August 15, 2017


        Raubdruckerin (“pirate printer”) is a project begun by Emma-France Raff in 2006.  Like the brass rubbings I featured in the last post, Raubdruckerin prints from textured plaques that were not designed to be printing blocks and that are set in public spaces rather than being in a studio.  Specifically, they choose surfaces in the urban landscape, especially manhole covers.  They look for textured surfaces that are unique and often iconic of their place, sometimes including images, sometimes abstract designs, and often text.  Unlike brass rubbings, Raubdruckerin actually does print as any other relief block, rolling ink onto the textured surface, and pressing.  (This means any text on the original is backwards on the print.)
        I have to confess that although I’ve thought of this idea myself - around here we have plaques near our storm drains with a great design of a fish - I had never seriously considered actually doing it!  Naturally it’s a bit of an undertaking to clean the selected surface, roll it with ink, and print on it, right there in the middle of the sidewalk or street of a busy city!  Raubdruckerin makes an event of it, so that the printing becomes a performance in its own right, inviting passers-by to notice so that they, too, can appreciate the beauty of something they may have walked over hundreds of times without noticing.
        I was quite delighted when I learned about this project, and would love to see the idea emulated in more cities, including the USA.  A quick search of manhole cover pictures on the internet turns up some really gorgeous ones around the world!  To see more of Raubdruckerin’s work (or buy some), check out their web site.

[Pictures: Printing a tote bag in Bruxelles;
T-shirt printed in Berlin;
T-shirts printed in Stavanger and Lisboa (All images from raubdruckerin);
Charles River storm drain (Image from Charles River Conservancy).]

August 11, 2017

Brass Rubbing

        Brass rubbing is a particular form of relief printing in which, instead of inking the raised surface and laying paper onto the ink, paper is laid on the clean surface, and the top of the paper is rubbed with a wax stick to pick up the raised texture beneath.  Unlike a traditional block print, the image on paper will not be reversed from the block, but it also has somewhat less detail.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brass rubbing became popular in Britain to reproduce the many monumental brass plaques that had been placed in churches in the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, so another difference between brass rubbing and block printing is that in most cases the textured plate was never intended as a printing block or designed with that in mind.  However, repeated rubbing does eventually begin to wear down the brass plaques, so many originals now forbid rubbings… and reproductions of the brass plaques are created specifically to allow rubbing, thus making them true printing blocks of a sort after all.
        Even though the brasses were not intended for printing, they sometimes have really lovely designs and textures.  I particularly like this couple’s Gothic canopy, and the husband’s chain mail and belt.  The other fun details are the lion at his feet, and the little lap dog at hers.  The woman in the gorgeous brocade gown must have been spectacularly
fashionable in life, and saw no reason to stop in death.  A quite unusual amount of work went into patterning her dress all over.  The bust of a man is, by contrast, very simple and may even have been a stock design rather than made to commission as a portrait.  Nevertheless I find it exceptionally beautiful, with its expressive eyes and careworn brow.
        In my youth my jack-of-all-crafts mother dabbled in brass rubbing while we visited the UK, and I (at age 9) joined in with scrap paper and scrap crayons, and kept the results in my scrapbook.  Two years ago at the National Museum of Ireland we found small reproduction brass plaques provided for visitors to make rubbings, but we couldn’t do a very good job, as the provided paper and wax sticks were all
almost entirely used.  You can see in my two examples the shift in brass rubbing fashion: earlier rubbings were black on white, while nowadays people favor metallic on black.
        There’s no reason the rubbing plate has to be brass, of course.  In the United States it used to be not uncommon to make rubbings of colonial gravestone designs.  One difference between the monumental brasses and the colonial gravestones is that the former are, as far as I can tell, carved by anonymous artists, while the gravestones are often initialed by their creators and can be attributed to known carvers.  Of course, all forms of rubbings have become much less common with the ease of photography as a quicker, cheaper, less damaging, and (in some ways) more accurate method of reproduction.  But there is an artist using the equivalent of found brass plaques for interesting effects today, to be featured in the next post…

[Pictures: Sir William and Alianora Burgate, brass effigies 1409, from Burgate, Suffolk;
Margaret Bernard Peyton, brass effigy 1484, from Isleham, Cambridgeshire;
Bust of a civilian (James de Holveston?), brass plaque c. 1360, from Blickling, Norfolk (Images from Hamline University);
Several rubbings from Brightlingsea, Essex and the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, by AEGN;
James Allen gravestone, slate carved by W.C. (William Custin?), 1714;
Jonathan Wyatt gravestone, slate carved by John Stevens III, 1775;
Joseph Fitch gravestone, granite carved by Obadiah Wheeler (decorations) and John Huntington (lettering), 1741;
Job Howland gravestone, slate carved by John Bull, 1785, all gravestone rubbings by Sue Kelly and Anne Williams (Images from the Farber Gravestone Collection).]

