In 1493, the same year that Columbus’s discovery of the New World was announced, a man named Hartmann Schedel was creating his own world. Using the latest technological advances, he put together the most magnificent book of the era: the first printed illustrated history of the world.
The project was called the Liber Chronicarum, though it is better known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, and it covers all the events of human history from the creation of the world to the future apocalypse–from a 15th-century perspective.
There are Biblical stories, emperors of Rome, popular myths, medieval wars; all have been edited together in this Renaissance tapestry of printing. More than 1800 woodcuts show us the great figures, eternal cities, and most advanced maps of the day.
Some copies of the work were colored by hand after they were printed. Today, complete hand-colored copies command prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This fantastic double-page woodcut depicts 15th century Nuremberg. Of particular note is the paper mill in the lower right-hand corner, the first depiction in a book of a paper mill. Albrecht Durer was apprenticed to the man in charge of the woodcuts, so he may have cut or even designed some of the examples in this book as a youth.
After Europe’s disastrous encounter with the plague in the 14th century, images of death in art flourished. This Dance of Death, also called the Imago Mortis, is considered one of the most powerful expressions of late-medieval German art.
The fanciful could often be approved as fact in this 15th-century book, particularly when combined with an authoritative source. Here a phoenix is depicted as described in Herodotus’ Histories.
A little over midway through, readers can find a portrait of Merlin, the adviser to King Arthur. Nevermind that he’s simply a fictional character in one of the Europe’s most popular epic cycles—there he is on the page, next to descriptions of pre-William the Conqueror England.
Just as fanciful as Merlin, but more blasphemous: the one female pope. Known as Pope Joan, she is said to have been an unusually well-educated and talented woman who disguised herself as a man. She was caught only because she became pregnant and gave birth. The legend was widely believed during the period in which the Nuremberg Chronicle was printed, and persisted until about the 17th century, when Protestant snickering led to official declarations by the Catholic Church on the false history of Pope Joan. Afterwards, depictions like this were often piously inked out.
The Nuremberg Chronicle is coveted by more than bibliophiles: its map of Europe is one of the most important collectibles for antique map collectors as well. Scholars say this is the first printed map of Modern Europe. Note the detail around Germany and the growing inaccuracies as one looks farther from Nuremberg. Note also that Nuremberg has been placed almost directly in the center.
At the end of the Nuremberg Chronicle, Schedel has provided the owner with empty pages. After more than 200 pages of history through 1493, the editor kindly leaves us roughly four measly blank pages to fill in the rest. Who would like to start?