When I first received this book, it fell open at pages 18 and 19, where identical illustrations had been reproduced on each page. I must confess that my first reaction (typical of an academic author with experience of grappling with proofs) was that something had gone horribly wrong with the printing process. Then I read the instructions (p. 19): “The reader should photocopy, or cut out dial number 1 and sew it with a knotted thread onto the center of 0.3 (p. 17).” The reverse of page 19 is blank so that cutting out the dial would not interfere with the main text.
We are used to seeing prints as works of art, hung on a wall, displayed flat behind glass in dimly lit galleries. At times prints were (or maybe they still are) carefully ironed to take out the creases and make them look as flat as possible. This book fundamentally challenges our assumption about the flatness of prints. There was once a large number of prints, produced to be cut out and assembled, to create flaps to be lifted or dials to be turned. Still others were to be folded into a three-dimensional sundial. These are ephemeral objects and do not survive in large numbers, but there was a large variety of them, as indicated in the online appendices. It is a pleasure to see reproduced so many surviving examples that Karr Schmidt has located through many different libraries and museums across Europe and the USA.
Karr Schmidt begins with the religious origins of sculptural and interactive prints. Early printed woodcuts, often ornately decorated, simulated the form of triptychs, while printed amulets and edible prints of saints reinforced the sensory forms of late medieval worship. Volvelles (paper discs), often used in medieval manuscripts to establish the date of Easter or create combinatorial knowledge, were adapted by Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder (Christian Lottery Book) for users to learn about their Christian fate by spinning the disc. Vogtherr also created paper flaps (a sheet or sheets of paper glued on top on another sheet of paper) to simulate layers of the human body in order to teach anatomy. At the same time, such flaps were deployed extensively for Protestant propaganda, to reveal the corruption of the Catholic Church. As these forms of prints spread South from Northern Europe, they were adapted for cryptography, lottery games, erotic titillation, and moralizing emblems.
A form of sculptural print that did not have a medieval precedent was the paper instrument, paper versions of scientific instruments, such as sundials, quadrants, and globes. It is perhaps not surprising that these were produced by those based in Nuremberg, an important centre for instrument production: Johannes Regiomontanus (in his last years), Johannes Stabius, Hans Springinklee, Albrecht Dürer, Johannes Schöner, and Georg Hartmann. Karr Schmidt convincingly argues that the instrument maker Hartmann, who saw the potential of paper instruments in their own right, was a most inventive and consistent producer of them. He established a market for nobles, humanists, and craftsmen, of a “build-it-yourself” instrument (p. 211). Some of these instruments entered princely collections.
In contrast, Peter Apian invented a deluxe, colored instrument book for the Holy Roman Emperor, aptly entitled Caesar’s Astronomy, in which numerous, large, colored volvelles with colored threads simulated the motion of the planets. The mobile paper parts quite literally put astronomical knowledge into motion. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Leonhard Thurneisser zum Thurn’s over-sized, overly complex, over-the-top set of eight volvelles in his Archidoxa (1575) was more about himself rather than users’ interaction, as he presented them as a monument to his wondrous intellect.
This book is also about the process of print-making, collaboration of graphic craftsmen, and markets that underpinned these productions. It tracks how the potential of print – to demand handling by its owner, to reveal knowledge and playful insight through turning dials and lifting flaps, to open a triptych or tell time with a sundial – was extended and exploited in creative ways. The heyday for these prints was the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had become clichéd – more a plaything for children.
Karr Schmidt’s book invites an important re-assessment of what a print was. It could be three-dimensional, mobile, tactile, or dynamic. I am not sure how many readers of this fascinating book will have the courage to cut out page 19 in order to re-create Della Porta’s cryptographic dial, even though the ability to decode some scurrilous lines is tempting. It would involve careful cutting, gluing or sewing onto the base images (printed on pages 16 and 17), which would likely make the book bulky. We would also hesitate ‘destroying’ a book priced at 169 Euros (we are more likely, if at all, to photocopy the relevant pages, as Karr Schmidt suggests). It is a stark reminder of how different our sensibility towards the printed book and the printed page has become. I can only commend the author’s courage and ingenuity in inviting the modern reader to interact with the pages, not just as a place-holder of text and ideas to be absorbed intellectually, but to appreciate its tactile and three-dimensional possibilities. This is the cutting edge of a thriving scholarship on prints as a versatile and dynamic art form. It would be of interest to historians interested in prints, art, science, medicine, religion and culture.
Trinity College, Cambridge, UK