Arne Flaten – “Reproducible Media(s) in the Early Fifteenth Century, Mostly Italian”

Reproducible Media(s) in the Early Fifteenth Century, Mostly Italian

Arne R. Flaten

[1] Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “L’Oeuvre d’Art à l’Époque de sa Reproductibilité Technique” (1936)[1], focused primarily on the social and political implications of mass produced media such as photography and film.  Benjamin was familiar with earlier traditions:  He mentioned the ancients[2] and paid brief homage to the woodcut, the printing press, engraving, and etching before turning to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The brevity of Benjamin’s historical survey belies the intense outburst of mechanically reproduced objects during the mid fifteenth century in various media that were either completely new or had lain dormant for centuries. Of course, the same might be argued for the reproducible media established much earlier, including the invention of the copper alloy casting process in ancient Mesopotamia, the emergence of struck coinage in Lydia, or the use of molds for glass and terracotta objects throughout the Mediterranean in the ancient world.  But the fifteenth century embraced reproducible multiples with a concentrated zest and variety never before seen.  The following does not intend to contradict Benjamin’s assessment of art and Marxism and Fascism, but rather to shed light on the explosion of new, mechanically reproduced objects some four hundred years earlier.

[2] Mechanically, or technically, reproduced objects are those that avail themselves to the serial or concurrent facture of precise multiples.  Not, it should be emphasized, manual approximations by skilled copyists or apprentices, but exactly similar objects born of processes that facilitated such duplication.

[3] The early Renaissance in Italy was an era defined by rebirth, a return to the grand ideals of classical antiquity while negotiating a syncretic philosophy and the tensions between humanism and the Church.  Marked by political upheavals, shifting alliances, and fluctuating social topographies, the fifteenth century witnessed the naissance or reincarnation of a broad range of mechanically reproduced works of art.  New and repurposed media types in the arts, all of which were founded in multiples, repetition and mass distribution, emerged or were refined in Italy or abroad between roughly 1430 and the early 1470s.

[4] What societal impetus instigated or necessitated the concurrent arrival of new media types in such diverse forms, all of which fundamentally concern mass production and broad dissemination? What does that circumstance reveal about the contemporaneous dynamic between art and the “market” for art, between patron and artist, between the audience and the “aura” of the original?

[5] The abundance of new types similarly concerned with replication, many of which appeared almost simultaneously, is remarkable:  Plaquettes, portrait medals, engravings, printed book and type design, cartapesta and terracotta Madonna and Child sculptures in the manner of Ghiberti and others, the re-emergence of small bronzes, or, slightly later, etchings or the glazed terracottas by the Della Robbias and Buglionis that could be assembled in any number of arrangements.  While not “mechanically” reproduced, mention might also be made of the large number of paintings in the manner of the so-called Lippi-Pesellino workshop at mid-century, where precise templates of various figures were either reused in precisely similar compositions, or were moved, flipped and rotated to alter the arrangement.[3] These latter types of objects are not the concern of the present discussion, but they do share an active workshop solution to efficient production.

[6] It is tempting to assert a causative role to the paradigm-shifting arrival of the moveable type printing press, but many of the new reproducible media types above had proliferated for a decade or more before Gutenberg’s successful machine was introduced around 1450. It would seem that some of those media, or more precisely the multiples milieu in which they emerged and thrived, may have facilitated the printing press’s ultimate success.

[7] Even if we are ill prepared to accept some of Jacob Burckhart’s sweeping assertions about the era, Quattrocento Italy was a time of extraordinary economic, political, educational, philosophical, and social change.[4] The changes ran parallel to, supported, and were the results of a rising percentage of the urban population that might be called a middle class.  More people with disposable incomes could purchase nonessentials, and the demand they created largely determined what kinds of objects were available. Even when entrepreneurial workshops produced objects on speculation, the popularity (measured in sales) would determine their success, influence, and longevity.  Buyers were not necessarily wealthy, but were sufficiently comfortable to obtain a personalized (or generic) cartapesta Madonna, a portrait medal, or books or prints.[5]

[8] The emergent middle class and the implications of its rise coincide with revisions in the organization of the artist’s workshop and savvier production methods.[6] Some of the methods of streamlining workshop production-basic divisions of labor-were already standard master/apprentice training procedures: masters designed, apprentices blocked things out or prepared materials, masters supplied finishing details. Other workshops might then, at various states of the production, build frames or pedestals, bind, gild, or supply decorative punchwork. That scenario is borne out by any number of documents from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and certainly the Lippi-Pesellino objects mentioned above derive from those impulses.[7]  But efficient assembly of similar objects is not the same as the mechanical production of exact multiples simultaneously.[8]  The latter circumstance is our focus: Engravings, terracotta sculptures, small bronzes, plaquettes, portrait medals, and type face production for printed books encouraged precise replication or, more accurately, concurrent facture of indistinguishable objects with varied intentions.

[9] Absent among the object types listed above are coins and woodblock prints on paper.  Both concern mechanical reproduction, and both were prevalent in fifteenth century Italy, but coins and woodcuts represent the unbroken continuation of earlier innovations.[9]  Even if we do not confront them directly, it is important to note that the processes involved in coin production share important parallels with portrait medals and type design for printed books, to be discussed shortly, and when the moveable type printing press was introduced woodcuts were integrated almost instantly into the new medium, thereby protecting the art form from imminent eclipse by prints made from engraved copper plates.

[10] Engraved printing on paper (as opposed to the age-old process of engraving on armor and other metal surfaces without the intent of printing) began in Germany in the 1430s, perhaps as a means of recording artists’ armor designs.[10]  Engraved (intaglio) prints differ significantly from woodblock prints in process.  Both transfer an image in reverse, but whereas woodblock print cutters remove wood to produce an inkable relief surface, engravers, instead, use burins of various shapes to cut relatively shallow troughs and valleys into a copper plate. Those cuts in the metal’s surface hold ink and, with sufficient pressure, the image transfers to paper.

[11] Like woodcuts, early engraved prints were primarily religious in nature and were frequently derivative iterations of paintings or other sources.  By the 1470s engravings were collected widely north and south of the alps as the subtlety of lines and hatches expanded the three dimensional illusion of the image, and as masters took fuller advantage of the medium by utilizing new tools and designing explicitly for the print.[11]  Andrea Mantegna would emerge among the important early engravers to infuse classically inspired subject matter and form to the medium.  Beyond their collectible nature for any number of reasons, engraved prints, such as Pollaiuolo’s Battle of the Nude Men (ca. 1460), were circulated as models for other artists.  The importance and efficacy of engraved prints as transmitters of visual information and style was unparalleled. Their popularity quickly replaced woodblock prints as stand alone objects, and they remained the dominant means of transmitting imagery on paper, challenged only sporadically by etching, until the arrival of lithography and photography in the nineteenth century.[12]

[12] The principles of mechanical reproduction worked equally well for three dimensions.  Decorative objects in glass, cartapesta, terracotta, lead, and copper alloys had been made from molds for millennia, and their processes are similar: build a positive model, take a negative impression (mold) of the model, and press or pour material into the mold.[13]  But the mass produced, polychromed, half-length Madonna and Child sculptures that emerged in Florence in the 1430s were a new commodity.[14]  Tied formally to similar sculptural types in marble, Marian terracotta and cartapesta busts offered attractive objects at a broader range of prices.  For the artist, reproducible terracottas generated income that required little overhead.  Largely made without a specific purchaser in mind, they were easily personalized with a family crest or impresa in the predella or frame, thus accommodating consumer interests and resources. Several different types were produced, some of which derive stylistically from the workshops of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello.  That they should originate from the workshops of well-established bronze casters is not surprising when considering the similarities inherent to the respective crafts. The number of Madonna and Child terracottas that survive in public and private collections throughout Europe attests to their contemporaneous popularity.[15] Later in the century, Andrea della Robbia, Giovanni della Robbia, and their main competitors, the Buglioni family, capitalized on the mechanical nature of the medium (and the earlier introduction of lead-tin glazes by Luca Della Robbia) by introducing reproducible relief altarpieces, devotional objects, and decorative items with a wide variety of options.[16] Frames, decorative features, and figures could be replicated and rearranged to accommodate a number of sizes, spaces, compositions, and economic circumstances.

