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The Visual Art of Printing: The Curious and Their Collections (Part I) by Peter Michel

By Su Kim Chung on May 23, 2018 6:30 PM | Permalink

From the German Baroque to Revolutionary France, with Bill Harrah’s playing cards in between, the art of printing and printmaking has captured the eye of collectors. This Reading Room exhibit highlights the visual arts of printing from three collections representing three very different collectors: a European scholar of literature, an unknown American collector of Napoleana, and a Nevada gaming mogul.

In part one of this series on his exhibit "The Visual Art of Printing," curator Peter Michel discusses a rare collection of German Baroque literature housed in Special Collections & Archives. 

A German Baroque literature Collection at UNLV?

An illustration of the Imperial Library in Vienna, the ultimate “Cabinet of Curiosities”. Most of Emperor Rudolf II’s famous collections in his Prague Palace were removed to Vienna after his death. Eberhard Werner Happel, Gröste Denkwürdigkeiten der Welt vol.II. Hamburg: T. von Wiering, 1683-91.

John Lindberg, Professor of German literature at UNLV was a Viennese-born scholar with an international reputation in the field of German Baroque literature. A somewhat small and esoteric academic field, few libraries in the United States, outside of Yale and Duke have collections that support it. Professor Lindberg not only wanted to establish a German Baroque collection here that would, if not rival Yale’s, at least be respectable, but also he wanted to raise the academic reputation of the fledgling UNLV. So, Professor Lindberg on his travels in Germany visited bookstores, selected and collected volumes and shipped them back to the UNLV Library. Since Professor Lindberg’s death in 1988, and without a German Baroque scholar on the faculty, the collection has remained a highly specialized research collection that has not attracted much use.

The Visual Culture of Curiosity in the Age of the Baroque

Germany in the seventeenth century, a period defined in art and literature as the High Baroque, was a remarkable comingling of cultures, ethnic communities and languages, intellectual currents and fashions, and religious and political turmoil. It was the age of great princely courts, with their elaborately theatrical ceremonial rituals, centers for a dizzying constellation of artists and musicians, mathematicians and astronomers, poets and painters, alchemists and astrologers, magicians and charlatans. Their palaces became great museums of art, libraries, and Cabinets of Curiosities gathered from the far ends of the globe.

The seventeenth century also saw the emergence of a new popular culture of print that disseminated all manner of news and information about current events and new discoveries.  This new popular print media of newsletters, newspapers, and books brought to European readers stories of exotic places, from Turkey, the Orient and Africa, to the New World with all its strange and mysterious peoples, cultures and wildlife, an endless source of subjects to whet European readers’ insatiable appetite for The Curious. 

It was also an age of warfare and revolution, heroes and adventurers, great warrior kings, princes, and dukes, the generals of the interminable wars, mercenaries, freebooters, rogues, and pirates. Current affairs provided endless adventure stories and with the advances in the technology of printing and print making from copper and steel engraving, the new print media bloomed with illustrations: portraits, battle scenes, landscapes,  botanical and zoological wonders, colorful natives – the precursor of the National Geographic or Harpers Illustrated Magazine.

The Tower of Babel. Eberhard Werner Happel, Gröste Denkwürdigkeiten der Welt, vol.I.

Eberhard Happel, 1647- 1690, was a typical Baroque polymath, one of the earliest writers to make a successful career with his pen. A wandering student, Happel settled in Hamburg where he absorbed the cultural crosscurrents of this bustling international port city and where he established himself as a popular journalist, translator, historian and author of enormous historical novels set against the backdrop of current events. 

Besides a major trade entrepôt Hamburg had become one of the print capitals of Europe, a center of a thriving printing industry, which packaged and published for a popular market the news of the world. Happel greedily devoured the newspapers and travel accounts of sea voyages, the ongoing war with the Turks, and pirate raids, filled with stories from across Europe and to the furthest reaches of European discovery. Perhaps his most famous contribution to the culture of things worth seeing and experiencing was his encyclopedic collection of news of both fact and fable, the Relationes Curiosae, which was printed in serial form. Happel was fortunate that Hamburg had also become a center of printmaking and illustration, an important contribution to the new mass media. His books are lavishly illustrated with engraved plates of people, places and the endless variety of physical and historical curiosities, a visual Theater of the World.

Allegorical title page depicting Mercury the Roman messenger god and god of eloquence, trade and commerce, pointing to the Emperor Leopold with his herald’s staff or caduceus and with the other hand to an image depicting the abduction of Europa by Zeus which had become a common personification symbolizing the continent of Europe, Leopold’s Empire. Mercury is presenting this to the author, an angel, pen in hand.

Illustration from Eberhard Werner Happel, Historia moderna Europae: oder Eine historische Beschreibung des heutigen Europae welche ... furnemlich mas kurtz vor und unter der glorwurdigsten Regierung dess Aller-Durchleuchtigsten - Vrossmachtigst-und Unuberwindlichsten Romischen Kaysers Leopoldii ... Ulm : M. Wagner, 1692. A History of modern Europe, reaching its apotheosis in the reign f the Emperor Leopold II.

Portrait of the Emperor Leopold II, with his distinctive Hapsburg visage (and uncanny likeness to Charles II of England), surrounded by emblems of his empire as well as the arts and sciences that distinguished an enlightened monarch.

The triumphant arrival of William, Prince of Orange at Dartmouth on the English coast in November 1688 to claim the throne from the deposed King James II. The success of the Glorious Revolution in England in which the Catholic James was supplanted by the Protestant Prince William was celebrated by Protestant Europe of which Happel’s Hamburg was a cultural center.

Both illustrations are from Eberhard Werner Happel, Fortuna Brittannica, oder, Brittannischer Glücks-Wechsel : fürstellend eine kurzbündige Beschreibung aller Königen von Engelland, und des schier stets unglückseeligen Hauses Stuart ... biss zur Erhebung des jetzigen grossmächtigen Königs Wilhelm van Oranien. Hamburg: T. von Wireing, 1689.  A history of Great Britain from the reign of Charles I to the accession of William III.

View these items in the Special Collections & Archives Reading Room on the 3rd floor, LIed Library. Up next in the "Visual Art of Printing" series: Bill Harrah and His Collections.