Most histories of print collectors and their collections spring from an investigation of the print collection itself. Take for example, Peter Parshall’s article on Ferdinand of Tyrol’s collection at Ambras (‘The Print Collection of Ferdinand, Archduke of Tyrol,’ Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, 88, 1982, pp. 139-184), or Marjorie B. Cohn’s exhibition and catalogue of the Spencer albums (A Noble Collection: The Spencer Albums of Old Master Prints, Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, 1992). In both cases, the authors document the prints themselves and their organization within albums, while also including histories of the individuals who assembled and maintained the albums. The starting point of Mark McDonald’s account of Ferdinand Columbus’s collection is different however because the collection itself is no longer extant. The prints were dispersed soon after Columbus’s death in 1539. All that remains is an inventory of Columbus’s 3,200 prints, but the register does not consistently specify pertinent details necessary for identification. Using this textual account, McDonald takes on the herculean task of identifying the prints’ makers and conventional titles where possible, and thus reconstructing the earliest known Renaissance print collection.
Like the undertaking, the publication itself is colossal. It consists of two volumes and a CD-ROM. The first volume includes McDonald’s history of Columbus and his book and print collections, a description and analysis of the surviving documents, and an explication of Columbus’s complex classification system. It also includes seven essays by specialist contributors about specific aspects of the collection, such as early German works, maps and town views, etc.; illustrations of prints listed in the inventory; and various appendices reproducing original texts pertaining to the inventory. The second volume reproduces and translates the inventory, as well as provides McDonald’s identification of some of the unnamed prints. The CD-ROM provides access to the database McDonald used to identify the prints.
Ferdinand Columbus, the second son of explorer Christopher Columbus, benefited from the rigorous education bestowed upon the children of those connected with the Spanish court. After accompanying his father on his forth and final voyage to the New World, Columbus served as a courtier and traveled extensively through Europe. Most likely Columbus procured the majority of prints as he traveled, necessitating the possession of his inventory list. His acquaintance with libraries and humanist learning encouraged his formulation of a multifaceted system of classification, based on detailed visual analysis of the images. For example, prints are categorized by size, subject, number of figures depicted, gender of figures, and whether the figures are clothed or not. Then within these groupings other distinctions are elucidated, i.e. the actions undertaken by the figures, their relationship to the objects and landscape around them, and very importantly, the transcription of inscriptions.
McDonald’s rebuilding of the collection from the inventory descriptions was made possible through technological means. He and his collaborators devised a database system that incorporated the classifications used by Columbus. They then fed the prints from The Illustrated Bartsch through the database, sorted through the matches, and identified those prints included in Bartsch. Those prints not covered within the Bartsch volumes required more labor-intensive processes for identification. Of particular interest are those prints that could not be identified (fully half of those listed), which suggests that no extant impressions exist. The number of unknown prints listed in the inventory speaks volumes about how limited our interpretation of early printmakers and their work is. Sometimes, described monograms make it evident that renowned printmakers made images that are unknown to us. For instance, the inventory ascribes thirty prints to Hans Weiditz, yet impressions of only twenty-one of those have survived into the twenty-first century.
McDonald’s careful analysis of the inventory also discloses much about collecting practices during the first decades of its inception. Columbus presumably did not begin buying prints in earnest until around 1520, when he traveled through the Netherlands and Germany and perhaps encountered Dürer. But thereafter, he gathered prints assiduously until his death in 1539. What he purchased provides a telling account of print collecting in the wake of Dürer’s transformative effect on what had previously been considered the work of craftsmen. 70% of Columbus’ prints are by Germanic printmakers, while only 20% were by Italians, and 10% by Netherlandish artists. Peter Parshall, one of the essayists who contributed to the volume, claims that Columbus’ overwhelming majority of Germanic prints must be an effect of what was available on the market. Ger Luijten, in his essay on Netherlandish prints, also makes noteworthy claims about the market. He argues that artists and artisans, who used prints as model sheets, comprised the bulk of early patrons. Though many of the Netherlandish prints described in the register no longer survive, details from them populate paintings, metalwork, tapestries, and stained glass from the period. Such insights are unachievable without the evidence of such an early collection.
The CD-ROM makes the far-reaching implications and generosity of McDonald’s project most apparent. It allows the reader to search the database and realign the data for individual research purposes. For instance, the inventory describes many colored and gilded prints. Using the excavated information, there is an article to be written on the prevalence, value, and collecting of hand-colored prints in the first half of the sixteenth century. McDonald has made much further work possible.
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University