[13] Smaller but more precious were items cast in bronze, including bells, mortars, inkstands, decorative plaques, and small bronze statuettes.[17]  Diminutive figural bronzes of various quality had been cast since antiquity, depicting household gods, mythological themes and figures, and animal forms, culminating perhaps in the Hellenistic period when exquisite studies of movement were captured, such as the veiled dancer at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  The Renaissance revitalization of small bronzes, including zoomorphic inkstands and especially free standing studies of classical subjects, seems to have emerged in Florence in the middle of the fifteenth century,[18] though Padua and Venice later emerged as dominant production centers.  By the end of the century and the early years of the sixteenth century, the form reached a level of independent maturity as seen in the works of Bellano, Antico, Adriano Fiorentino, and Riccio.  In spite of their inherently reproducible nature, bronzetti were luxury items even if they were at times produced independent of a commission or contract.  Unlike the other media discussed here, small bronzes were expensive and were cast in relatively small numbers—generally ten or fewer—for limited clientele.  Small statuettes in terracotta, however, would have been quite affordable.  Mimicking the larger, public sculptures on the themes of David or Judith, diminutive objects (generally between twelve and twenty four inches tall) in terracotta or glazed terracotta brought both civic pride and moral exemplars for male and female children and adolescents into the domestic setting.[19]

[14] The decoration of non-figural small bronze objects-bells, mortars, inkstands, sword pommels, etc.-was a major reason for the success of yet another new form: plaquettes. Beginning in the 1420s, a number of small cast bronze reliefs depicting the Virgin and Child were made in the circle of Donatello that may well constitute the earliest religious plaquettes.  After some isolated experiments in Florence and Rome, the extensive production of plaquettes emerged, with no direct precedent, in Rome in the 1440s and 1450s, as multiple bronze castings of impressions from antique gems. The classical intaglios and cameos in the collection of the wealthy Venetian Cardinal Pietro Barbo (later Pope Paul II) were the subjects of this first phase of the art form. It was through these small reliefs that the glyptic glory of Greco-Roman art was disseminated to artists and patrons: the compositions of gems, such as Apollo and Marsyas or Diomedes and the Palladium, had profound influences on artists such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael.[20]  Despite their initial importance, the plaquettes based on gems are of little interest here, for although technically reproduced they are at root faithful iterations of early compositions and were soon surpassed by original compositions.  Filarete, the architect and sculptor who cast a pair of monumental bronze doors for Old St. Peter’s, was among the earliest to produce original designs for plaquettes based on classically inspired imagery; classical subjects, especially as parts of series or groups, became the dominant trend in the last third of the century.[21]  Marvels of intricate low relief, plaquettes came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from circular and oval to square, rectangular, and shield-shaped.  They were collected as stand alone objects, but they were more commonly affixed to inkstands, boxes, pommels of swords or daggers, and devotional items such as reliquaries, paxes, and small tabernacles. They were also fashionably impressed into book covers and sewn onto clothing and hats.[22]  Rome and, slightly later, Mantua became the centers of plaquette manufacture after the middle of the Quattrocento, and the medium reached its zenith in the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century with artists such as Moderno and Riccio.  By the end of the Cinquecento the medium had all but vanished, only flickering to life briefly in the late nineteenth century before disappearing completely.

[15] The glaring omissions in the present overview are portrait medals and type design for printed books.  Their discussion has been relegated to the end to allow a fuller discussion of their histories, forms, and implications.  Among the mass-produced media in mid fifteenth-century Italy, portrait medals and book type designs share several key conceptual and technical elements. In spite of their reliance on traditional bronze casting and punching (striking) methods, both media were truly new. The former preceded the printed book, the latter’s introduction was necessitated by and critical to mechanized book printing. The practitioners of both media were almost always trained as goldsmiths, and the skill set associated with type design and production was directly dependent on medalists and coin engravers.

[16] Medals allowed impermeable, co-mingled visual and textual communication to a practically limitless audience, and they were concurrently items for intense scrutiny. They served myriad functions, and the form, size, and spacing of lettering and text (and image) were vital to the medal’s message, function, and aesthetic.  The cast portrait medal emerged in Italy in 1438, although the impetus for that innovation was evident decades earlier.[23]  Pisanello’s large cast medal of the John VIII Paleologus, the penultimate Byzantine Emperor, is generally regarded as the first medal.  In that singular object, celebrating the emperor and his massive retinue’s arrival in Ferrara to attend the ecumenical council that year, the portrait medal’s essential form was established:  a circular double-sided disc of cast metal with a portrait on one side, an allegorical subject or impresa on the other, and explanatory inscriptions (usually in Latin) surrounding the respective compositions.[24]  The vogue for portrait medals spread quickly in Italy.  By the end of the fifteenth century medals were produced in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Ferrara, Naples, Rimini, Mantua, the Veneto and elsewhere.

[17] The portrait medal was a new medium, a new art form, born in durable reproducible materials with broad creative possibilities in form and function. The medal’s method of facture encouraged multiples just as the resulting object served disparate purposes and audiences. Medals facilitated dualities of meaning between text and image, and presented the tantalizing potential for obverse and reverse contextual and interdependent interplay.

[18] Portrait medals derive in part from the Roman coins that were unearthed in fields in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, brought to markets, and sought by collectors. Conceptually, a more immediate source was the Imperial medallion, discovered alongside coins but in smaller numbers.  Roman medallions were larger than their numismatic counterparts and, unlike coins-which could only be issued by the Senate-medallions were commissioned exclusively by the Emperor and held no value as currency.  The Renaissance medal transcended social and economic lines.  Anyone with sufficient funds might annex the exclusive privilege of the glorious Roman emperors.

[19] Medals served a variety of functions.  They were buried in foundations, worn in death, exchanged as gifts, given as rewards (in gold or silver, and commonly with similar chains), collected, and displayed.[25]  They commemorated births, deaths, marriages, families, men, women, children, and myriad personal, civic, ecclesiastic, medical, and historically significant events.  The portrait medal’s introduction coincided with the emergence of portraiture in other media, and because of the serial nature of their facture, medals could be sent to friends and family, or potential spouses, much like snapshots are exchanged today.[26]  In such cases the number of casts might be relatively small, anywhere from a few to ten or so.  On the other hand, medals commissioned by popes, kings, princes and despots were potent vehicles of familial and political propaganda and might be cast or struck in large numbers. If one placed them in the foundations of a new building (a prescient means to ensure immortality, to be sure), the run might be quite high, potentially in the hundreds.

[20] In contrast to its potential for broad propagation of a pointed message or immortality through interment, the portrait medal also promoted intimate interaction. With perhaps the exception of medieval pilgrimage badges (which served an entirely different function) or jewelry, no other objects of the time encouraged such intimate scrutiny and physical interaction without serving a utilitarian purpose.  The museum or gallery experience deprives the modern viewer of the physicality of the medal. A vitrine denies the tactile interaction, the smooth, polished surface, the play of light as the object is turned, the sense of mass, the pleasing way in which the object fits in the palm, the process of turning the object over, the subtle casting details evident only under close observation, the puzzling over its two-sided message.  One might compare the limited tactile experience a modern audience receives from a medal in a glass case to the contemporary chilliness, or perhaps sterility, of reading books on a Kindle.

