While writing about the Danse macabre in a recent post I remembered this, the oldest known illustration of mechanical printing. It’s from a chapbook version of the Danse macabre printed in Lyons in 1499, at the very end of the incunabula period.
By this time printing has spread across Europe and the structure of the wooden press and the workflow of the printing house are well established. On the left of the woodcut sits the compositor, filling his tray with letters from the case. Beside him, resting on the bench, is the forme which holds the type tightly together during printing; this one looks like it holds two pages, making a folio-sized book. The page sticking up is the copy that he works from.
In the middle are the two pressmen, one waving an ink ball. These were made of treated, stuffed leather and the inker worked with one in each hand to spread the special, greasy ink on the assembled type. The third man would have operated the press itself, pulling on the wooden bar to lower the heavy platen, squeezing the paper onto the inked forme. The detail here is very good—the large wooden screw in the top of the press is clear and the press stone, which holds the forme and slides in and out for easy access, is visible. The press is also accurately shown as being stabilized via beams attached to the ceiling. The image on the right is a stationer’s shop, which were sometime attached to printing houses.
On a side note, one has to feel for the poor inker: with his colleagues dead and work at a standstill he’s loosing a day’s wages. No wonder he’s yelling.
Of course, printing hadn’t been invented when the Danse macabre became popular in the late fourteenth century. The inclusion of new technology into an old illustrative tradition shows that book designers were innovative even when copying older manuscript forms. And I imagine that it was a fun bit of self-referential black humor to the printers, known for being a bawdy, jovial lot.
This wasn’t the last time death would appear allegorically in the printing house. The illustration below is from a Danse macabre published at Lyons in 1568, nearly seventy years later, though the date of the woodcut itself is uncertain as they were often reused. It’s a copy of the 1499 image, and though this artist was less talented, he seems to have been as familiar with the print shop as was his predecessor. He has included details that are unclear or not visible in the older woodcut, such as the second ink ball, the platen, and the forme on the press stone; and he’s made the halfway finished forme next to the compositor four-pages (quarto-sized) rather than copying the two-page forme above.
Just a note: The 1499 woodcut is very well-known, but I discovered the second through a short article titled ‘An Early Picture of a Printing Press’ by William M. Ivins in the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 19, 1924.