by Matthew S. Schweitzer
If the Gutenberg Bible is the most important and valuable printed book of the 15th century then the Liber Chronicarum, more commonly known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, is a close second. A marvel of early book production and illustration, the Nuremberg Chronicle is a massive work bursting with over 1,800 exquisite woodcut engravings produced by one of the preeminent printer-publishers of the 15th century, Anton Koberger. It is universally recognized as not only one of the most lavishly illustrated books ever made and a treasury of Renaissance art, but also an intriguing glimpse into a world on the cusp of great and momentous changes in science, religion, exploration, and the social structures of European civilization. Its publication marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Early Modern Era. It represents a point in time at the dawn of the Age of Reason and for this and many other reasons, it is an artistic treasure of immense proportion.
The Nuremberg Chronicle was published in 1493 in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, which had become a prominent printing hub in the decades after the introduction of the printing press by Gutenberg nearly forty years earlier. By the time of the book’s publication, Anton Koberger had already established himself as one of the great printers of that city having opened his first printing house there in 1470. Koberger became one of the most successful printers in Germany. At the height of his success, the business ran 24 printing presses and employed an army of 100 workers, which allowed him to produce a mountain of works on a wide variety of subjects over the course of his career. However, the Nuremberg Chronicle is by far his most famous and important production.
In December 1491, two Nuremberg merchants, Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kemmermeister approached Koberger about commissioning a grand publication: a profusely illustrated history of the world from Creation to Judgement Day. As part of the initial contract with Koberger, two Nuremberg artists, Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurif, were hired to create the numerous woodcut engravings. In fact, it was Wolgemut who had initially suggested the ambitious project to Koberger and helped to line up Sebald and Kemmermeister as the primary investors in what they were sure was to be a “best seller”. Hartmann Schedel, a local Nuremberg doctor and humanist, was engaged to write the text of the book. Schedel was well known for his extensive collection of printed books and manuscripts, which made a tremendous amount of knowledge available to him for references purposes. Schedel “borrowed” heavily from other earlier authors for his text, with particularly heavy influence from an earlier world history, the Supplementum Chronicarum, by Jacob Philip Foresti of Bergamo.
Two editions were planned by Koberger, a Latin and German translation. Georg Alt was hired to create the translation from the Latin text. This point alone is worthy of note since it made the book accessible to those who wanted to have a copy of the history of the world in their own native language and expanded the potential customer base beyond the typical university-educated scholar. The first copies of the Latin edition rolled off the presses in July 1493. The German edition appeared months later in December of the same year. It is estimated that 1500 Latin editions and 1000 German editions were printed. Customers could also pay extra to have their copies rubricated and have the woodcut engravings hand-colored to create an exceptionally luxurious book. A number of these hand-colored copies survive today and are held as iconic treasures by the collectors and institutions lucky enough to own them. Overall it is estimated that roughly 400 copies of the Latin edition along with about 300 copies of the German edition survive today.
Overall the book is divided into seven periods or eras, each devoted to a separate segment of world history beginning with the Creation of the World as told in the Biblical Book of Genesis and ending with its destruction on Judgement Day according to the Book of Revelation. In between the story of Man on Earth is told in great detail, recounting mankind’s great achievements and disastrous failures. The book concludes with a massive world map showing the Earth as it was known at the close of the 15th century just prior to news of the discovery of the New World and the revolutionary changes it would bring.
The book’s frontispiece is a incredible full page woodcut engraving of God enthroned in Heaven, dressed in the garb of a Renaissance Pope. The throne is flanked by two columns which support an arch of branches upon which a group of Cherubim cavort wildly. Below, two hairy ape-like humanoid creatures hold large shields, initially left blank and intended to be filled in later presumably with the coat of arms of the book’s owner. The story of the creation and fall of Man are told with a series of large detailed illustrations. The stories of the Old Testament are conveyed as true history with the story of Moses and the Exodus, the foundation of Israel and the life of Christ told with large half and even full page engravings. Extensive genealogies are given connecting all the prominent historical figures back to Adam and Eve. Each of these figures is given a portrait to coincide with the passages relating to their place in the chronicle of history. Impressive cityscapes illustrate the various locales described in the text. By far the most impressive of these is a full two-page engraved view of the city of Nuremberg itself. Interestingly of the 1809 individual woodcuts included in the book, only 645 of them are unique. In many places the same engravings are used for different cities and portraits sometimes reused a dozen times across the book for various completely unrelated historical figures.