[21] The myriad ways in which the moveable type printing press profoundly and permanently affected society are familiar.  Less familiar are the new media forms that were created at the outset of or in the wake of the printing press’s introduction.  The sizes, shapes, and bindings of those books are beyond the scope of the present inquiry, as are the necessary and profound innovations in page layout, but other aspects of book design are of immediate relevance. At precisely the same time that medalists were designing fonts that complemented the patron and the circular composition, type designers for printed books were establishing forms that would suitably reflect the volume’s subject matter with the potential to reach many thousands. The demand in this latter regard was unique in history. Type designers were giving form to mass information on a scale never before imaginable.  They were shaping the visual expectations for the printed word, and they established the face of what may well be regarded as the most important innovation in the western world.  No rules governed their designs beyond the limitations of the presses themselves.  The design of the cast letters for early printed books in the fifteenth century (incunabula) first paralleled a handwritten style to emulate existing luxury book manuscripts, then quickly developed new forms, sizes and spacing to complement a book’s content. Those decisions and their revisions defined the book’s appearance in the epochal transition from unique original volumes to (relatively) inexpensive, mass-produced tomes.  And, with some variation, the results of those early aesthetic experiments and solutions remain dominant today.  The following will focus specifically on the design and use of roman type because of its lasting influence.  If you are reading the present volume in hardcopy, the font is almost certainly a derivation of those early roman designs (the web version of this article is probably in a sans-serif font to facilitate electronic reading).[27]

[22] Moveable type printing emerged in Germany around 1450 and, although the specifics of that event remain somewhat murky, it is reasonably certain that Johann Gutenberg was among the earliest to produce an effective and efficient press. In spite of its transalpine origins, Italy quickly became the most important printed book producer both in volume and per capita.[28]  By the end of the 1460s printing presses existed in Venice and Rome (though it was not until 1471 that printing was carried out by an Italian). The earliest press in Italy was set up by two Germans, Conrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, in the Benedictine monastery of St. Scholastica at Subiaco, near Rome. They made the first important steps toward a roman typeface in the mid 1460s. The first book printed in Venice was Cicero’s Epistolae ad Familiares in 1469 by Johannes de Spira; the following year he and his brother Wendelin issued St. Augustine’s De Civitas Dei (the first book to include page numbers).  The roman type the De Spira brothers used for their books was, they claimed, an invention and they were able to secure copyright protection for five years.[29] Indeed, those letters, especially the capitals, are immediately recognizable as both emulating ancient epigraphic sources and anticipating modern derivatives.  Among the most talented and influential early type designers was Nicolas Jenson, a French die cutter of coins and former mintmaster of the Tours mint.  Jenson established the second press in Venice (after Da Spira), and his fame rests primarily on the roman type he established in printing Eusebius’s De Praeparatione Evangelica in 1470, renowned for its legibility and more generally for the balanced spacing between letters within words (kerning). Jenson was aware of his creation: A 1482 advertisement for his type advised, “Do not hinder one’s eyes, but rather help them and do them good. Moreover, the characters are so intelligently and carefully elaborated that the letters are neither smaller, larger nor thicker than reason or pleasure demand.”[30]  Although Roman epigraphic capitals did not emerge on medals with any consistency until the late 1470s or early 1480s, Jenson’s experience with cutting dies for coins, similar in most respects to designing struck medals, offers some intriguing antecedents to the letter forms that appeared on medals.

[23] Most printers were trained as goldsmiths, as mentioned earlier, but with printed books, “an industry created out of nothing,” came workshop needs that had never previously existed.[31] The sheer number of small letters that had to be designed, cut, punched, cast, and filed is numbing.  A printer’s collection of letter sorts, ligatures and diacriticals might number in the tens of thousands for a given font.  Though later than the period under scrutiny here, it is revealing that in 1543 when Jacques Regnault sold his collection of semi-roman fonts to Peirre Gromors the collection numbered over 60,000 letter sorts; an earlier transaction between Nicolas Le Rouge and Symphorien Barbier in 1515 numbered 80,000 sorts.[32]

[24] In spite of the fact that descriptions related to the processes of casting, striking (pressing), woodblock printing, and engraving are relegated to footnotes in the present discussion, it is probably useful here to describe in brief the circuitous process involved in designing and executing a typefont.  After designs were worked out on paper for the entire alphabet, including ligatures and diacriticals (no mean job itself), the letters were reduced to actual size based on the folio.  Each letterform was worked up in wax, a mold was made, and a metal positive cast.  After filing down any unwanted debris, the positive was attached to a punch and it was hammered (or pressed) into a softer metal blank.  The negative, or matrix, was used for casting an almost unlimited number of positives in a suitable alloy.  Each of the resulting casts for each letter was then inspected and, if necessary, filed to ensure clarity and consistency.  A typical workshop would own tens of thousands of letter sorts.  Inevitably, some casts were marred by flaws and were sufficiently imperfect to render them useless.  Even if ninety-nine percent of the casts were serviceable, those that needed to be recast would number in the hundreds.

[25] All the earliest printers had to cut their own punches, make their own matrices, and cast their own type, including ligatures (which, in contrast to their  prevalence in handwritten manuscripts, gradually were eliminated in printed texts to reduce the number of sorts necessary to complete a full alphabetical font).  The types had to be made of an alloy that would accept ink evenly and consistently, and that could withstand heavy repetition.  To insure uniformity and aesthetic balance on the printed page all of the letters sorts, thousands of them, had to be precisely the same.  Moreover, the alloy used and the thickness of individual components of the type (ascenders, descenders, serifs, etc.), extrapolated over thousands and thousands of uses, would affect the amount of ink necessary, and hence the bottom line of a workshop or publisher.

[26] Building a collection of fonts required a small fortune. Not surprisingly, letters frequently wore out and had to be replaced.  Replacements could not be purchased from another workshop.  Each shop had its own convention; in the same way that Microsoft or Apple create software programs that work exclusively on their proprietary platforms and operating systems, early printing shops designed types sorts that were available only from their shop, thereby creating demand for their services or style.[33]  Specialists soon emerged to support the printing industry; their types, punches, and matrices might be similar in many respects, but they were sufficiently different is size or letterform that they could only be reused with significant alteration. There were regional tendencies, but no standardization of type style or measurement existed. Not surprisingly, type designs of various shapes and sizes proliferated.  The earliest type styles attempted to copy handwritten manuscripts as closely as possible, but that changed quickly.  The new fonts emerging in Italy were largely transitional types—part gothic, part roman, sometimes sans-serif.   Standardized roman letters with assertive serifs and sensitive variations in line thickness, such as the influential designs of Aldus and Garamond, would not fully appear until the sixteenth century.[34]  Italian type designers were challenged to design appropriate letters for books in the lingua vulgare and Latin, as well as Greek.

[27] The design of type is a subtly nuanced matter.  Success was (and is) based on understanding both the positive space and negative space of the letterform, and the implications of those shapes.  The spacing of the letters within words, the spaces between words, and spacing between lines also were crucial to the overall appeal and success of the type.  Designing the negative space between letters meant calculating how the positive serifs, ascenders, and descenders would fill and vacate the voids between any potential combination of letters within a word, and they had to gracefully complement or accentuate the space between words on a line and between lines on a page.  Publishers and designers were well aware that an unattractive or uneven font could have disastrous consequences for the commercial appeal of a publication, especially if competitors were offering a similar text in a more attractive type.  And there were many other factors involved.

[28] Beyond the many technical difficulties in acquiring or making an attractive type, and preparing a fully operational and financially solvent printing press (including securing reliable sources for good quality paper, ink, owning or renting presses, maintaining the presses, and training and keeping skilled workers), the demands of book design were legion.  Mass produced books could take a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the material, the market, and the designers.  Would the text be arranged in columns or across the page from left to right?  A large number of printed books included illustrations, and the dimensions of those images were vital to page design.  Each volume’s size or format necessitated new formulae concerning type styles and sizes, margin measurements, the placement of illustrations and decorative capitals (usually woodblock prints, and sometimes in more than one color), paragraph indentations, chapter divisions, frontispieces, and the overall arrangement of the book and its binding.[35]  Even if one neglects the inclusion of illustrations or historiated capitals, the text itself had to be pleasing and legible on the page, and comfortable margins had to buffer the text sufficiently from the page edge’s oblivion.