August 8, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Fenghuang

        I like mythical creatures, and I like sculptures made from found mechanical bits and pieces, and these phoenixes check both boxes on a massive scale.  I featured the artist Xu Bing earlier this year for his wood block prints, but these sculptures begin to give you an idea of the breadth and variety of his artwork.  The two phoenixes are made from materials collected from construction sites in China.  At 90 and 100 feet long, they’re almost more roc than phoenix!
        The Chinese phoenix is called "fenghuang," and originally feng was male and huang female, which is what Xu has named his two huge sculptures.  Although fenghuang is given the English translation “phoenix,” the only thing they really have in common is being magical, mythical birds.  The fenghuang lives on the Kunlun Mountains in northern China and appears only in places blessed with exceptional peace and happiness.  It became associated with the empress, to pair with the dragon representing the emperor, and now the paired dragon and phoenix are often used in wedding decorations to symbolize the perfect union between husband and wife.  (“Dragon and phoenix” is also a common item on Chinese menus.  In the USA it’s a dish that combines chicken with seafood.  Additional fun fact: my children P and T are “dragon and phoenix children,” i.e. boy-girl twins.)  In any case, the fenghuang represents all sorts of auspicious virtues.
        Xu’s Feng and Huang represent the cultural changes brought on by rapid development in China, and they’re a reaction to the terrible conditions experienced by migrant construction workers in China.  Xu said of his phoenixes, “They bear countless scars.  [They have] lived through great hardship, but they still have self-respect.  In general, the phoenix expresses unrealized hopes and dreams.”  You can see that they’re entirely composed of salvaged construction materials: rusty metal, battered hard hats, ductwork tubing, backhoe buckets, and so on.  I haven’t seen these sculptures in person, alas, but from the photos I’d say they don’t seem so grim to me.  They look quite powerful and transcendent.

[Pictures: Phoenix installation at MassMoCA, sculptures by Xu Bing, 2013 (Image from The Daily Gazette);
Feng at Cathedral of St John the Divine, sculpture by Xu, 2014 (Image from Bobby Zuco);
Huang at Mass MoCA, sculpture by Xu, 2013, (Image from Colossal).]

August 4, 2017

Afternoon through Midnight

        Here is the second half of my day of “hours.”  To compare with the earlier four, there is a little more reference to human homes here.  I always feel that part of the beauty of night is being able to go in from it when you want.  I especially love the look of lighted windows as the sky turns dark.  But it’s also comforting to remember that while I’m shut away from the night in my bed, the rest of the universe carries on: stars wheeling, animals of every kind living their lives, tides rising and falling, all without any reference to me and my concerns.
        As for the verses on these pieces, Noon is attributed to a traditional Jewish proverb; Dusk is mine; Evening is from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and Midnight is a line from an Algonquin legend as recorded by Charles G. Leland in 1884.  Obviously music and singing are a recurring theme 
among all eight “hours”.  Sometimes music is a very clear, physical way to rejoice and celebrate, but phrases such as “my heart sang” and “the music of the spheres” show how deeply music symbolizes rightness and joy even when you’re outwardly silent.
        Obviously the other recurring theme here is nature.  Certainly I’m grateful for all manner of technology that makes my life comfortable, safe, and productive, not to mention interesting.  But the whole idea of a book of hours for me was to remember the natural rhythms of the day and use them as a basis for contemplation and awareness of the divine.  It’s best to treasure the fact that life comes in its seasons despite all our efforts to control it.  I’ve also made sure to choose some of my favorite unremarkable creatures for these pieces, including red-winged blackbirds, fireflies, and bats.  These are not the big 
and flashy animals like tigers or whales that everyone admires, or the cute ones that everybody loves.  Rather they’re the everyday, ordinary creatures that would be easy to overlook and forget, but which make my heart sing whenever I notice them.

        So here I am with a series of eight block prints, and a lot of thought about the idea behind a book of hours: a call to personal devotion that is also a thing of beauty.  That has led me to the idea of compiling an actual book, with words and images.  I’ve been collecting snippets of psalms and other poetry to assign to different times of day; I’ve been converting elements of these eight block prints into borders to decorate text; and I’ve been working on how this can become a book that might be really meaningful to people with a broad range of specific spiritual 
backgrounds.  We’ll see how it all comes together.