Without question the fame and notoriety of the Nuremberg Chronicle comes from its woodcut engravings. Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurif were the principal artists contracted to create the engravings for the book and while each was a prominent artist in their own right, they are probably best remembered for their contributions to the Nuremberg Chronicle. Wolgemut ran a well-known and respected artists workshop in Nuremberg and he himself is believed to have been the original impetus for the creation of the Chronicle from the start. Wilhem Pleydenwurif was Wolgemut’s stepson and assistant, Wolgemut having studied under Wilhelm’s father Hans and had married his wife after the master’s death in 1472. Wolgemut is also remembered as having apprenticed a young Albrecht Durer in his workshop for several years. Durer, who was godson to Anton Koberger, has long been thought to have possibly contributed some of the woodcuts for the Nuremberg Chronicle, although this is disputed by some who say that Durer was gone from Wolgemut’s workshop by the time work began on the book.
Perhaps what is even more unusual and of particular importance for art historians is the fact that much of the original artwork, layouts, and wood blocks used for the production of the Nuremberg Chronicle were preserved and exist today. We know that Wolgemut’s workshop had been working on designs for the book for years before its publication, perhaps as early as 1488 (which is why some scholars speculate that a young Durer could have worked on some of the preliminary artwork.). As part of the work contract, Wolgemut was required to submit manuscript layouts (called exemplars) of both the Latin and German editions to Schreyer and Kemmermeister . These exemplars were used to design the layout of the book and the interposition of text and illustration, which were used as a guide when executing the job of actually printing the book. The book’s patrons later had the copy of the Chronicle’s exemplars bound with their coat of arms displayed on the endpapers and preserved for posterity. Today Wolgemut’s pencil sketch design for the elaborate frontispiece is displayed in the collection of the British Museum.
The publication of the Nuremberg Chronicle was largely a commercial success for its creators. In 1509 a financial accounting of the sales of the book showed that 600 copies of the book remained unsold, with blame for these unsold copies placed on the appearance of pirate editions of the Chronicle appearing not long after its initial publication. In fact we know that between 1496 and 1500 Augsburg printer Johann Schönsperger produced three “unauthorized” editions of the Chronicle in both Latin and German. These became known as the Augsburg Chronicle and contained a condensed version of Schedel’s text and all new artwork which copied the original closely. Schönsperger’s editions were in a much smaller 4to format and thus were considerably cheaper and appealed to the less affluent but literate customer.
As mentioned nearly 700 copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle survive today both in institutions and in private collections. The survival of so many varied copies along with the existence of the exemplars, original artwork, and legal contracts provide an incredible and unusually full picture of the history and production of this book. It is a treasure beyond compare for scholars, historians, artists, and book lovers.
A Parting Note
Here in Ohio we are lucky to have at least two copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle accessible to those interested in seeing this magnificent book in person. Ohio State University and the Toledo Museum of Art both have nearly perfect copies in their collections. Both copies have been rebound, but their contents are impeccably preserved. While neither of these copies are hand-colored or rubricated, the woodcut engravings are decidedly impressive up close. They represent a tangible link to the earliest era of the printed book and anyone privileged to see them in person will undoubtedly look upon them in awe for they are an extraordinary example of the Northern Renaissance made incarnate.
Editor’s Note: Kent State University holds two copies of the chronicle, one in each language and hand-colored. Both are available for viewing and research in Special Collections. If you want to read more about the conception, construction, and printing of the Nuremberg Chronicle, check out Adrian Wilson’s The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle with an introduction by Peter Zahn (Netherlands: Nico Israel, 1976). You can also purchase books of the city plates from Dover Publications.