[29] Some were initially loath to embrace printed books—Federico of Urbino is credited with exclaiming he would “be ashamed to own a printed book.”[36]   Even if those words are more apocryphal than historically accurate, the sentiment is instrumental in assessing part of the climate in which the early book appeared in Italy.  Texts on anything other than vellum were certainly less attractive to those who embraced meticulous craftsmanship and who appreciated the preciousness of the original.  The printers and publishers of early incunabula took great pains to produce objects that precisely replicated their handwritten counterparts, as the earliest typesets show.  For patrons and collectors accustomed to unique objects, handwritten manuscript books continued to be available well into the sixteenth century. The market was not mutually exclusive; in some instances both types of objects were sold in the same shops.  Nevertheless, the practicality, availability, price and consistency of printed volumes soon overpowered reservations about mass production and plurality.[37]  It is quite possible that innovations in type design played an important role in attracting reluctant or ambivalent purchasers and collectors of printed books.  Interestingly, Florence, the city often considered the cradle of the Renaissance in Italy, was late in embracing printed books, as well as portrait medals.  There were no Florentine printers of note in the fifteenth century, and medals did not find a sustained audience or exponent in Florence until the middle of the 1480s—decades after their proliferation elsewhere.


[30] New types of media in art are catalysts, results, reflections and conspirators. They emerge as necessary solutions to persistent problems and as reactions to economic exigencies; they respond to scientific developments or discoveries, and reflect social shifts; they appropriate new technologies from disparate disciplines, and repurpose modes of creative expression. The emergence of original forms made of various materials relies on past traditions and innovations while reinterpreting and disseminating the stylistic solutions of earlier artists and cultures.  When new art types are mechanically produced, their influence can be enormous.  As mediators of mass communication they become agents of ideas to large audiences and concurrently multivalent vehicles of intimate interaction and contemplation.

[31] While mechanically reproduced objects represent an innovative solution to Quattrocento workshop budgetary concerns, their implications are much broader. The conditions that permitted or encouraged the proliferation of exact multiples in various materials in the middle of the fifteenth century are diverse.  Some of those conditions are specific to certain types of objects, as might be expected, but collectively they present a compelling picture of a society ready to embrace reproducible media in myriad forms.

[32] Other than a few oft-quoted sentences by Fra Giovanni Dominici,[38] there is scant textual evidence to suggest that the Church actively promoted the purchase of religious objects for the home, though it would hardly be surprising. More compelling is the fact that religious objects of all sorts, including those in reproducible materials, show up in countless fifteenth-century domestic inventories.[39]

[33] The early Renaissance coincided with a passion for collecting objects tied to the ancient world, particularly Rome, from coins and manuscripts to gems, ceramics, and sculpture.  Such interests can be traced to the time of Petrarch in the preceding century and remain to this day.[40]  Collectors knew, of course, that the Roman coins they so ardently sought had originally been struck in the tens of thousands.  Whatever ruler’s denomination they purchased would almost certainly exist in other collections, and this does not seem to have been a concern.   The desire to rescue, protect, study, and display ancient objects presumably fueled the passion for collecting other types of objects, particularly if those objects were not prohibitively expensive.

[34] Literacy and changes in the educational system may also have played a significant role.[41]  As the population became increasingly literate, the printing press was immediately employed to fill that demand as personal and university libraries expanded.  Many, benefitting from a revised liberal arts curriculum begun in the Trecento, were encouraged to study the Classics.  The exodus of scholars from Constantinople to Italy following the city’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453 resulted in increased courses in Classics (including language, rhetoric, logic and philosophy in Latin and Greek) at universities throughout the peninsula.  New and larger quantities of books were necessary for the teaching of those subjects, whether sacred or profane.  Those educated in that milieu would have sought objects or books that reflected their interests.  Moreover, exposure to the imagery described in ancient texts may also have encouraged a buyer’s market for objects reflecting those themes.

[35] Mechanically reproduced objects reflect significant changes in attitudes toward patronage, collector tastes and preferences, and the shifting relationship between the artist or publisher and his clientele. They also parallel the artist’s awareness of changes in his audiences, and reveal the entrepreneurial spirit of their creators.  Mechanically reproduced objects would not have thrived without demand.  Demand was born of a growing stratum of society with money, a residual or perhaps symptomatic growth in the collectors market for a wider range of objects at various prices, and buyers’ awareness that the objects they were purchasing were not unique items.  Many of those objects were not, generally speaking, reproductions or reductions of other works of art—at least not after their earliest phases—but were instead new forms, new designs, new media that assumed mechanical reproduction from the outset.  Without necessarily undercutting the market for luxury (unique) items, multiples underlie a shift away from making or owning a singular original object to an acceptance, even an embracement, of multiple “originals,” not as substitutes for an unique item, but as new types of desirable objects.

[36] Benjamin was concerned with the impact of photography and film on the concept of the art object, the destruction of the aura of the original, one-of-a-kind creation.  He describes the two social circumstances behind the decay of the aura:  “…the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.”[42]  In discussing photography, Benjamin correctly points out that asking for the “authentic” [original] makes no sense.  It would seem that Benjamin was perceptively summarizing the circumstances that permeated fifteenth-century Italy’s preoccupation with mass production.  Yet, where Benjamin finds the aura’s demise in mechanically reproduced objects, that position is not upheld by contemporaneous reaction in the fifteenth century.  Technically reproduced objects in the fifteenth century were collected, displayed, intimately appreciated without, as far as we know, a lament of the object’s lost “authenticity.”[43] Benjamin continued that “the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.  Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice-politics.”[44] Whereas Benjamin’s conclusion is also largely accurate for the period presently under consideration–mass produced items, including printed books, portrait medals, and engravings were exploited for political purposes–not all of those types of objects (and perhaps not even most of them), nor others, such as plaquettes, small bronzes, or terracotta busts and reliefs, were created, displayed or purchased for political reasons.  The profusion of technically reproducible artworks available in Quattrocento Italy may ultimately have aided public appreciation of artists and art in much the same way photography did.  It was only a few short years after the explosion of mechanically reproduced objects in the fifteenth century that the social status of the artist was raised considerably, from artisan to artist, from practitioner of a manual craft to genius, from workshop supervisor and guild member to ambassador.[45] Simultaneously, and perhaps ironically, the proliferation of mechanically reproduced images (particularly engravings) based on an artist’s painting or sculpture increased the artist’s stature and reputation immeasurably, both locally and beyond, and inevitably enhanced the aura of the single original upon which that print was based.

[1] The English translation: Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (London, 1973), pp. 217-251.

[2] “The Greeks knew only two procedures of technically reproducing works of art: founding and stamping.  Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were the only art works which they could produce in quantity.  All others were unique and could not be mechanically reproduced.” Benjamin, p. 218.

[3] See Megan Holmes, “Copying Practices and Marketing Strategies in a Fifteenth-Century Florentine Painter’s Workshop,” in Italian Renaissance Cities: Artistic Exchange and Cultural Translation, eds. S. Campbell and S. Milner (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 38-74.

[4] Jacob Burckhardt. Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860), transl. S. G. C. Middlemore (London, 1878).

[5] Among other studies, see David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and their Families (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985); Richard Goldthwaite, The Building of Renaissance Florence (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1982); and especially Richard Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600 (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993); and Kent Lydecker, “The Domestic Setting of Art in Renaissance Florence.”  Doctoral Dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1987.

[6] See Bruce Cole, The Renaissance Artist at Work (New York: Harper & Row, 1983); Martin Wackernagel, The World of the Florentine Renaissance Artist, transl. Alison Luchs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981).

[7] Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Anabel Thomas, The Painter’s Practice in Renaissance Tuscany (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[8] See Rita Comanducci, “Produzione seriale e mercato dell’arte a Firenze fra Quattro e Cinquecento,” in The Art Market in Italy 15th – 17th Centuries (Modena: Franco Cosimo Panini, 2001), pp. 105-114.

