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Dragonfly Wings & other Bookish Things


Look closely at the flower. Notice anything? Now check out the opposite side of the page:

[Joris Hoefnagel (artist), Mira calligraphiae monumenta, Flemish, illumination 1591-1596, script 1561-1562. Getty, MS 20, fol. 37v. Image from here.]

It’s a beautiful example of trompe l’oeil in a manuscript, from the illuminator and engraver Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1601). Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Rudolf II commissioned Hoefnagel to illustrate the Mira calligraphiae monumenta, produced by the calligrapher Georg Bocskay twenty years earlier. Because Bocskay’s calligraphic flourish crossed the entire page, Hoefnagel nestled the flower stem into an “slit” in the parchment. The shadows on both the flower and the mussel preserve the illusion.

Not uncommon in illuminated manuscripts, in fact trompe l’oeil flourished in Netherlandish book painting during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Other examples from the same period show strewn borders with three-dimensional shadowing, as if the flowers were tossed on top of the page —

[Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, Bruges, 1480s. The Getty, MS 23, fol. 13v. Image pulled from here.]

[Hours of Engelbert Nassau, Flemish, 1470-1490. Bodleian, MS Douce 220, fol. 170v. Image pulled from here.]

— while still others show pilgrim badges and other devotional objects — which pilgrims would have, in some cases, actually sewn into their books — as if they are pinned to the page —

[Book of Hours, early sixteenth century. The Hague, MMW, 10 E 3, fol. 90v. Originally pulled from here.]

[Book of Hours from Belgium, perhaps Tournai, 1480s. Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.0234, fol. 037v. Image pulled from here.]

I love this. On the one hand, I’m thinking of the contemporary trompe l’oeil murals produced by frescography, a method of digitally designing and printing illusionistic images that expand the depths of walls; on the other, I’m imagining contemporaneous late medieval / early modern florilegia, Stammbücher, and herbaria, which often acted as scrapbooks of pinned and pressed flowers, butterflies and pilgrim badges. In the former, digital media becomes a means of projection, of expanding one’s physical environment; in the latter, the book becomes the platform for collecting, preserving and transporting, both in time and space, those aspects of one’s environment which bear personal significance. Both practices hinge on the production of wonder.

Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Virginia Roehrig Kaufmann have published an excellent article on the origins of trompe l’oeil in Netherlandish book painting during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, they approach the topic from the discipline of art history, linking manuscript illumination to the rise of Dutch still life painting. It would be interesting to consider these illusionistic paintings not only as visual artifacts but as one node in a network of bookish practices that treat the codex form as an archive of both words and things.

There’s a thin, sometimes obscure line between the page as a medium bearing representations — images and text that draw you away from its materiality — and the page as an archival platform in itself. Hoefnagel knew this. In addition to illustrating the calligraphy book shown above, he was commissioned to visually represent Rudolf II’s famous wunderkammer and produced his own Animalia Ra
tionalia et Insecta (Ignis) (1575-1580). The latter uses the trompe l’oeil device to turn the book into a collecting case for insects, both figuratively (as in this illustration of beetles) —



[Joris Hoefnagel (artist), Animalia Rationalia et Insecta, Flemish, 1575-1580. National Gallery of Art, Plate XXXXIII. Images pulled from here.]

— and literally, as in this illustration of dragonflies, complete with actual dragonfly wings glued to the page:

[Joris Hoefnagel (artist), Animalia Rationalia et Insecta, Flemish, 1575-1580. National Gallery of Art, Plate LIV. Images from here.]

There’s been quite a bit of work done on curiosity cabinets as encyclopedic “Book(s) of Nature” — here, then, is the encyclopedic book as a wunderkammer, folded in on itself.
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    What a lovely thing.
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