In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Printmaking

  • Introduction
  • Print Collecting
  • Uses and Transformations
  • Epistemic Prints

Renaissance and Reformation Printmaking
Evelyn Lincoln
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0514


The history of printmaking is unwieldy to thematize because pictures were necessary components of so many aspects of medieval life when prints appeared in 15th-century Europe. Printed pictures were interchanged with handmade images as pilgrimage souvenirs, the focus of prayer, decoration, manuscript illustration, workshop models, and other situations requiring images. With the development of moveable type, single-sheet woodblock prints, available on fabric and paper, were used for book illustration; maps were collected into atlases; print publishing, printmaking, and print selling flourished; and collecting was encouraged by the publication of print series and pre-compiled albums. Printmaking required access to prepared hardwood blocks and copper plates, specialized tools and training, presses, paper, and labor. Print distribution required publishers, booksellers, and eventually the legal protection of investments through a privilege system. New ways of distributing responsibility for authorship emerged during the Inquisition with print censorship. An active patronage system was adapted to conventions of dedication and rededication as matrices survived their original patronage networks. Prints were rarely the subject of academic research before the twentieth century unless they reflected designs by renowned painters, such as Mantegna, Dürer, Rubens, or Rembrandt. Much of the early writing about prints focused on these recognized masters. The definition of an original print relied on Bartsch’s 19th-century category of peintre-graveurs, artists whose original inventions were registered in the form of prints. Since few painters learned printmaking techniques with the skill of specialized craftspeople, Bartsch’s distinction muddied the question of what an original print is today, also preventing historians from understanding how to value the contribution of the painters, goldsmiths, embroiderers, and cartographers for whom the distinction was irrelevant. In the modern era, early private print collections entered museums, making curators the first interpreters of prints. The encyclopedic Illustrated Bartsch, the New Hollstein, and digitized censuses of prints and their matrices are ongoing projects allowing us to understand better how integral copying and republishing was to the development of printmaking. Scholars studying the role of prints in ritual practice, career formation, theology, medicine, commerce, travel, colonization, and the geographic imagination engaged new opportunities offered by digital cataloguing. The material turn in print studies fruitfully combined the work of academic historians, curators, and conservators who had the most intimate knowledge of prints, showing how the three branches of study demonstrating how printed pictures shaped and were shaped by the aesthetic, social, and material circumstances of early modern life.

General Overviews and Surveys

These surveys address questions about how to recognize printing techniques, what constitutes an original print, why prints were made, who their audiences were, and how they differ from drawings and paintings. They are the best entry point to begin thinking about early modern prints. Ivins 1969, Mayor 1971, and Griffiths 1996 are authored by curators of important public collections with a career’s worth of insight into Renaissance printmaking and its reception today.

  • Griffiths, Antony. Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

    Originally published in 1980, this is a substantially updated, informative and accessible work by the Keeper of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum between 1991 and 2011, intended for nonspecialists, with a glossary of essential printmaking terms. Published by arrangement with the British Museum Press.

  • Ivins, William M. Prints and Visual Communication. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1969.

    This collection of lectures (originally published 1953) by the first curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s print collection introduced prints as “exactly repeatable pictorial statements,” a property he claimed was fundamental to scientific progress and the ability to communicate ideas beyond what words could accomplish. Ivins (b. 1881–d. 1961) also introduced the concept of “visual syntax” to describe the conventions of shading, hatching, and linework devised by early modern printmakers.

  • Mayor, A. Hyatt. Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971.

    Ranging from the beginning of printmaking to modern works of art and commerce, Metropolitan Museum of Art print curator Mayor’s book was one of the first histories of print to look at the social uses of images in art prints and almanacs, herbals and frontispieces, on money and prayer cards, all as communicative images.

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