The Nuremberg Chronicle and the History of the World

Woodcut of Nuremberg, Nuremberg Chronicle

On December 23, 1493, the German version of the Nuremberg Chronicle – in German ‘Schedelsche Weltchronik‘ – was published. It is one of the best-documented early printed books – an incunabulum – and one of the first to successfully integrate illustrations and text. Moreover, it was the most extensively illustrated book of the 15th century. OK, unless you are not a book history afficionado, a bibliophile eccentric or a historian with focus on early German Renaissance, you might have never heart of today’s subject, the Nuremberg Chronicle. But, be reassured, it is worth while.

Nuremberg was one of the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire in the 1490s, with a population of between 45,000 and 50,000. Although dominated by a conservative aristocracy, Nuremberg was a center of northern humanism. The author of the text, Hartmann Schedel, was a physician, humanist and book collector. He earned a doctorate in medicine in Padua in 1466, then settled in Nuremberg to practice medicine and collect books. According to an inventory done in 1498, Schedel’s personal library contained 370 manuscripts and 670 printed books, which was a fortune in these times. To compose the text of the World Chronicle, Hartman Schedel used passages from the classical and medieval works in his collection. He borrowed most frequently from another humanist chronicle, Supplementum Chronicarum, by Jacob Philip Foresti of Bergamo. It has been estimated that about 90% of the text is pieced together from works on humanities, science, philosophy, and theology, while about 10% of the Chronicle is Schedel’s original composition. Thus, the Nuremberg Chronicle, is an early Remix or Mashup.

This page of the Nuremberg Chronicle describes
“Saul, the first king of the Jews”, David, Samuel, Jonathon
and others.

The Chronicle itself is an illustrated world history, in which the contents are divided into seven ages. The First age starts with the creation of the world and ends with the Deluge, followed by the Second age that covers the time until the birth of the patriarch Abraham. The Third age of the world ends with the reign of King David and the Fourth age ends with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. The Fifth age ends with the birth of Jesus Christ, followed by the Sixth age until present day (1493 AD), followed by an outlook on the Seventh age, when the end of the world and the Last Judgement will come. The large workshop of Nuremberg’s leading artist of the time, Michael Wolgemut provided the unprecedented 1,809 woodcut illustrations. But, as usual in these early times of printing, woodcuts as e.g. for city scapes were reused on several occasions in the book, which finally leads to 645 unique woodcuts. For example, the woodcut that is used to represent Damascus is used to represent Verona and is also used to represent Mantua and Naples elsewhere in the work. Some see evidence that famous Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer helped to prepare several of the woodcuts, as he was an apprentice of Wolgemut in these days.

The illustrations in The Nuremberg Chronicle were not only its most important selling point, they were actually the reason for its being. It was the illustrator and engraver Michael Wolgemut who conceived the idea of preparing a profusely illustrated world history. He tried to get his friend, the printer and publisher Anton Koberger to undertake it, but Koberger felt it was too expensive and risky a project, so Wolgemut obtained the support of two wealthy patrons, the Nuremberg merchants Sebald Schreyer and his son-in-law Sebastian Kamermeister, whereupon Koberger agreed to do the printing. The Chronicle was first published in Latin already in July 1493. A German translation followed quickly and an estimated 1400 to 1500 Latin and 700 to 1000 German copies were published overall. Approximately 400 Latin and 300 German copies survived into the twenty-first century. Many copies of the book are also colored, with varying degrees of skill; there were specialist shops for this. The coloring on some examples has been added much later, and some copies have been broken up for sale as decorative prints. The popularity of the book is shown by the fact that there were five editions in only eight years. The reasons for its success are not difficult to see. It contained more illustrations than any book previously printed from movable type, which was enough to make it a “best seller.” Its subject matter also had wide appeal, for history has always been a popular subject.

The publisher and printer of the Nuremberg Chronicle was Anton Koberger, the godfather of Albrecht Dürer, who in the year of Dürer’s birth in 1471 ceased goldsmithing to become a printer and publisher. He quickly became the most successful publisher in Germany, eventually owning 24 printing presses with more than 100 craftsmen and having many offices in Germany and abroad, from Lyon to Budapest.

At yovisto you can learn more about the Renaissance art of illustration in the lecture ‘Dürer and Beyond: Central European Drawings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1400-1700‘.

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