An Early Modern Educational Poster from the National Library of Medicine

By Jamie Cumby

Although our project name is Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, this week we have a rare broadsheet to share with you.  A broadsheet is a particular format of printed item where a text is laid out on one side of a single sheet of paper.  This particular printed sheet, titled Ordo universi et humanarum scientiarum prima monumenta, was printed in Antwerp in 1596 and intended as a teaching tool (USTC 441272).  Similar to the educational posters you might see in a school classroom today, it condensed information about its subject, natural philosophy, into a single page that could be read efficiently.

The copy under examination (photo above) resides in the United States at The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.  Their copy (2221015R), though free from any marks from previous owners, was closely trimmed along the edges of the plate at some point in its life.  In its trimmed state, it measures 59 cm tall and 43 cm wide.  The full size would not have been much larger, about the size of a standard wall poster today.

The Ordo universi is an impression from a single, large engraving.  Educational engravings like this one became popular from the mid-sixteenth century.  Copperplate engraving first developed in the fifteenth century, with innovations in engravers’ techniques and accessibility of rolling presses to print them continuing into the sixteenth century.  Educators took advantage of the technology, which allowed them to create complicated diagrams with text and images, to expand the range of what they could convey with printed materials.  Printers and booksellers took advantage of a new source of material for their presses and shops.

The printer responsible for this edition was Theodoor Galle, an engraver, printer, and bookseller from Antwerp.  The Ordo universi is one of the first things he ever printed on his own account, though he learned his trade working in the shop run by his father, Philipp Galle.  The elder Galle was also an engraver-publisher who had an ongoing professional relationship with the celebrated Plantin-Moretus publishing house (the Museum Plantin-Moretus is one of our library partners).  Theodoor married Catharina Moretus, Christophe Plantin’s granddaughter and Jan Moretus’ daughter, and went on to have a successful career in Antwerp until his death in 1633.

Though Galle was an engraver, he was not responsible for cutting the plate for this broadsheet.  It matches an earlier Antwerp edition of the same broadsheet, printed by Gerard de Jode in 1585. The imprint information at its base notes that Adriaen Huberti engraved it, a note that is not present on Galle’s edition.  The differences between this edition and Galle’s are consonant with common practices for refreshing plates that passed from one printing house to another.  Most visibly, Galle rubbed out the base of the plate that had Jode’s imprint, and replaced it with his own.  In the design itself, the fine lines of the face at the centre of the plate have faded in some parts of Galle’s edition, and have been reinforced in other key areas to compensate.   This is especially visible on the cheek and the moustache, which are significantly darker in some areas, and lighter in others between the two impressions.   Engraved plates were expensive pieces of equipment, and it was far more expedient to alter a plate than to commission a new one.

USTC 441272 - detail
The National Library of Medicine, 2221015R (detail).


USTC 441272 - colophon
The National Library of Medicine, 2221015R (colophon).

The two Antwerp editions were printed from a very close copy of the first edition, printed in Rome in 1581.  The original plate was the brainchild of its author and designer, Andrea Bacci, a physician and philosopher who served as doctor to Pope Sixtus XVI, and executed by the Roman engraver Natale Bonifacio.  Bacci designed a suite of three such engraved charts, beginning with the Ordo universi in 1581, followed by De theriaca quae ad institute veterum Galeni atque Andromachi cum censuris doctissimorum hac nostra aetate virorum examinanda sunt in 1582 (USTC 811830), and Tabula seu rota proprietatum occultatum et scala ab intimis ad supernas earum causas in 1592 (USTC 811836).  These first three editions were all printed in Rome, where Bacci could supervise production.

The 1596 Antwerp edition tells us some valuable things about Bacci’s work.  First, it shows that this educational poster was popular enough to be copied outside of its original place of production.  It also demonstrates how different craftsmen adapted copperplate engravings as they moved between different print workshops.  Though engraving a plate like this was expensive (we know that Bacci paid Bonifacio 25 scudi for his work), the poor survival of this edition shows that the people who bought it really did use it!


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Jamie Cumby is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.  She is currently a Senior Editor on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, and has been affiliated with the USTC project since beginning her PhD in 2014.  Her ongoing work explores the development of the publishing industry in Lyon before the Wars of Religion, with special attention to the Compagnie des libraires.  She is also St Andrews’ contributor to the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. You can follow her on Twitter at @JECumby.

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