[9] Coins had been in continual use in various shapes, sizes, designs, and denominations since their earliest use.  Striking coins followed the same basic principles that had been in use since the introduction of struck coinage in Lydia some two thousand years earlier. Upper and lower dies are cut in intaglio in hardened steel. The upper die (trussel) descends—either by hammering or by means of a press—upon the fixed lower die (pile), which holds a softer metal blank (planchet or flan), which is frequently heated, and impresses both obverse and reverse simultaneously. Other than some innovations, such the return of portraiture on coinage or the standardized value of the gold florin, coins do not represent a new media type or a new technology.

Woodblock prints also were not born of the fifteenth century, but became relatively common and inexpensive by that time throughout Europe. Especially popular in the North, the subjects of woodblock prints were frequently religious and sometimes they were produced and sold by monasteries.  Playing cards were also stamped using woodblocks, and card sets were exported throughout the continent and England.  Because the process of woodblock printing necessitated light pressure, the block could withstand thousands of paper impressions.

[10] Engravings offered infinitely more subtlety in line variation and a freer translation from drawing to engraved image. The plates were also far more durable than their wooden counterparts allowing larger runs. One of the immediate forerunners of moveable type printed books were block-books, which set an entire page with text and image (since they were printed in reverse, designers had to be especially careful with text).

[11] Adam Bartsch. Le Peintre graveur. 21 vols. 1803-1821. Rpt., Leipzig: Barth, 1854-1876. Supplemental and of enormous import is, The Illustrated Bartsch. 175 volumes planned. New York: Abaris, 1978-.  An excellent overview, see David Landau, and Peter Parshall. The Renaissance Print (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994).

[12] Nielli (or prints from niello plaques), a subclass of engravings, effectively combined plaquettes and engraved prints.  The palm-sized engraved plates (often in silver) could be printed on paper any number of times, and the plates themselves, what we might call “originals” in this case, also were collected.  When a niello plaque was not expected to be printed any further, its incised lines were filled with a silicate which was heated and thus permanently sealed.  See Arthur Mayger Hind.  Nielli, Chiefly Italian of the XV century. (London: British Museum, 1936); Andre Blum. Les Nielles du Quattrocento (Paris, Compagnie des Arts Photomecaniques, 1950).

[13] Variations on the basic casting process have been in use for millennia: the lost-wax process is still the method of choice for bronze casters worldwide. The process starts with a core of clay. A wax model of the desired object is built on top of it. Risers and runners, also in wax, are added to provide channels for even pouring and for gasses and impurities to escape. A layer of extremely fine sand (or a mixture of pulverized tufa, ash, and a bonding agent) is added, then further layers of increasingly coarse sand.  Eventually it is encased in plaster. The mold is heated in a kiln and the wax drains out, hence the term “lost wax.”  A molten copper alloy (usually bronze or brass) is carefully poured into the mold.  The mold cools then is broken open.  Risers and runners are cut off and filed down. The final object is finished to some degree: filed, sharpened with a cold chisel, painted or lacquered, and polished.  Fine sand molds, perhaps derived from the casting of pig iron, allowed for multiple casts without destroying the molds or models. For large production runs, multiple molds from a corrected original wax model could be set up to either side of a central pouring channel. The Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio (1540) and De Secreti del reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese (1555) provide careful instructions for simultaneous and consecutive castings.  See Cennino Cennini, Il libro dell’Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook).  Transl. by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr.  (New York: Dover, 1954), p. 130; Benvenuto Cellini, The Treatises on Goldsmithing and Sculpture.  Transl. by C. R. Ashbee (New York: Dover, 1967), pp. 72-74. Vannoccio Biringuccio, Pirotechnia. Transl. by Cyril Stanley Smith and Martha Teach Gnudi (New York: Basic Books, 1959), pp. 324-327; Alessio Piemontese, De Secreti del reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese (Venice, 1555), pp. 206-217.

[14] Ronald G. Kecks, Madonna und Kind (Berlin: Mann, 1988); Anna Jolly, Madonnas by Donatello and his Circle (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1998). Also see John Paoletti, “Familiar Objects: Sculptural Types in the Collections of the Early Medici,” Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture, ed. Sarah Blake McHam (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 79-110; and Lydecker.

[15] Part of that market was encouraged by the church and by civic authorities, as suggested by Fra Giovanni Dominici, Regola del governo di cura familiare, parte quarta: On the education of children, transl. Arthur Basil Coté (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1927). On the comparative prices of some of those religious objects, see Susanna Kubersky-Piredda, “Immagini devozionali nel Rinascimento fiorentino: produzione, commercio, prezzi” in The Art Market in Italy 15th – 17th Centuries (Modena: Franco Cosimo Panini, 2003), pp. 115-126.

[16] Among others, see several volumes on the Della Robbia family by Allan Marquand; and Giancarlo Gentili, I Della Robbia e l’arte nuova della scultura invetriata (Florence: Giunti, 1998).

[17] Jeremy Warren, Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1999); Debra Pincus, ed. Small Bronzes in the Renaissance. Studies in the History of Art, 62 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2001); Manfred Leithe-Jasper, Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna: Scala, 1986); John Pope-Hennessy, Renaissance Bronzes from the Samuel H. Kress Collection (London: Phaidon, 1965); Wilhelm von Bode, Die italienischen Bronze-statuetten der Renaissance. 3 vols. (Berlin, 1907-1912).

[18] The artists of these early objects are unknown, and their attributions to specific artists, from Donatello to Sienese masters, continues to encourage debate and speculation. See Pincus; Pope-Hennessy (1965); Bode. Also relevant are the small bronzes by Ghiberti’s workshop affixed to the artist’s second set of bronze doors in Florence.

[19] Adrian W. B. Randolph, “Renaissance Household Goddesses: Fertility, Politics, and the Gendering of the Spectatorship,” The Material Culture of Sex, Procreation, and Marriage in Pre-Modern Europe, eds. Anne McClanan and Karen Rosoff Encarnacion (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 163-189.  I am grateful to Stephanie Miller for this citation.

[20] See Francesco Rossi, “Le Gemme Antiche e le Origini della Placchetta.”  Studies in the History of Art, vol. 22: Italian Plaquettes (Washington, D. C.: The National Gallery of Art, 1989), pp. 55-68; Nichole Dacos, “Le rôle des plaquettes dans la diffusion des gemmes antiques:  le cas de la collection Médicis,” Ibid., pp. 71-89.

[21] Pietro Cannata, “Le Placchette del Filarete.”  In Studies in the History of Art, vol. 22: Italian Plaquettes. (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, 1989), pp. 35-54.

[22] On plaquettes used on bookbindings, see Anthony Hobson,  “Plaquettes on Bookbindings.”  In Studies in the History of Art, vol. 22: Italian Plaquettes. (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, 1989), pp. 165-174.

[23] The standard resource on fifteenth century medals is George F. Hill, A Corpus of Italian Medals of the Renaissance before Cellini.  2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1930).  Reprinted and enlarged by J. G. Pollard (Florence:  Studio per Edizione Scelte, 1984).  More broadly, see Stephen Scher, ed. The Currency of Fame (New York:  Frick Collection/Harry Abrams, Inc., 1994); and Stephen Scher, ed. Perspectives on the Renaissance Medal. (New York and London: Garland and The American Numismatic Society, 2000).

[24] Other experiments with the medium preceded Pisanello’s invention, including the struck medals of Francesco I Carrara of Padua, commissioned in the 1390s by his son to commemorate Francesco’s safe return to Padua.  The struck medals of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga (now lost, but apparently struck in gold and silver in 1433), Ludovico III Gonzaga of Mantua (sometime between 1433 and 1444), and the medals struck by the Sesto brothers in Venice in the 1420s also are relevant, although the latter depict Emperors Galba and Constantine, not contemporaries. Similarly, the large cast medallions of Heraclius and Constantine from the Duke of Berry’s collection, from before 1402, are frequently included in lists of precursors to the medal. Struck medals were rare in the fifteenth century, but their potential for large runs far outstripped their cast counterparts. The striking process allowed for huge runs before a die would break, but it constricted the new medium’s format. The results were rather coin-like: significantly lighter and smaller in diameter and thickness than cast medals. In the third decade of the sixteenth century Benvenuto Cellini introduced his screw press in Rome, an innovation in the striking process which effectively allowed coins and medals to be made in extremely large numbers with superior detail and registration.

