A History of the World in 645 woodblocks

Two leaves from Liber Chronicarum (‘The Nuremberg Chronicle’) by Hartmann Schedel, printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg in 1493
(410 x 285 mm and 397 x 275 mm)

Ten years after he published the German Bible (3.4), Koberger completed what was probably the most ambitious publishing venture of the fifteenth century: a lavishly illustrated history of the world, from the first day of creation, through the present time to the end of the world and Last Judgement. It was printed in two versions, with text in Latin or German. The book itself had no title page and did not bear the name of its compiler, but has become known as the Liber Chronicarum (Book of Histories) or more commonly (and misleadingly) today the Nuremberg Chronicle. The author has been identified as the Nuremberg physician, scholar, and bibliophile, Hartmann Schedel, who lived a few doors down the street from Koberger. Much of the text is derived from books in his own library, which survives today as part of the Bayerische Staatbibliothek in Munich.

Koberger produced this book under contract from two wealthy Nuremberg businessmen. He may have had as many as 18 presses at his command and a total workforce of more than 100. An estimated 1400 copies in Latin and 700 in German were printed, and it is claimed that more copies of this work survive today than any other pre-1501 printed book.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is renowned for the number and quality of its illustrations. According to Sydney Cockerell, who counted them in the 1890s, 645 woodblocks were used, but since most of them were employed more than once in the course of the book, there are 1809 illustrations all told. On my first leaf (folio CCL) there are portraits of a King, Ladislaus of Hungary and Bohemia, and overleaf popes Pius II and Paul II. These are conjectural images rather than true likenesses; both the woodcuts of popes appear elsewhere in the book to represent other pontiffs.

As the heading shows, the first leaf comes from the section of the book covering ‘Sexta etas mundi’, the sixth age of the world, from the birth of Christ to the ‘present’ day. The first page covers events in the 1450s, including the appearance of two comets, represented by the stylised image. The first comet, visible in June 1456, was followed by another a year later which ‘affected the minds of mortals in various ways’. (Astronomers identify the first of these appearance as being the comet subsequently named Halley’s, which reappears in our skies every 76 years.)

Among the most notable images in the Chronicle are the bold and dramatic cityscapes, of which the one on the back of my second leaf (folio CCLXVIII – scroll right down to find it) is an example. It appears at the start of the section on the history of Hungary, but the same picture also appears alongside text on Wallachia, Prussia and Saxony, suggesting it probably does not represent anywhere in particular.

The woodblock used to print this picture, like all the others, was produced by the leading Nuremberg artists Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff – father and son-in-law. In their workshop the original drawings were transferred by draughtsmen onto woodblocks which were then passed to specialist cutters for carving. One of Wolgemut’s apprentices for part of the time the woodblocks were in production was Albrecht Dürer, who would go on to be the greatest printmaker of his time. Some claim to see his hand in one or two of the woodcuts in the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Some copies of the Chronicle were sold with the woodcuts already hand-coloured, and others uncoloured at one-third the price. Some of these would have been coloured after purchase, but not the one from which these leaves come. Its owner did not even get the decorated initials drawn in as the publisher intended – hence the blank square on the recto page of leaf CCLXVIII intended to contain a seven-line letter ‘A’ to start the word ‘Antonio’.