Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 19, 2012
Suzanne Karr Schmidt and Kimberly Nichols Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life Exh. cat. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2011. 112 pp.; 98 color ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780300169119)
Exhibition schedule: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, April 30—July 10, 2011

Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life was produced in conjunction with the exhibition of the same title at the Art Institute of Chicago, which drew from the resources of that museum and other Chicago-area collections. The catalogue study is an important addition to the growing volume of literature that considers prints as functional, three-dimensional objects, rather than simply as flat images. The first footnote, in fact, offers a good overview of this specialized literature. The study’s primary author, Suzanne Karr Schmidt, completed her doctoral dissertation on similar material in 2006 (Yale University), Art—A User’s Guide: Interactive and Sculptural Printmaking in the Renaissance. Kimberly Nichols wrote a concluding section of the catalogue, “Physical Qualities of Early Prints.”

The first chapter, “Using Renaissance Prints,” serves as an introduction and describes how prints were used or manipulated in myriad ways. For example, prints were applied to all variety of surfaces, cut up and appliquéd, eaten or kissed (in the case of devotional prints), censored, and personalized by filling in blank coats of arms or banderoles. The subsequent chapter, “Single- and Multi-Sheet Prints,” contains sections devoted to experimental techniques and costly materials; wallpaper, broadsides, and framing devices; and printed games and learning aids (where Tarocchi are reasonably treated as a didactic series). This chapter also considers small engraved plates that could be worn as pins as well as printed on paper.

The brief chapter “Prints and Books” touches on prints that were used as bookplates or that were inserted into books. This is followed by the important chapter “Applied Prints,” which discusses wearable prints, such as a remarkable printed hair ornament by Agostino Carracci with interchangeable oval-shaped vignettes that, Schmidt argues, may have been made on the occasion of the marriage of Christine of Lorraine and Ferdinando de’ Medici. Printed fans are also discussed in this chapter, as are prints used to adorn boxes. Sebald Beham’s circular woodcut, The Women’s Bath (ca. 1530/40), is examined in light of roundels that could have been used to ornament the tops of round wooden splint boxes—an application that Schmidt indicates is all the more likely given the concentric rings of framing ornament that could be trimmed to accommodate different box diameters. Schmidt also introduces late fifteenth-century boxes that were often embellished with a devotional woodcut on the inner lid. These so-called “messenger boxes” were made of wood with metal straps, hinges, and latches, and they often incorporated a hidden compartment. These boxes drew considerable attention recently when a group of twenty-two of them appeared on the market in 2007, one of which was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago and is carefully considered by Schmidt.

In the chapter “Religious Prints as Substitute Objects,” Schmidt begins with the 1509 Heiligthumsbuch, a book that documents reliquaries and is extensively illustrated with woodcuts designed by Lucas Cranach the Elder. She then moves from the most famous pilgrimage print of northern Europe, the Einsiedeln Madonna of 1466, to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century treatments of the same Madonna. In particular, Schmidt introduces a 1798 album of devotional images with a printed image of the Einsiedeln Madonna that has been augmented with textile and foil elements as well as hand coloring. The materiality of this work is remarkable and is reminiscent of some of the staffage that turns up in the shallow boxes filled with low-relief devotional displays of the sixteenth- through eighteenth-century southern Low Countries referred to simply as “enclosed gardens” (jardins clos or besloten hofjes). It would be interesting to investigate any printed or paper components of these complex devotional creations (for which see Camille Poupeye, Les Jardins Clos & leurs Rapports avec la Sculpture Malinoise, Malines [Mechelen]: Imprimerie L. & A. Godenne, 1912; and Paul Vandenbroeck, Hooglied. De beeldwereld van religieuze vrouwen in de zuidelijke Nederlanden, vanaf de 13de eeuw, Gent: Snoeck-Ducaju & Zoon, 91–104). The chapter concludes with several examples of Schlückbilder (edible prints), including host irons (communion wafer molds) and a small, uncut sheet of fifty-four images of the virgin to be cut out and eaten as a curative like little paper pills.

Perhaps the most pioneering chapter, “Printed Scientific Objects” deals with printed instruments, calendars, sundials, astrolabes, volvelles (calculating devices with movable printed parts that must be cut out and assembled), and anatomical “flap prints.” The latter are examined primarily through a group of three anatomical broadsheets of 1613 by Lucas Kilian: one showing a man and woman together (based loosely on Albrecht Dürer’s engraved Adam and Eve (1504)), and one each for a man (Adam) and a woman (Eve) (see also Suzanne Karr Schmidt’s article, “Printed Bodies and the Materiality of Early Modern Prints,” Art in Print 1, no. 1 [May/June 2011]: 24–31). These anatomical models have multiple flaps with organs printed on them allowing the viewer to peel back layers of human physiology. Schmidt’s discussion of uncut and unassembled sheets that were printed with the dozens of flaps needed to make these broadsides sheds light on the complexity of the manufacture of pre-acetate-overlay visualizations of human anatomy.

Schmidt’s final chapter, “‘Affixed and Ordered’ Printmaking,” touches on print collecting and specifically upon an album of prints assembled by Placidus Sprenger, “a late-eighteenth-century Benedictine priest and librarian in Bavaria” (92–98). This album is exceptional because Sprenger prefaced his collection with a handwritten text that indicates why he “affixed and ordered these pictures from breviaries, prayer books, and meditations” (93). It appears that his motivation was to preserve what he perceived to be a vanishing taste for devotional images, in Schmidt’s words, “nostalgia for and fascination with the religious imagery of a bygone time” (93–94).

In the book’s last chapter, “Physical Qualities of Early Prints,” Nichols introduces a number of technical issues relating to the methods and materials encountered in the study with useful sections on “multidimensional etching and engraving,” and “collage in devotional objects” (101, 104).

While lacking an index and a bibliography, the handsomely produced Altered and Adorned is a joy to read, and it provides a welcome introduction to what might be thought of as the pop-up books and advent calendars of the Renaissance. It also points to the substantial resources of the Art institute of Chicago and other Chicago-area collections. Inevitably when a topic seizes the imagination one wants more. For example, it would be interesting to hear Schmidt’s thoughts on the multitude of small, enigmatic prints (predominantly roundels) that are grouped together under the name of “Master S.” I found myself wondering if Schmidt might bring them up in the context of worn prints, prints stuck into books, or prints applied to boxes.

Stephen Goddard
Associate Director and Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, Professor of Art History, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas