The graphic art created for use in printed books of the Italian Renaissance has long been overlooked by art historians. In March of 1995 the Grolier Club presented the first major exhibition on this subject in America, as well as the first exhibition in a half-century devoted to the art of the woodcut in Italian Renaissance book illustration.
From devotional texts to books of science to lace pattern books to editions of the classics, the printers of the Renaissance in Italy drew on the rich artistic environment of their age to create a new form of book illustration in which the pictures were closely linked to the text for the first time. They invented a format that set a pattern for book illustration that has lasted to this day. As a result they put into circulation thousands of woodcut images on every subject and in a number of regional and personal styles.
The 72 books assembled for this exhibition showed the variety and beauty of these charming and precious small works of graphic art. Many portrayed the daily life of their times, from business transactions to the intimacies of courtship, while others powerfully presented popular religious imagery.
Curator Bennett Gilbert broke new ground by telling a coherent story of the invention and spread of this style of book illustration through the woodcut medium. It traced its origin in medieval popular religious images and the first attempts in Italy to connected printed work with visual images. The exhibition focused on the work of a group of printers in Venice from about 1490 to 1520, in which many beautiful woodcuts were used to develop and exploit the power of this new idea of book illustration. Finally, the decline of this artistic impulse and its diffusion to other media and formats was described.
The books were drawn from the distinguished Ahmanson-Murphy collection of early Italian imprints at the University of California at Los Angeles. In addition, the exhibition featured books assembled from the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and the Bridwell Library.
A checklist accompanied the exhibition.