[25] On foundation medals, see Pier Giorgio Pasini, “Matteo de’Pasti: Problems of Style and Chronology.”  In Studies in the History of Art, vol. 21: Italian Medals.  Ed. J. G.  Pollard (Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, 1987), pp. 143-160; and Silvana Balbi de Caro, “Di alcune medaglie di Paolo II rinvenute nelle mura del Palazzo di Venezia in Roma,” Medaglia 5 (1973): 24-34.  On medals as gifts, see Arne R. Flaten, “Identity and the display of medaglie in Renaissance and Baroque Europe,” Word & Image 19/1-2 (2003): 65-67; Philip Attwood, Italian Medals c. 1530-1600 (London: British Museum, 2003), pp. 53-61; and a lecture by Attwood, “Medals as Gifts in 16th Century Italy,” at the Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, San Francisco, 2006.  On medals placed in tombs, see J. G. Pollard, Medaglie italiane del Rinascimento nel museo nazionale del Bargello.  3 vols. (Florence: Studio per Edizione Scelte, 1984-85), vol. II, nos. 444 and 446.  To be added to those are the recently discovered medals of Gian Gastone de’ Medici; see Donatella Lippi and Monica Bietti, “The Last Medici,” Archaeology (July/August, 2005, p. 41.

[26] The portrait as a stand alone object, a staple of fifteenth-century Italian art by any measure, was uncommon in any medium until the 1440s.  Among others, see John Pope-Hennessy, The Portrait in the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon, 1963).

[27] When the term “roman” is used as it pertains to type, it will remain lowercase as is standard.

[28] Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten Van Zanden, “Charting the ‘Rise of the West’: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (June 2009), p. 423.

[29] That copyright restriction was removed the following year, however, on the death of Johannes.  It is interesting to note that among the shareholders of Nicolas Jenson’s final printing workshop were Donna Paula, Johannes da Spira’s widow, and his two sons. See Warren Chappell, A Short History of the Printed Word (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1970), pp. 67-69.

[30] There are any number of good resources on Jenson and the importance of his type; among the more exuberant and recent, see Alan Finn, “Jenson 1470 Anatomy of a Typeface,” Grafik, 196, nov. 2006.  Online:

[31] Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1580 (London: Verso Editions, 1986), p. 59.

[32] Ibid., pp. 110-111.

[33] Febvre and Martin, p. 59; also see John Sparrow, Visible Words: A Study of Inscriptions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969); Edward Catich, The Origin of the Serif (Davenport, IA: Catfish Press, 1968).

[34] See Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century now in the British Museum. 12 vols. (London: British Museum, 1930).

[35] Chappell, pp. 38-83; Alexander Nesbitt, The History and Technique of Lettering (New York, Dover, 1957); Febvre and Martin.

[36] Nesbitt, 66.

[37] In some instances, books were printed on vellum, as is the case with Antoine Verard who printed and illustrated books on vellum that he himself had already produced in manually copied form for other patrons. See Febvre and Martin, p. 78.

[38] See above note no. 15

[39] See Lydecker; also see Peter Thornton, The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600 (New York: Abrams, 1991).

[40] Roberto Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity (New York: Humanities Press, 1969).

[41] Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1986); Weiss.

[42] Benjamin, p. 223.

[43] On the display of medals, for example, see Flaten, 59-73.

[44] Benjamin, p. 224.

[45] See Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn (New York: Norton, 1963); Cole; Wackernagel.

7 Responses to Arne Flaten – “Reproducible Media(s) in the Early Fifteenth Century, Mostly Italian”

  1. Alex Mueller says:

    My favorite passage (paragraph 20): “A vitrine denies the tactile interaction, the smooth, polished surface, the play of light as the object is turned, the sense of mass, the pleasing way in which the object fits in the palm, the process of turning the object over, the subtle casting details evident only under close observation, the puzzling over its two-sided message.” What fascinates me most about this passage, and this excellent essay in general, is the intimacy that these reproducibles provide between object and observer. I think this point could be explored a bit further and emphasized a bit more directly, especially in the introductory paragraphs, because the enhanced accessibility that these reproduced objects offer seems to suggest that their audiences were willing to forgo their desires for authenticity in place of their closeness to the objects.

    And more than that, I wonder if the “tactile” nature of these objects could be more fully explained – were these objects meant to be touched? If this is part of their appeal, then I think this would illuminate some of the difficulties we now have with the non-tactile nature of “digital texts.” In that sense, when you say, “One might compare the limited tactile experience a modern audience receives from a medal in a glass case to the contemporary chilliness, or perhaps sterility, of reading books on a Kindle” (20), we might be able to understand that the increased accessibility that digital texts provide comes with the loss of a kind of tactile textuality.

    Also, I wonder if you could say more about how “exact” these multiples were and how important this “exactness” was. I find myself resisting the notion that even the most precise instrument or industry could produce “exactly similar objects” (2). I’m not an art historian, but my recent research has led me to examine 15th c. woodcuts in Aesopic printed books. I’ve been astounded by the variety I see between woodcuts of the same scene. Was there a sense in which variety was expected? Or did objects lose their value if not deemed “exactly similar.” If it’s the latter, the pretense of authenticity (which Benjamin addresses) would seem to have continued to hold sway (36).

    Thanks so much for sharing this stimulating essay. I feel as if I’ve taken a crash course in 15c. Italian reproducibles. A good feeling indeed.

  2. The central thesis of this essay is the opposition between Benjamin: “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” vs. early modern reproduction that “increased the artists’ stature. . . both locally and beyond, and inevitably enhanced the aura of the single original.” A similar dichotomy is explored in the discussion of the vogue of portrait medals that, appearing ca.1430, had all but vanished by the end of the 1500s, “only flickering to life briefly in the late sixteenth century before disappearing completely”: while the early modern experience of these items privileged a tactile experience and intense scrutiny due to their miniature zize, they are now experienced from a distance, under a vitrine, in condition of chill and sterility.

    In the margins of this article, I am thinking of a Medieval history of reproduction, as well as of extending the essay’s thesis so as to derive — rather than binary oppositions — a list similar to Foucault’s six theses on heterotopias, or Cohen’s seven theses on monster culture.

    Thesis One. All objects lead to reproduction.
    Aren’t all tools agents of mechanical reproduction? Molds, casts, punches, obviously, but also bowls, and any object that is kept or repeatedly adapted to a specific use. In that sense, all objects are repetition and reproduction machines, regardless of their function. The extension of the history of mechanical reproduction to coins, molded metals, glass and clay, refreshes the question of reproduction. All reuse and repurposing is also reproduction, ex. objects that are moved or flipped. Any workshop is a reproduction machine: organic and intergenerational reproduction.

    Thesis Two. Assembly (serial) and reproduction (simultaneous) can be distinct or not.
    “But efficient assembly of similar objects is not the same as the mechanical reproduction of exact multiples simultaneously. . .concurrent facture of indistinguishable objects with various intentions. . . engraved prints. . . circulated as models for other artists”: compare workshops’ books in medieval illumination ateliers, and circulating of patterns in other techniques (ex. stained glass).

    Thesis Three. Commodification implies simultaneous reproduction and individuation. The two operate in tandem.
    “New commodities”: personalization, stock (cf. Books of Hours in MA, when the word “stock” emerges, according to the OED). See also Sarah Blick’s work on pilgrim badges.
    Another set of examples for thesis five: type design: roman type; St. Augustine’s De civitate as first book to use page numbers. Number of cast letters ca. 1543: 60-80 thousand. “A typical workshop would own tens of thousands of letter fonts.” In contrast, the beginnings of photography focused on the excellence of reproduction, not the multiples.

