MODELBOOK BLOCKS: ACORNS AND CHICKENS

Long time SCA friend/needlework penpal and costuming/stitch research role model Kathryn Goodwyn recently began posting her transcriptions of charted modelbook pages she’s collected over the years. She’s in the middle of a series from Matteo Pagan’s L’Honesto Essampio del Uertuoso Desiderio che hano le done di nobil ingegno, circa lo imparare i punti tagliati a fogliami, published in 1550, in Venice.

This is her chart of one of the pages, presented here with her express permission:

In her post to the Historic Hand Embroidery group on Facebook, Kathryn noted that in the original, there was something odd with the acorn panel – that the count inside the frame didn’t match that of the other strips that accompanied it. Lively discussion ensued. Some people opined that the strips were all cut on individual blocks, assembled into a page at the time of printing, and pointed to the large number of designs that appear in multiple books over time, put out by different publishers.

I agree that there was lively trade and outright reproduction (authorized or not) in early pattern books. There are many instances of designs appearing either verbatim (probably printed from the same blocks), and being re-carved with introduced errors and minute differences. And it makes perfect sense that in the high precision work of block production, carving separate strips would be more forgiving of errors. If a chisel slips, only one design would be spoiled – not the entire page.

However in this particular instance, I think that this piece was carved as a single, integral block. And the skew count for Acorns was a kludge, done when the carver realized that the design would merge into the border of the block and took pains to nibble one last partial-width narrow blank row from the wide border, to separate the leaf from it.

I have found two (possibly three) renditions of this page, all from various extant Pagano volumes.

From the L’Honesto volume (1550) held by the Sterling and France Clark Art Institute Library, available on Archive.Org:

Sadly the edition of L’Honesto in the Gallica collection in France (dated 1553) does not contain this page, but modelbooks were probably issued as folios rather than bound volumes (buyers later paid to have them bound, and decades could have elapsed before that happened), experienced hard wear, and it’s not unlikely that this one is only partial.

The plate however shows up again in a composed edition of Pagano’s later work, La Gloria et L’Honore di Point Tagliati, E Ponti In Aere (1556) now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Accession 21.59.1). There is some confusion in the museum’s presentation – it’s not clear if this page is included once or twice. There are two images of it each tagged with a different page number, plus one image with no page number tag. On all three the facing pages are identical, as are tiny print imperfections on the pictured plate; which leads me to suspect that (gasp) there is a mistake somewhere in the museum’s on-line listings:

I have found this plate and its constituent strips ONLY in these images. I have not found the plate as a whole in another work, nor have I found these exact strips (identifying mistakes and all) replicated in combo with other strips in other Pagano works, or in issues by Vavassore (a close associate).

However other designs do appear to wander. Or do they…..

I’ve noted a couple of these before – but those tended to be full page designs. How about clear instances where a page of designs was created from constituent individual blocks, and those specific blocks can be spotted in different compositions/pages?

It’s surprisingly difficult to find evidence of independent re-use of identifiable single-strip or single motif blocks. Even for a very recognizable and common design that at first glance looks like a single block that wandered among several pages.

Here’s a well represented one. The Chicken Page. (My own shorthand name for it, nothing actually official.) This design shows up again and again, and persists over the ages in folk embroidery styles of Sicily, the Greek Islands, and up through Eastern Europe and into Russia. It’s meant to be rendered in double running (or back stitch) and in modelbooks often appears with other designs of similar technique on the same page. For a very long time I thought there was only one chicken. But not so.

The copy on the left below is the chicken page from Quentell’s Ein New kunstlich Modelbuch, Cologne, 1541. (I normed these pages to the same orientation for easier comparison.) The middle copy is from Ein new kunslich Modelbuch dair yn meir dan Sechunderet figurenn monster… published in 1536 in Koln, by Anton Woensam. It’s also in Ein new kuntslich Modelbuoch…,attributed to Hermann Guifferich, with a hard date of 1545 (the same page is also in his Modelbuch new aller art nehens und stickens, from 1553). On the right is an example from the composed volume La fleur des patrons de lingerie – an omnibus volume that contains four different modelbook editions bound together. While the archive lists 1515 as the publication for La fleur, that’s not correct.

Some more. At left is the Chicken Page from Zoppino’s Ensamplario di Lavori of 1530, in the version cleaned up and presented as Volume I of Kathryn’s Flowers of the the Needle collection. On the right is another imprint of the same exact block or set of blocks, from Pagano’s Trionfo di Virtu, of 1563.

Obviously the second set of chicken images was printed from exactly the same full page block, in spite of being both the earliest and the latest example in our total set. There are no deviations, and all copyist’s errors are the same, left and right for every strip. However they are also clearly not printed from the same blocks others. Most obviously, the chicken repeat in the set of two doesn’t begin or end at the same point as it does in the first set of three.

But I don’t think all three chicken panels in the first set came from the same nest either. There are too many differences between the first shown panel and the other two next to it. Not just partial lines where ink may not have reached during the print, but actual deviations in the carving:

The other strips on the leftmost example of the three also deviate from the other two examples in its set, elongated stitches represented, different numbers of counts in comparable stepwise sections and the like.

My conclusion from this flock of chickens is our bird motif was carved three times. One imprint appears in Quentell [Chix1]. A second is in Woensam/Guifferich/[La fleur] [Chix2]. And a third appears in Zoppino/Pagano [Chix3].

Our timeline is now something like:

  • 1530 – Zoppino – Chix3
  • 1536 – Woensam – Chix2
  • 1541 – Quentel – Chix1
  • 1545 – Guifferich – Chix2
  • 1553 – Guifferich – Chix2
  • 1567 – Pagano – Chix3

What we are NOT seeing in this ONE particular case is that the chicken motif although quite prevalent and highly mobile was NOT being re-used as a single block, in combination with assorted blocks to make unique pages. Instead it appears with its established companion set – verbatim. And in the instances where it looks like it might be nesting with new friends, it is in fact an entirely different carving – a totally different chicken.

Finally, I am not sure why the positive/negative presentation is so prevalent for this particular style of block. My guess is because the dark lines/light ground carving was fragile and more time-consuming to produce than the dark ground white lines areas. Perhaps the dark areas were an economy measure, or their presence strengthened the block as a whole so that it lasted longer or warped less (dark/light areas on these blocks tend to alternate left/right).

Apologies for the length of this post. If folk remain interested I’ll look at the peregrinations of other specific designs.

5 responses

  1. On the bottom pair of images (the one with the circles) the winged box on the right is smaller. The corner wings come from the sides of the box, not the corners.

    1. Ann – Agree. I didn’t mark all the differences. There would have been too many circles, and it would have become confusing.

  2. I’m always fascinated by these repetitions. …and as I commented over on Facebook (generally, not just about these patterns) it’s interesting trying to work the patterns directly onto fabric from the pictures and to endure trying to work out what you’re supposed to be stitching, rather than what’s there. Interesting = lots ‘o cussing….. 🙂

  3. Definitely interested!

  4. Definitely interested! I don’t aim at any historical accuracy in my own stitching but I appreciate learning about the long and continuous tradition. I’m particularly fascinated by what you unearth about cultural links across communities. A good reminder that we have always been one world.

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