Woodcut, a type of relief printing, is the oldest printmaking technique, and the only one traditionally used in the Far East, in which knives and other tools are used to carve a design into the surface of a wooden block.

It was probably first developed as a means of printing patterns on cloth, and by the 5th century was used in China for printing text and images on paper. Woodcuts of images on paper developed around 1400 in Japan, and slightly later in Europe. These are the two areas where woodcut has been most extensively used purely as a process for making images without text.

Until the 18th century, printing matrices were generally made of hardwood (pear, apple, cherry, etc.), cut in the direction of the fiber (thread wood). Then spread, in particular by T. Bewich, the use of boards cut perpendicular to the fibers of the wood, usually boxwood (head wood), which for their compactness allow to achieve pictorial effects, compared to those purely graphic of the first engravings. On the matrix is performed the work of carving, using sharp knives and gouges (with the head wood is also used the burin), saving the design to be reproduced, which then results in relief; after inking the matrix, the printing is done manually (making a sheet adhere to it) or by means of a flat press; in the printing the hollow parts correspond to the color of the paper. At the beginning, woodcuts were also colored with tempera or watercolor, but since the 16th century, color woodcuts were experimented with more matrices; color woodcuts reached a very high level in Japan, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing the number of woodcuts used up to 20. Numerous matrices are in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin (especially by German Renaissance masters), in the Musée de l’Imprimerie et de la Banque in Lyon (especially for book illustrations) and in the Galleria Estense in Modena. Effects similar to those of woodcut are obtained by linoleum engraving (linoleumgraphy), widespread since the first decades of the 20th century.

See also: Woodcut process explained by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In woodcut books, illustrations and text, whether they occupy the entire page or divide it with figures, are printed with wood-engraved matrices. Very rare and often known in only one copy, they represent the natural evolution of religious prints that, printed on flyleaves, appeared since the middle of the fourteenth century. In many of the oldest tabular prints, until about the middle of the fifteenth century, the text is added by hand: in this case we speak more properly of chiroxilographic books. A chronology of the xylographic book is very difficult to establish.

The earliest dated copy is the Biblia pauperum printed in Nördlingen by F. Waltern in 1470. However, stylistic, technical and iconographic examination of the engravings has led to the assumption that the woodcut book appeared no later than 1430-40. The woodcut books, in which the illustration appears to prevail over the text, consisting mostly of captions (but there are also tabular prints without figures), always have a popular character and religious or didactic content: Apocalypse (a Dutch edition is among the oldest woodcut books), Ars moriendi (Holland, ca. 1450), Ars memorandi, Dance of Death, Speculum humanae salvationis, Planets series (Germany, after 1460), Abecedarium (Ulm, after 1470), Donatus minor (often appeared in tabular editions even after the spread of printing).

The countries of major production are Holland, where perhaps this form of book originated, and Germany. Very few tabular books are known to have been printed in Italy; two of them belong to the 15th century: a “Storia della Passione,” venetian (ca. 1460), and Mirabilia Romae in German, certainly printed in Rome by a German printer for the Jubilee of 1475 and of which two copies are preserved (British Museum and Gotha Library). The other two known Italian woodcut books are from the sixteenth century: Opera nova contemplativa by Z.A. Vavassore, not prior to 1510 (Venice), and La operina da imparare di scrivere littera cancellarescha by the calligrapher L. degli Arrighi (il Vicentino, Rome, 1522-23).

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