[Pictures: Afternoon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Dusk, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Evening, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017;
Midnight, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

August 1, 2017

Wee Hours through Noon

        As previously mentioned, I’ve been working on a project inspired by the medieval Book of Hours, a genre that was simultaneously status symbol and aide to private devotion.  Because of the former, these books were often beautifully crafted and lavishly decorated with gorgeous illustrations and decorative borders.  Because of the latter, they included calendars of church celebrations, psalms and Bible excerpts, prayers and creeds to recite at different times of the day on different days of the week, litanies of saints to invoke, and so on.  Since I’m not Catholic (let alone medieval) I don’t care about the specific Saints’ Days or prayers traditionally included in medieval books of hours, but I do embrace the idea of spirituality throughout the day and the year.  I like the reminder that it’s always appropriate to be aware of the natural rhythms of the day, to be grateful for the gifts of each
part of the cycle, to maintain wonder and appreciation for the presence of the divine all the time.  So I began to think about a series of prints celebrating each of the traditional “hours” of the day.
        Again, I’m not necessarily adhering strictly to the monastic hours, which had a good deal of variation from order to order and century to century.  I simply chose to divide the day into eight more-or-less equal and important moments: wee hours, dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, dusk, evening, and midnight.  These would be equally spaced if dawn and dusk were exactly twelve hours apart, in which case you could think of the times as being 3am, 6am, 9am, 12 noon, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, 12 midnight.  They roughly correspond to the traditional “hour” names vigils, matins/prime/lauds, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline, and getting some sleep for goodness sake.  (Again, the observation of
these “hours” and exactly when they fell varied a great deal historically.  See my post Time for Etymology for a quick summary of how one such monastic change gave us our word noon.)
        Today I share the first four “hours” in my series.  You can see that my inspiration from medieval books of hours gave me elaborate decorative borders, as well as the inclusion of text.  My texts are not all explicitly religious, but they are all definitely spiritual to me.  I composed the text for  Wee Hours using Dylan Thomas’s beautiful phrase “the close and holy darkness,” and Dawn’s line is from Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, my favorite.  Morning and Noon are simply my own.
        As far as design, Morning was the hardest because I couldn't figure out what to do that was different.  It seems a little too similar to Dawn and Noon.  But one
thing it does include that's different from these other three is signs of human activity.
        I’ll share the final four hours in the next post, along with my further ambitions…

[Pictures: Wee Hours, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Dawn, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Morning, block print by AEGN, 2017;
Noon, block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 28, 2017

Words of the Month - From the Stars

        In honor of next month’s upcoming solar eclipse, I have some words for you that come from the sun and other stars.  Of course there are all the scientific words including Greek and Latin roots  helios, sol, aster, and stella, such as parhelion, solar, solstice, stellar, asteroid, astronomy, astronaut, and constellation.  But today I want to share some words that you might not have associated with the stars.
        First, a few where the root is still fairly clear:
helium - “sun’s element”, first detected in the solar spectrum during an eclipse in 1868
parasol - “defense against the sun”
starling - starred bird
heliotrope - flower that “turns to the sun”

Let’s continue with the botanical theme:
girasole - flower that “turns to the sun” from Latin roots instead of heliotrope’s Greek.  This is an archaic word for the sunflower in English, borrowed from Italian.  I’ve never heard it used, although perhaps it remains in some dialects.  However, it does live on in the Jerusalem artichoke, whose “jerusalem” is actually a folk etymology, a reinterpretation by others who weren’t familiar with the word girasole, either.
aster - flower shaped like a star

asterisk - “small star”, also pretty obvious when you think about it

        Here are a couple of words in which the sun and stars are much better hidden:
south - “sun-side” (in the northern hemisphere, anyway)
disaster - “ill-starred”

        And finally, two bonus words whose etymologies are disputed.  They may come from astrology:
desire - “from the stars”, with the sense of awaiting what the stars have in store for us
consider - “to observe the stars”, with the sense of study and contemplation
        … or then again, they may come from a different root with a sense of “stretching or extending”.  Just like the stars themselves, word origins are a long way off, and possible to study only from the faint signals that have made it all the way to us.

[Pictures: Solar eclipse, wood block print from Vberrimum sphere mundi by Johannes de Sacro Bosco, 1498 (Image from Indiana University);
Calendar of eclipses, wood block printing from Calendar by Regiomantanus, printed by Erhard Ratdolt, 1582 (Image from University of Glasgow);
De Eclypsi Solis, wood block print from an unspecified book on the Venerable Saint Bede, 17th century (Image from University of South Carolina).]

