Color, collation, and curious creatures: a technical study of 15th-century block books at The Morgan Library & Museum
Department of Scientific Research, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 10028, New York, NY, USA
2 Thaw Conservation Center, The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, 10016, New York, NY, USA
Accepted: 23 March 2021
Published online: 20 April 2021
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, owns one of the largest and most prestigious collections of block books in the world, most of which are attributed to the Netherlands and Germany and dated to ca. 1460–1490. Block books are rare examples of early multi-page works produced entirely from hand-colored woodcuts, with both imagery and text carved in relief from a single block. Although created for only a few decades in the late 15th century, block books are relevant in that they represent an alternative production method to the coeval invention of typographic printing, which, upon introduction, quickly dominated the book market. As little is known about the composition of early printing inks and, more broadly, of the materials constituting these unusual objects, an extensive campaign of scientific analysis was undertaken using various non-invasive and micro-invasive techniques. Examination of the paper and watermarks provided information regarding provenance and dating of the books. Their polychrome imagery was found to have been created through a widespread use of both mineral pigments and natural dyes, often present in complex mixtures and applied in various ways. Similarly, the printing inks typically consist of combinations of carbon-based and iron gall inks, sometimes mixed with red mineral pigments likely to adjust their hue. In a few cases, modern pigments were also identified on inserted replacement pages, pointing to later interventions. This research has substantially enriched the current knowledge of the materials and techniques employed in block books and securely links them to single-leaf woodcuts of the 15th century, placing them in a medieval illumination tradition.
© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Società Italiana di Fisica and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2021