    Thesis Four. Reproduction grows exponentially.
    Geometric rise of reproduction: reproduction folds onto itself as objects (repro. machines as stated above) are themselves produced via reproduction. Miniaturization is one of the hallmarks of reproduction (larae, Tanagra statuettes, etc.). See phenomenology on miniatures.

    Thesis Five. Reproduction (dilution of focus) and miniaturization (intensification of focus) exist in a similar tandem as reproduction and individuation (thesis three). Miniaturization invites “intense scrutiny”: “Glyptic glory of Greco-Roman art. . . dissemnated”: small size as an invitation to repetition and collection.Thus, some constants are: small series, “faithful iterations. . .original compositions. . .dominant trend. . .marvels.” See Dan Remein work on the intricately wrought (wraetlice) in the Anglo-Saxon period.

  3. Arne, I very much enjoyed reading this paper. It makes a sensible and well-argued contribution to the study of fifteenth-century art, particularly as framed by an aspect of media studies.

    You might want to draw out the interesting parallels, conjunctions – even dissimilarities – of museum-style presentation (“limited tactile experience”) with the “contemporary… sterility” of ebooks (20). It seems to me that we are dealing with similar physical phenomena, but different “cultures” of the tactile. Tactility remains, but it is different, (as you say) sterile, now reserved to only very few pairs of hands, as indeed the medal would have been in its original ownership context. We may be more inclined to read its modern status under the rubric of a relationship of distance, but this is a function of the broader distribution of the image of the object, and its privileging as an art-object in hermetically-sealed spaces. How could you nuance the comparison between the (modern) reservation of medals to the expert hands of curators, conservators and scholars, and the (equally limited) early modern use of medals by their owners?

    The lengthy section on printed books is very worthy but feels quite loosely knitted in with the rest of the paper. Your position in emphasising the position of books as objects, in the same sense in which you analyse medallions, is well-stated but you may also want to consider finessing the argument about the “reproducibility” of printed books as the outcome of an intensely manual and specific series of tasks around the forming and finishing of casts (which at a primary level are indeed reproducible – yet even these turn out with individual flaws or inconsistencies). Books also respond to a different idea of authenticity. After all, one cannot imagine Federigo da Montefeltro (29) being ashamed to own a portrait medallion. (I also note that you have him as “Federico of Urbano”, which is not right.)

    If you have the time, you might want to review both Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault on the simulacrum; I am thinking here of Deleuze’s “Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy” and “Plato and the Simulacrum” (both available in “The Logic of Sense”), and Foucault’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. This would bolster the theorisation of the paper. The idea of “a society ready to embrace reproducible media in myriad forms” (31) is most interesting but might do with further explanation.

    Other comments: I would not necessarily take “naissance” and “reincarnation” to be cognates (3; as is implied by the use of “or”), and cannot quite follow the sense of your use of “founded” (“all of which were founded in multiples…”). I also wonder about your statement that the growing popularity (“success”) of plaquettes in this period was causally related to “[t]he decoration of non-figural small bronze objects” (14). I think you may mean to imply that this is more of a technical relationship than one of popularity/success. Lastly, as to Pisanello’s medal of John VIII Palaiologos (16), it would be best to say that it is the first portrait medal (rather than “the first medal”). I would not call the reverse side “an allegorical subject” – it is quite mundane – depicting John’s interests in hunting and riding, although he is shown in an attitude of prayer (a reference no doubt to the Council at Ferrara, which you mention).

    On a separate note, the paper uses the hyphen and the en-dash undifferentiatedly (in different places, both are used parenthetically), which can be distracting.

  4. drmaggie2110 says:

    Let me start by saying that I’m really excited to see more art historians participating in the conversations within and around postmedieval and Babel. Hooray for objects!

    I agree that passage 20 is beautifully written and captures a great deal of what the paper is about. Passage 30 also offers some amazing words: catalysts and conspirators, dissemination, communication, interaction, and contemplation. All of these things intersect with the thematic thread of media in fascinating ways. Isn’t the copying process itself a kind of mediation, both in the sense that a creator (human or machine or both) comes between the “original” and the replica, and in the sense that making a copy serves as a means of communication (as in, the news media)?

    The notion of tactility and surfaces, particularly in conjunction with the idea of intimacy, also links up with the mediation between human audiences and inanimate objects. I would like to see these kinds of connections made more explicit.

    You’ve also got me thinking a lot about mechanization versus handcrafted reproduction, and I’m wondering where the line is between automatic recreation and human creative agency. I’m not sure that there is a clear distinction between the two modes. In a posthumanist scenario, do the methods of mechanical reproduction take on a more active role? I don’t know what I think about that, to be honest—just throwing it out there!

  5. First: i echo others of the ‘crowd’ with thanks for sharing this provocative and wide-ranging essay!

    Arne, it seems to me that you intend the sections on portrait medals [16-20] and cast letters for moveable type printing [21-29] to be the central studies of the essay — indeed, your voice in those sections is particularly confident and illuminating. I find myself, however, drawn to the sections above, on “engravings, terracotta sculptures, small bronzes, plaquettes” [8, and through 10-15] — those earlier sections, as a group, seem very much to stand apart from [16]+. This disjunction feels significant, and so I want to focus my reply on the structure and movement of your essay, its aims and interrogations (though there are manymany things here I am deliciously interested in!)

    What is it that separates [portrait medals & cast type] from [engravings, terracotta, bronzes, plaquettes]? You suggest it is that “both media [medals and type] were truly new” [15]: if that’s your foundation, I’d like to know more about that newness and its *value*. (Particularly because, in [6], you’ve already established your wariness of “paradigm-shifting” borderlands. and also, the BM entry for the Pisanello medal at your link starts right off by problematizing the “first”ness of the medal.) So given where you’ve taken me by [15], I don’t quite buy that “newness” is enough to advance [portrait medals & cast type] as a category for this investigation.

    Your compelling histories of both of those media ([portait medals] and [cast type]) do contain a number of the issues you set up in [1-8] and with Benjamin: workshop practices, market demographics, source material/originals. But I think you could draw the history and the questions closer to each other; in this draft there are few spaces left open in your account of the production of cast type to really query, for example, the ways in which either 15th or 20th+ century notions of “original” might illuminate, for example, the emulation of ancient epigraphic sources [22]. Most “open” in this sense for me was the end of [29]: ooh! how (!) did innovation in type design entice reluctant Florentines to the luxury book market? That, I wanna know.

    It was the objects of [10-15] that, as I read, continuously offered these openings. Engravings, terracottas, small bronzes, plaquettes (i am now deeply curious about these!), even coins — all of these (which felt “small” to me, in contrast to the portraitmedals and casttype which felt, as I read, monumental. hmmm… ) — all of these are Complicated objects, neither-original-nor-replica, hovering somewhere in between whether by design (the terracottas with individually-applied paint or glaze) or by utility (the coins which all refer to not some original ‘artwork’, but rather to *currency*!). As you introduced and described each medium, I expected THIS ONE to become your central subject. Any could! (though what you seem to do was to summarize, bind, and shelve each, in anticipation of some other history.) Each, I think, offers real possibility for exploring the messiness of “reproduction” — as Anna suggests above, an exploration beyond binary oppositions. The remains, the tenacity or the ruins, of the handmade, the original! Even what you suggest about the sluggishness of the Florentine print market seems to be revived by a whiff — an aura — of ArtisticInnovation, an Etsy-like glow (or at least its simulacrum).

    oh and on that, one last thing that I hope you might find useful: I was excited to read Lachlan’s post mentioning Deleuze’s The Logic of the Gaze, which coincidentally I just have on my desk today! (there is some awesome stuff in there on “cracks”!) This may be a fruitful partnering with Benjamin, especially as Deleuze’s discussion is perhaps less grounded in an analysis of a particular medium. Some of the Plato and the Simulacrum bit goes like this [bracketed bits are me]:

    “We started with an initial determination of the Platonic motivation: to distinguish essence from appearance, intelligible from sensible, idea from image, original from copy, and model from simulacrum. But we already see that these expressions are not equivalent” [!!]
    [then Deleuze goes on to provide a number of more nuanced terms and continuums, such as “on one hand there are *copies-icons*, on the other there are *simulacra-phantasms*”]
    And then: “If we say of the simulacrum that it is a copy of a copy, an infinitely degraded icon, an infinitely loose resemblance, we then miss the essential, that is, the difference in nature between simulacrum and copy, or the aspect by which [woo!] they form the two halves of a single division. The copy is an image endowed with resemblance, the simulacrum is an image without resemblance.” (Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of the Sense, trans. M. Lester, New York 1990, 256-57.)

    oh. so, those little bronzetti: are they really take-homes of famous public sculptures? a little like secular brandea, or pilgrim badges.