July 25, 2017


        I’ve been printing up a storm recently, and everything was going smoothly until we actually had a beautiful, perfect day after two weeks of hideously muggy, humid weather.  And suddenly my printing was a disaster.  I’ve always been aware that when I teach classes in highly air conditioned schools or conference rooms, it’s difficult to keep the ink from drying out too quickly, but I had never before seen the effect so clearly when printing at home.  Luckily for my printing spree (although unfortunately for the rest of life) the next day it rained all day and I was able to redo my printing efforts with better results.  In future I may have to make a point of checking the humidity in the weather forecast when planning when to undertake major printing efforts.
        In any event, here’s one of the pieces I printed.  It’s just a fun little thing, nothing too ambitious because I began it during my class last week and was working on it only intermittently when no students needed assistance.  It’s a wyvern, which is a two-legged, winged dragon.  (Introductory definition here.)  As usual when doing mythical creatures, I wanted to show my wyvern a little differently from how they’re usually seen, and this time I took that idea rather literally.  Wyverns are common in heraldry, but my wyvern is too curious to stay confined to a coat of arms.  He wants to get out and stretch his wings, see the world, seek his fortune, and find adventure.  I just hope he doesn’t cause too much trouble along the way!

[Picture: Freedom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 21, 2017

Student White Line Prints

        Last summer I did a couple of posts about the Provincetown white-line style of block prints, because I was planning to have my students give it a try in my summer printmaking class.  You can refresh your memory in the post about the style, and the post on my own attempts at the technique.  But I never did post any student work because that year’s class were meticulous workers and ran out of time before we got to the project.  But this year’s group got to try it, and they did a great job with it.
        The work I’ve posted here today was done by kids going into fifth and seventh grade (although the whole class had students going into 5-9).  I explained that they needed to think about making a design like a coloring book: just outlines around areas, with no areas too big or too tiny, and no need to think about black and white or texture.  Although this was a bit of an adjustment from how I’d been trying to get them to think about all their other block print designs all week, it is a fairly natural, easy way for them to think of designs, so in the end they probably did better with it than I do!
        Like the one sample I had done last summer, these designs were carved into rubber and colored with markers, which works reasonably well.  I encouraged the kids to try a few different color schemes, which some of them really took to, as you can see with the crazy-colored cows.  I also encouraged them not to leave too large a plain background, and you can see in the bird an example of a student who had more plain background than I wanted them to aim for - but it still works out pretty well.
        From a teacher’s perspective, this is a good project for the end of the class because it doesn’t use printing ink.  That means a) the cleaning of ink plates and brayers can begin a little sooner, and b) more importantly, there aren’t any prints at the end of the class with ink still tacky, making it easier to stack up all the art and get it home without a mess.  For more detail about the step-by-step, check out the previous post on the technique.  Some additional tips for success with students are:
   1. Pre-cut each block with an extra half inch of rubber on one side, and draw a line to mark the extra area.  This is the place where they will tack their paper to keep it registered while coloring and printing.
   2. Pre-cut paper to exactly the size of the finished image and give it to students to draw their designs.  That way you don’t have to worry that they’ll get confused and put carving in the extra area.  When they transfer their designs to the rubber, just show them to line it up even with the outside edge, and their paper should end at the line drawn on their rubber.
   3.  Fold each sheet of printing paper along one edge.  Then when a student is ready to print, you can line up the crease of the paper just outside their carved area and tack it down with thumbtacks onto the extra rubber.  The fold makes it clear to them how the paper folds back so they can color an area, and folds down so they can press it.
        From the students’ perspective, this project made a nice variety from the other printmaking projects, was quite quick and simple to carve, and was a lot of fun.

[Pictures: House and Waterfall, block print by EA, 2017;
Cow, block prints by AA, 2017;
Bird, block print by ELZ, 2017;
Dragon, block print by EZ, 2017.]

July 18, 2017

Books of Hours

        I’ve been working for some time on a project inspired by Books of Hours, so before I share my pieces, here’s a little background.  The book of hours developed towards the end of the 13th century out of the texts outlining the daily Divine Office to be performed in monasteries, as an abbreviated version for use by lay people.  They were prayer books, but they were also status symbols as the only book (if any) most families were likely to own.  Lavishly illuminated books of hours were enormously valuable, but with the advent of printing, simpler, mass-produced versions became affordable for the rising middle class as well.  In either form they were enormously popular, and from about 1275-1525 more books of hours were produced than any other title.
        The luxury illuminated books of hours are the most famous.  While most books of hours are illustrated with religious themes, some have secular scenes that offer valuable and fascinating clues about daily life, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In addition to the illustrations that are entire scenes, decorative borders are common and range from botanical designs, to abstract embellishments, to detailed trompe l’oeil arrangements of plants and insects.  I enjoy the appearance of the text, too, usually in gothic script and often with fancier initial letters.  Of course, I’m showing examples of printed volumes rather than the more famous and colorful manuscripts.
        I’ve been interested in books of hours for their appearance, but recently began thinking about the content, as well.  A book of hours generally contains a calendar of the church year, excerpts from the  gospels, and a cycle of psalms and prayers to be observed at various times through each day and on particular occasions.  The content of books of hours was never officially standardized so there is quite a bit of variation in both contents and order.  Some elements are very common, others more personalized.  The early books were all made to order on commission, but even the mass produced editions were often adapted to a particular market with variations for geographical region and price point.
        I’ve included pictures to represent a couple of different styles of border, both made in segments for ease of printing.  One appears to have hand rubrication, the others printed.  I also have two illustrations for the month of July.  The first is a pleasing family scene, but I don’t know whether it represents an episode from the life of Mary, or a stage in the life of a human, both of which were popular themes for books of hours.  The other July is an engraving rather than a wood block print, but I included it because it represents the other popular theme, daily life through the seasons.  You can see how such illustrations are great resources about clothing, tools, practices, etc.
        Here's a previous post featuring a printed book of hours, and in another post before too long I will share what direction I took these various ideas.

