper plates, though enabling greater precision in the drawing, also meant an increase in cost, as they were more fragile than woodcuts and more difficult to print alongside text. Therefore, printers would often choose to print images on separate plates, and to reduce their number, sometimes merely to a frontispiece or engraved title page. Many books at the end of the 17th century only show one illustration, the portrait of their author. The role of book images evolved: after the 15th century, they were usually inserted only when they were necessary to convey information, and less so for themselves. This leads some to argue that the illustrated book was actually less important in the 16th century than it was in the 15th (García Vega 1984, 40–41).


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