  6. rdc009 says:


    I enjoyed your piece and learned a good deal from it. Thank you for that.

    My comments are those of a resistant reader, I think for two reasons. The first is almost trivial, the second less so.

    First, using Benjamin’s French title but, obviously, the English translation of his text, struck me as pretentious. With all due respect to the French, they are outnumbered, perhaps especially so in the likely readership of this particular piece. I note this to make the point that Benjamin’s essay has probably been read more in English than in its original French, and to say that is surely true among your own likely readership. Why take the rhetorical risk of frustrating those few who do read French and who expect, from your use of the French title, you to cite from the original publication. (I hope you don’t mind my playing with “original” here.)

    Second, and as I said less trivially, Benjamin’s essay, as I recall it — and your essay seems to jive with my recollection — offers a decidedly modern understanding of originality. What we call plagiarism in modern and postmodern scholarship and writing, was merely a form of originality in early modernity. In fact, the idea of novelty was quite foreign to the concept of originality at least into the 17th century. To be original was to make someone else’s work your own, through addition, reproduction (in the same or another medium), distortion, etc. I am uneasy with your adoption of Benjamin’s historically anachronistic version of originality, but, that said, don’t think this is terribly damaging, and certainly not fatal, to your argument.

    What is more concerning is your adoption of an unproblematic — or perhaps unproblematized — later modern notion of art. Yes, many of the things you discuss have become objets d’art, but that was not likely to have been the purpose in their original context. Manuscripts, for example, served the same function as printed text soon would. Coins almost always have a primary function that is not the showcasing of artistic skill or talent in the artist or the mens of production. I won’t belabour this point, but I encourage you to make this very good article better by thinking about the relationship between the context of production and the later — frequently much later — recognition of (a) product(s) as art.

    In your second paragraph you play a bit of three-card monte with us, your readers. You shift the ground from “mechanical” reproduction to simple reproduction, your use of the phrase “Mechanically, or technically, reproduced” notwithstanding. Perhaps others would disagree with me on this, but I cannot but see a difference between the kind of multiplication through mechanized process that Benjamin discusses and the guild-like application of expertise one would have encountered in the reproductions you discuss. I think this is a concern to be dealt with, if at all, through a moderation of your framing device (i.e. Benjamin) rather than by re-working what else you offer us, because, at the risk of being repetitive, the rest is very good and very worthwhile work.

    Those are my big concerns: an impoverished deployment of originality and art, and what is to me an unconvincing, and I think wrong, deployment of the concept of “mechanical” reproduction.

    On the level of detail, in par. 18 you write “The Renaissance medal transcended social and economic lines. Anyone with sufficient funds might annex the exclusive privilege of the
    glorious Roman emperors.” Can you not see the contradiction here? How can something dependent on having “sufficient” funds transcend an economic line?

    In par. 33 you write “The early Renaissance coincided with a passion for collecting objects tied to the ancient world, particularly Rome, from coins and manuscripts to gems, ceramics, and sculpture.” I don’t think it was merely incidental. The passion for things Roman was of the essence of the Renaissance, was it not? This is a fairly nit-picky complaint, I know, but it tripped me up completely when I read it, and it may do likewise for others. Perhaps “The early Renaissance inaugurated a passion for collecting objects tied to the ancient world, particularly Rome, from coins and manuscripts to gems, ceramics, and sculpture” would work better?

    Sorry if this seems a mostly negative critique. I assure you my overall response to your piece is positive, and in a more traditional review environment my response to the editor would be ‘publish, with revisions.’ This is worthwhile work that deserves the larger audience it is likely to enjoy.

  7. aharris1969 says:

    Thank you, Arne, for a paper that provokes thinking and rethinking from its very beginning. The definition of mechanically/technically reproduced objects in [2] brought to mind the ephemeral (yet transcendent!) object of the Eucharist – mechanically reproduced in “exactly similar objects.” Benjamin’s preoccupation with aura nurtures this thought and presents a way of thinking about the original that would provide a medieval precedent to the scenarios of your paper. Might there be a way to discuss Eucharistic reproducibility as a kind of model/foil for the objects you are discussing? As a way to present an explicitly medieval reproduction from the very start? Aden Kumler is doing wonderful work on Eucharistic presses in the Middle Ages – wonderful things could emerge from communication with her. Of course, the big difference between a Eucharist and the objects you are discussing (and the way you are discussing them) is purchase. Eucharists were mechanically reproduced objects within a sacred economy; medals, etc. within a market economy.

    Your wonderful work with fonts (and can you provide visual examples of these beyond the hyperlinks?) encourages the possibility of your article considering the tensions around the dematerialization and rematerialization of the written word in its first age of mechanical reproduction. The written word had been an object with aura (certainly the Holy Word, but any manuscript has the aura of uniqueness and labor) – what, in your opinion, happens to the aura effect of the word once it moves through these fonts? Moreover, how can we think about the fascination with fonts as a new aesthetic for the written word?

    Benjamin’s call for the demise of aura at the hands of mechanically reproduced objects [36] has not been upheld by modern reaction, either – originality is still at a premium in the wild ride of the contemporary art market, and anything by a Master still sells. I am glad that you point out Benjamin’s specific fascination with photography being the material absence of an original. I return to the thought of the Eucharist that your opening definition generated: here is a medieval example of a mechanically reproduced object whose original is “authentic” but never to be obtained (the body of Christ itself). I keep putting the Eucharist out there as the medieval side of the coin (as it were) that you are interested in flipping with Benjamin. What did mechanically reproduced objects of the Quattrocento bring with them from earlier medieval practices of mechanical reproduction like the Eucharist? If the answer is nothing, then what was the definitive break with that medieval practice?

    Because you bring the market economy into the discussion, I wonder if you might track the movement of these mechanically reproduced objects as transactional objects: objects of exchange, of gifts (diplomatic and personal), of commemoration. Arjun Appadurai’s classic anthology The Social Life of Things would imbue these objects with the agency to forge relationships as well. How was the new middle class you refer to using these objects? What can we consider beyond desire and possession? How are these objects themselves a new currency? It would be great to get a closer look at some of these objects – I don’t know if there will be the opportunity to embed images in your article (or perhaps the hyperlinks are a purposeful dematerialization of the art objects? But no, you are keenly interested in the materiality of these objects, so I renew my hope for images within the body of the text).

    Your article is sure to provoke vigorous discussion and increased awareness of mechanically reproduced objects in the Quattrocento. I hope that there is time and room to expand on 1) medieval precedents of mechanical reproducibility outside of a market economy (like the Eucharist) and 2) the circulation of these objects beyond just their purchase. Perhaps isolating a specific object or two (as your vivid description of holding a medal starts to do) would allow you to explore these issues in a manageable way. You end your essay by talking about the aura that more than ever surrounded Quattrocento artists – you’ve also made me think about the new subjectivity of the holder of that medal: consumer, owner, agent in the emerging economy of mechanically reproduced objects.

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