[Pictures: July from Ces presentes heures a lusaige de Paris printed by Thielman Kerver, 1540 (Image from University of Virginia Library);
Book of Hours at King’s College, Cambridge, 1498 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Horae in Laudem Beatissimae Virginis Marie as usum Romanium printed by Thielman Kerver, 1556 (Image from Les Enluminures);
July from Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis of Marguerite of Valois, 1597 (Image from University of Virginia Library).]

July 14, 2017

Paris in Relief

        In honor of Bastille Day, here are a few images of Paris.  You may notice that there are no images of the Bastille - I looked, but found only boring engravings.  You may also notice that there are no images of the most famous French landmark of all, the Eiffel Tower.  That’s because I already did a post with relief block prints of the Eiffel Tower, and you can go back and see them there.
        I begin with two views of Notre Dame, back and front.  They have wonderfully different styles, Latour’s back being all bold shapes in strong black and white, and Zber’s front of the cathedral being skritchy and textured, and slashed all across by the falling rain.  I like how he lets the carved texture of the background become stormy clouds.  Latour’s sky, on the other hand is very calm, but it does interestingly show a second block of pale grey for added depth.
        Next up is an iconic Paris café, with white-aproned waiter.  I wonder about the shapes and textures in the window, almost abstract and not clear whether they represent the interior of the café, reflections in the glass, or what.  I like that it doesn’t matter that I don’t quite know what I’m seeing; it works anyway.
        And lastly, Sacré Coeur and Montmartre, lit up after dark.  I’m not sure how many blocks, or even how many shades of grey ink went into this, but the effect is very dramatic.  I like the contrast between the detailed foreground and the solid mass of background buildings, but with more detail again on Sacré Coeur for focus.  And the layered fringes of chimneys are cute.

        On this Fête Nationale, let these relief block prints help you cheer “Vive la France!”

[Pictures: Notre-Dame Cathedral, wood block print by Alfred Latour, 1919 (Image from Jerry Martel);
Notre Dame, Paris, wood block print by Fiszel Zylberberg (Zber), 1936-41 (Image from ArtShik);
Aux Deux Magots - Paris, linocut by Géraldine Theurot, 2011 (Image from A Little Market);
Montmartre, woodblock print by Jun’ichiro Sekino, 1959 (Image from JohnnyBass10).]

July 11, 2017

Garden Apartments

        When we left for vacation I had nine (9!) blocks carved and ready to print, and when we returned I had lots of work to do to take care of all the mail, bills, errands, laundry, etc, that are the aftermath of being away.  Today was the first chance I had to print, so here’s the latest piece.  (Only eight more to go.)
        From the technical perspective, this was too big with too much dark space to print with regular water-based ink.  Water-based ink dries too quickly, so that the first areas inked are already drying by the time the last areas are inked and the paper is pressed.  So this was a job for Caligo Safe-wash oil-based ink.  I just bought some colors of Caligo and this was my first use of the phthalo green.  Not only did the slow-drying consistency work well for my purposes here, but I really love the color.  I want to print with dark green quite often, and usually mix some black with the standard Speedball green to get it, but piney phthalo green is so much prettier.  Extra bonus: the green has hardly any odor compared with the Caligo black.
        From the creative content perspective, this is the sixth piece in my ongoing series of little fantasy towns in interesting places.  “Series” is a loose term; I never planned any particular number, or brainstormed ahead of time where the different towns would be.  It’s really more of a recurring theme.  The idea of little magical towns, of fantastical places for fantastical beings to live, is one that has always appealed to me since I was a kid.  I was making fairy houses of natural materials forty years before the current trend for commercially made fairy house miniatures, and I can remember one summer drawing lots of pictures of little thatched cottages falling from the sky in raindrops.  Now, of course, when a fun theme for a magical town occurs to me, I make a block print.  The others so far in the series have been Tree Palace, Sky City (available as note cards here), Aspidochelone, The Open Book, and Bookby-upon-Shelf.  For this garden village I had fun thinking about what plants in the garden might be inhabitable, and what beneficial insects might be living there along with the small people.  I just hope the rabbits and chipmunks don’t destroy the whole town!

