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It’s all Gucci (and Gessner)

By Nora Epstein |

Over the last millennia, Westminster Abbey has been the venue for coronations, royal weddings, and in summer of 2016, its first fashion show. The relatively new director of Gucci, Alessandro Michele, explained how his appreciation of English visual history inspired the collection and his choice of location. Michele’s vivid juxtaposition of posh, psychedelic, pensioner and punk aesthetics was immediately lauded by fashion critics. A six-thousand-word piece in The New Yorker titled the designer a ‘Renaissance Man’ and ascribed his success to Michele’s ‘historical eye’. The piece praised Michele’s collection of walking wunderkammers and quoted the designer’s statement about how his garments are ‘…an assemblage of fragments emerging from a temporal elsewhere: resurfacing epiphanies, entangled and unexpected’. While the fashion world embraced this visual miscellany as novel and revolutionary, those who study the visual culture of the early modern period know that Michele was participating in a centuries-old tradition. Aptly enough, the opening look down the Westminster catwalk featured a feline who was first introduced to England in a 1551 woodcut illustration.

GUCCI resort 2017
Model Sophia Friesen walking Gessner’s cat down the Gucci Resort 2017 runway. Copyright of Yannis Vlamos and Vogue.

Like Dürer’s famous rhinoceros, the cat appliqued onto this Gucci sweater was mined from another source and copied in Conrad Gessner’s volumes of natural history, Historiae Animalium. Also like Dürer’s rhinoceros, this cat was heavily copied in early modern print (and academic conference tote bags). Gessner’s expansive zoological work was printed and reprinted starting in 1551 and included volumes on viviparous animals (USTC 624827), oviparous animals (USTC 624826), birds (USTC 624829) and fish (USTC 624828). After its publication, the woodcut of Gessner’s cat was reused in the numerous editions of his work and, when the block was not at hand, fresh blocks were cut with copies of the image. Today, we can find this cat in contemporary German-born artist Anne Siems’ series of tattooed women and the image is a favourite of #caturday on rare books social media.

However popular Gessner’s cat is today, copying this cat is not an entirely modern preoccupation. While imprisoned, Mary Queen of Scots used her embroidery needle to express her royal personhood and fill her long days under lockdown (an impulse many of us in 2020 understand). Mary wrought Gessner’s woodcut cat in bright colours in one of her surviving tent-stitched panels, now in the Royal Collection Trust. Her choice to depict the cat as ginger and embellish it with a tiny crown and a mouse nearly in its grasp has been read as a depiction of the tenuous, cat and mouse-like relationship with famous fellow redhead, Queen Elizabeth. If this analysis seems like a stretch, it is worth remembering that, even in the early modern period, Mary’s panels were scrutinized for hints of sedition. The piece commonly referred to as the ‘Norfolk Panel’ displays a divine hand pruning a withering branch with the motto virescit vulnere virtus (virtue flourished from its wounds) and was used in the Duke of Norfolk’s treason trial as damning evidence of a conspiracy to cut off the barren stalk of Elizabeth’s reign. Mary’s final subversive act came in 1612, when her son, James VI/I, exhumed her body and had her re-entombed in a Westminster Abbey monument, placing her in equal standing with her cousin and condemner Elizabeth. Over 400 years later, the Swiss woodcut copied by a Scottish queen prowled past her tomb in an Italian designer’s show about English visual culture. By transferring Gessner’s text to textile, centuries apart both Mary Queen of Scots and Gucci’s Michele used print to fashion their identity.

Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 28224.
Mary Queen of Scots’ ‘A Catte’ (29.5 x 29.5 cm, between 1569-1584) Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 28224.

Visualising Image Transmission 

In textual criticism, reader’s quoting of a text creates an intertextual relationship that can be used to construct a reception history of the work. If we similarly view the copying of an image as a way to understand the influence of a woodcut, we see that Gessner’s cat is a visual commonplace that continues to echo today. My doctoral work traces the recycling of English and Scottish religious woodcuts and metalcuts in the early modern period to examine these complex networks of image transmission. While Gessner’s work falls outside the borders of my project, it is a remarkable example of the ways printed images are used by their viewers.