[Picture: Garden Apartments, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 7, 2017

Venice in Relief (III)

        I’m back from Venice where I saw this amazing wood block print, along with its blocks, in the Museo Correr.  This aerial view map of Venice from 1500 is by artist Jacopo de’Barbari (Italy, c 1445- c 1516) and it measures 1.3x2.8 meters.  Take a moment to consider what actually went into an undertaking like this wood block print.  First of all, it’s a map and therefore required all the surveying, detail, and accuracy a map requires.  Every street, every square, every building, is depicted accurately, at least as far as we can tell from the landmarks that are still extant (which in Venice is a lot!)  Secondly, it’s an aerial view, in a time long before any human had ever actually been that high up.  The view was created using the exciting new tool of geometric perspective, and required both imagination and mathematical precision.  Finally, there’s the work of carving and printing an image so large.  It was made from six blocks of
pear wood, which are also on display along with the printed map.  (They are under glass in a fairly small, dim room, so I apologize that the photos aren’t great.)  It took de’Barbari three years to produce this epic wood block print.
        Try to see the detail of the carving.  My photo shows the carving of San Giorgio island and a big puffing cupid head, which are the bottom center of the whole map.
         So what’s the significance of the aerial view?  Well of course for one thing it has to show the whole city’s layout to be a map at all, as opposed to simply a cityscape as all the other block prints of Venice in my previous posts (I and II).  But beyond that, this image places the viewer in heaven; you see Venice as a god might see it, identifying the human with the divine in the new humanist spirit of the renaissance.  I think it’s hard for us today to imagine the groundbreaking excitement of this wood block print as a sort of demonstration and manifesto of all that humans (especially Venetians!) could accomplish.  It illustrated the commercial and maritime power of Venice, the power of surveying and geometry to tame the world, the power of the human imagination and craftsmanship to capture and define it, and the power of the new technology of printing to spread all these ideas and technologies as never before.  Venice was the European capital of printing at this time, so this monumental exemplar of printing advertised Venice’s accomplishments in that field, as well.  It was a huge hit immediately upon its publication, and its success was lengthy.

[Pictures: Venetie MD (Aerial View Map of Venice), wood block print by Jacopo de’Barbari, 1500 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Wood blocks for Venetie MD, and detail, photos by AEGN.]

July 4, 2017


        To follow up my post on the mythical golden city of El Dorado, here is the 1849 poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Gaily bedight, 
   A gallant knight, 
In sunshine and in shadow,   
   Had journeyed long,   
   Singing a song, 
In search of Eldorado. 

   But he grew old— 
   This knight so bold—   
And o’er his heart a shadow—   
   Fell as he found 
   No spot of ground 
That looked like Eldorado. 

   And, as his strength   
   Failed him at length, 
He met a pilgrim shadow—   
   ‘Shadow,’ said he,   
   ‘Where can it be— 
This land of Eldorado?’ 

   ‘Over the Mountains 
   Of the Moon, 
Down the Valley of the Shadow,   
   Ride, boldly ride,’ 
   The shade replied,— 
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’ 

        Poe wrote this poem during the California Gold Rush, so the search for actual physical gold was very much on people’s minds.  He keeps it ambiguous enough, however, that it can equally apply to any much-desired treasure, physical or intangible.  Most people seem to interpret it as a pessimistic reminder that we spend our lives chasing impossible dreams, but I think it can be read a little more optimistically.  A human may not be able to get over the Mountains of the Moon or through the Valley of Shadow, but perhaps the pilgrim spirit can.  After all, the spirit doesn’t say, “Give it up; it’s hopeless.”  He says, “Ride, boldly ride!”

[Picture: In search of Eldorado, illustration by William Heath Robinson, early 20th c (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

June 30, 2017

Words of the Month - Italian English

        As everyone knows, English loves to borrow words from other languages.  But we don’t just borrow any old word; the words we borrow give us all kinds of clues about our attitudes towards other languages and their speakers and cultures.  What do we admire?  What do we look down on?  What do we consider different and foreign?  What do we feel we need additional words to talk about properly?  Today’s Words of the Month are a case study in borrowing: loan words from Italian into English.
        We begin in the renaissance, when Italy was the banking center of Europe.  English people may have borrowed money, but they certainly borrowed Italian words to get bank (late 15th c), bankrupt (1560s “broken bench”), and manage (“handle” 1560s).
        When speakers of English under Elizabeth I were starting to feel good about their language after centuries of inferiority complex, both a cause and effect in the linguistic cycle that brought English to that point was the exuberant borrowing of words from all over Europe.  From Italian we borrowed the words for what we admired most about Italian culture: art and architecture.  (And remember that our friend Sebastiano Serlio was one of the Italian architects whose ideas were spread so widely and influentially, although Andrea Palladio is an even bigger name.)
cupola (1540s), motto (1580s, from heraldry) fresco and stucco (1590s)
portico (c1600), villa, grotto, and balcony (1610s)
With a touch of literature: novel (1560s), stanza (1580s)
        In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Italy had an enormous influence on the development of baroque and classical music, and English borrowed Italian musical terms wholesale.  
baritone (c 1600), opera (1640s), solo and sonata (1690s)
violoncello (shortened to cello in 1857), finale, trombone, tempo, oboe (a word Italian had borrowed from French hautbois) (all first appeared in English in A Short Explication of Such Foreign Words as are Made Use of in the Musick Books, 1724)
concerto (1730), soprano (1738), aria (1742), adagio (c1746), bravo (1761), pianoforte (1767), falsetto (1774), crescendo (1776)
        Not all borrowings are for things we admire, however.  English also borrowed bandit (1590s), stiletto (1610), vendetta (1846), and Mafia (1875) from Italian.  Why borrow words for crimes when speakers of English could just as easily have spoken of thieves, daggers, vengeance, and organized crime in native English words?  Sometimes it puts a romantic spin on a criminal, if a bandit seems more exotic and dashing than a footpad. But in many cases, by borrowing words for crime or other undesirable elements of culture, speakers put themselves at a distance.  These are Italian criminals and Italian crimes, not good, wholesome English behavior.  Vendetta and Mafia entered English with the waves of immigrants entering the United States during the Ellis Island period, and remind us of some of the stereotypes English speakers held about Italian immigrants.
        The one area where languages almost always end up borrowing from one another is food, and through the centuries English has adopted many Italian food words along with the foods themselves.
artichoke (1530s), macaroni (1590s), broccoli (1690s)
And through the late nineteenth into early twentieth century waves of immigration: 
lasagna (1846), salami (1852), pasta (1874), spaghetti (1885-90), 
mozzarella (1911), zucchini (1915), pepperoni (1919), pizza (1935), pesto (1937)
        Finally, here are a few bonus Italian words with interesting histories
umbrella (c1600, first used in English by John Donne)
vista (1650s)
casino (1744, but gambling house 1820)
graffiti (1851, from Pompeii)
lagoon (1670s, of Venice)

[Pictures: Portico and cupola on Chiesa di Santa Maria al Giglia a Montevarchi, wood block print from La Cento Citta d’Italia illustrate, 1896 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
The Concerto, linocut (four blocks) by Cyril Powers c.1935 (Image uploaded by user on Pinterest);
Pasta, linocut by Haley Polinsky (Image from Etsy shop HaleyPolinsky).]

June 27, 2017

Classical X Games

        How’s this for a vacation activity?  This woman appears to be parasailing or windsurfing on a fishy sea monster!
        This wood block image was apparently a printer’s device used by a printer in Nuremberg in 1562.  Since it’s freestanding rather than illustrating any particular text, I have no information about the identity of the woman, or what’s actually going on here.  Is she a nymph or a goddess, or an athlete?  Is she riding the fish by necessity or for recreation?  Who devised the sail and harness, or tamed the fish, if indeed it’s tame?  Will she take off from the fish and parasail as it pulls her?  Or is she surfing fishback?  Who is the companion riding alongside our intrepid bathing beauty, on a sort of sea pony of his own?  And is that a cupid swimming in the background?  So many questions; so many possibilities.  What do you think is happening in this scene?  And just as interestingly, what do you think the artist who designed this block was thinking in the sixteenth century, presumably before either surfing or parasailing was known in Nuremberg?

[Picture: Wood block print from Sechzehen Predig by Georg Eckhard, printed by Christoff Heussler, 1562 (Image from Provenance Online Project flickr).]

June 23, 2017

Window on the World

        Here’s a fun surreal piece by Neil Brigham.  Surrealism has broad overlap with fantasy, and this could illustrate the high-tech version of my Extraordinary Book of Doors: pictures that become portals.  If only travel were so easy!
        Although primarily a printmaker, Brigham does occasionally do scratchboard, and the fineness of lines on this piece make me wonder whether it might be scratchboard.  Unfortunately, Brigham’s web site gives no details about individual pieces.  The look is the same, in either case.  It’s whimsical, fun, and a little mysterious.