A generation after Mary’s copy, Gessner’s cat was copied and printed in England in Edward Topsell’s 1607 The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (USTC 3002817) then not again until 1658 in an expanded edition of the same work (ESTC R6249). Topsell’s work heavily relies on Gessner’s books, which the author/translator notes when he said:  ‘I would not have the Reader of these Histories to imagine I have inserted or related all that is ever said of these Beasts, but only so much as is said by many…’.[1] A close inspection of the images makes it clear that neither of these English works were printed from the same Swiss block as Gessner’s (although many continental blocks made their way to London printshops), and the 1658 image was also not printed from the same block as the 1607 one. An illustration copied in successive editions and translations of a single work is an incredibly straightforward image transmission for this period. Even so, by so closely copying the woodcut, we see that this was more than an economic practice of recycling what was already at hand in the printshop, rather a conscious choice to present the textual and visual information conveyed in Gessner.

If we try and visualise the transmission of this image in England, it would be a straight line, where one woodcut is copied from the earlier source, however early modern image transmission is rarely this linear. The economic realities of Tudor printing resulted in a book culture that recycled images more frequently than their continental counterparts. In the past, this trend was explained with derisive language about the crudity of English printing, but as book historians trained to analyse networks of exchange and the role of paratext in knowledge production, we should look more closely at illustrations. For example, Kristof Selleslach, of the Plantin Moretus Museum, uses a flow chart to show how a single block (in this case a capital ‘D’) was used by generations of printers in possibly thousands of books. As I am writing up my research, I am confronting the difficulties of tracing a single image that could be reused and freshly copied throughout the early modern period, while not losing sight of the fact that images like Gessner’s cat were presented as part of a suite of hundreds of woodcut beasts printed in a single edition. I have opted to use Venn diagrams to plot these interactions. Below is my diagram of the infamous Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1st: USTC 506152), which visualises the woodcuts that move from one edition to the next, while also depicting those sourced from earlier books or reused in later works. This presentation is also helpful because it shows the influence of the first two editions on establishing Foxe’s canon of images and how even these outrageously polemical woodcuts could be reframed and used in another context.

Foxe Venn

Since Robert Darnton’s landmark article, book historians have been preoccupied with tracing the constellations of stakeholders and influences that shape a book’s history. In his article, Darnton suggests that his communication circuit ‘….should apply to all periods in the history of the printed book (manuscript books and book illustrations will have to be considered elsewhere)…’.[2] (This sentiment strangely parallels the Gucci designer’s statement quoted above about his clothes as ‘fragments emerging from a temporal elsewhere’.) As we start to chart ‘elsewhere’ we can begin to appreciate how images were transmitted in the hand-press period: how they repeat, move, alter, and are understood and used by their viewers. The unique relationships created by image repetition cemented the place of particular images within visual culture, allowing them to reverberate for centuries. In short, this practice has given Gessner’s cat far more than nine lives.

[1] USTC 3002817. sig. A5v.

[2] Robert Darnton, ‘What is the history of books?’, Daedalus, 111: 3 (1982). p.67.


Further reading:

William B. Ashworth, ‘The Persistent Beast: Recurring Images in Early Zoological Illustration’, in Allan Ellenius (ed.) Natural Sciences and the Arts: Aspects of Interaction from the Renaissance to the 20th century (Upsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1985), pp.46-66.

Florike Egmond, ‘A Collection within a Collection: Rediscovered Animal Drawings from the Collections of Conrad Gessner and Felix Platter’ Journal of the History of Collections, Volume 25, Issue 2 (July 2013), pp. 149–170.

Sachiko Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 67-80.

—-, ‘The Sources of Gessner’s Pictures for the Historia Animalium’, Annals of Science, 67:3, 303-328.


Nora Epstein is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews researching the intersections of print history and material culture by tracing image transmission during the English and Scottish Reformations. In particular, she focuses on the impact and popular reception of devotional woodcuts. After receiving her master’s in library and information science (MLIS) at the University of Illinois, she earned a master’s in Book History from the University of St Andrews (M.Litt). You can follow her on Twitter at @NoraEpstein.


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