[Picture: illustration by Neil Brigham, image from Neil Brigham’s web site).]

June 20, 2017

Pride and Prejudice and Fantasy

        Yes, I’m one of those countless fans who lists Pride and Prejudice among my all-time favorite books.  But as we all know, there’s nothing speculative about Jane Austen’s fiction, so what’s a fantasy fan to do?  Easy - read one of the myriad Pride and Prejudice adaptations with a fantasy twist.  You may wish to start with the most famous…
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen with additions by Seth Grahame-Smith - All right, I admit that I haven’t actually read this one.  I was duly amused by the title, but assumed that having seen the title, I had got the joke.  If I were more interested in zombies, I might have read it anyway, but I see nothing in the reviews to entice me, despite its blockbuster success.  Opening line: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

        There are a downright stupefying number of P&P adaptations and sequels, so it’s no surprise that many of them should contain fantasy elements.  Among the offerings I see which I have not read - and have no intention of ever reading:
Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange - Tagline: A married man in possession of a dark fortune must be in want of an eternal wife.
Vampire Darcy’s Desire by Regina Jeffers
Darkness Falls Upon Pemberley by Susan Adriani - in which Elizabeth is the vampire
The Pemberley Vampire Hunters by Huw Thomas
Mrs. Darcy versus the Aliens by Jonathan Pinnock - Tagline: The truth is out there, though it is not universally acknowledged.
The Ghosts at Pemberley by Fenella Jane Miller
From Pemberley to Manhattan by Laís Rodrigues - involving time travel
Death Comes to Netherfield by Jacqueline Steel - involving a zombie plague and Dracula
Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret by Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian - involving demons and were-creatures of all sorts.  Opening line: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when the moon is full over Regency England, the gentlemen are all subject to its curse.
Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon by Maria Grace - I confess this seems a little more enticing than the others, but my library system doesn’t seem to have it, so I’ll probably never read this one, either.

        Of P&P variations I have read, I’ll mention two that are mystery rather than fantasy:
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James - A fine mystery, but James struggles sporadically with the Austen style for a chapter or two before giving up the unequal effort.
Jane and The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron - Okay, I admit this is neither fantasy nor Pride and Prejudice, being the first of a mystery series featuring Jane Austen herself as the detective.  But I include it because it’s excellent.  Barron does a great job capturing Austen’s voice; the historical setting is well researched, accurate (to the best of my knowledge, anyway), and intriguing; and the mysteries are thoroughly enjoyable.
        And finally, the P&P fantasies I’ve actually read:
Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris - which includes cursed artefacts and something like voodoo, maybe some mind control… I confess to remembering very little about it, except that it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense and I was thoroughly disappointed.
Heart Stone by Elle Katharine White - Pride and Prejudice and Dragons, which I enjoyed tremendously.  The magical world is well-crafted and interesting, and the translation of Austen’s characters and plot into this magical world is generally very well done.  This is not Regency England with dragons, but rather a purely fantasy world so that White can make things up as she wants without any jarring historical inaccuracy.  I enjoyed that White redeems several of Austen’s “villains” so that you don’t know everything about everyone ahead of time.  The romantic tension dissipates a little too soon, but it’s replaced by action adventure to provide suspense for the climax and finale.  Tagline: They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay.

[Pictures: video cover design of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies;
cover design of Mrs. Darcy versus the Aliens by Pinnock;
cover design of Heart Stone by White.]

June 16, 2017

Opposites Attract

        Here are two wood block prints entitled Opposite one and Opposite two.  I don’t know the significance, or what that’s supposed to mean, but presumably the two go together, if not from the cryptic titles then from their paired style, both figures filled with nested lines like mazes.  Weaver Hawkins (UK/Australia 1893-1977) lost the use of his right arm and hand during World War I, and thereafter had to learn how to use his left hand.  He was primarily a painter, and for someone whose arm was apparently never at full strength, cutting wood blocks must have been especially hard
work.  Hawkins specialized, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, in “modernist allegories of morality for an age of atomic warfare and global over-population.”  If that gives you any additional insight into these figures, you’re smarter than I am.  Certainly the man looks overwhelmed, but the woman looks quite content, I think.
        At any rate, what I do enjoy about these two pieces is their carving, simultaneously simple and busy.  I especially like the man’s left foot, and the cross-hatching in the woman’s background.  It’s very interesting how the limbs and details of the people’s bodies are both defined and disguised by the patterns of the mazy lines.

[Pictures: Opposite one, woodcut by Weaver Hawkins, 1963;
Opposite two, woodcut by Hawkins, 1963 (Images from the Art Gallery of NSW).]