The exact origin of wood engraving is enveloped in considerable doubt; it is of very ancient date however, and the best authorities on the subject agree that it dates back some centuries anterior to the Christian era. It is useless to speculate upon fancied theories; for all practical purposes it is only necessary to present a skeleton review of the art, in its primitive days, or that portion of it that can be gleaned from reliable sources. Even this would be superfluous in this connection, except that it affords to practical mechanics, and those interested in the art, an opportunity of contrasting the means and appliances employed in the olden time, with those of our modern day. According to the best authenticated authority, wood en graving, as an art, was first followed in (European countries) in Italy, about the middle of the fourteenth, century, one of the early specimens of which is presented in Pig. 1, representing The Knave of Bells. This specimen is traced to one Antonio Carrigi, a manufacturer of playing cards in Venice, where, at this time, card playing as an amusement, and also for gambling purposes, was indulged, in by the nobles and wealthy classes. These 310 rude cuts were afterward painted in several gaudy colors with a pencil and sometimes ornamented with gilded borders. Although Carrigi may have been the first to follow the business of wood engraving in Europe, specimens of the art were occasionally met with that were supposed to have been executed many years previously; their exact origin never could be traced. For centuries anterior to this period, wood engraving was known to have been practiced as an art among the Chinese people, who have always been recognized as the most ingenious artisans in the world, in a number of the mechanic arts. The civilized or Christian nations, however, were not allowed to benefit by their ingenuity. An insurmountable barrier was ever interposed, precluding all communication with the outside world of the Chinese Empire. China was not alone in giving birth to those works wherein mechanical skill was evinced at a very early period of the worlds history. Late discoveries made in excavated Catacombs in Egypt, and similar discoveries made amid the ruins of Her-cularieum and Pompeii, also lead to the conclusion that wood engraving, was known and practiced centuries before its new advent in Italy. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that with the decline and destruction of those countries, in which many of the higher branches of the mechanic arts, had reached the zenith of their perfection, they perished with them. In historical annals there is a wide gap in their artrecords, a lapse of ages ere the skill and ingenuity of man is said to have revived and re-invented many of the arts, sciences, and manufactures, thus lost to mankind. Even tradition furnishes nothing but a faint glimmer of objects that lived and had their being in the past, and have left nothing to posterity but the wrecks and ruins of their former glories. True, occasional relics reach us of the present day, affording a faint reflex of what once existed in the palmy days of this or that country, but they have served to gratify a passing curiosity only, or, it may be added, to stimulate the efforts of mechanical geniuses to reach even a higher scale of excellence. The parchment scrolls lately excavated from mounds in the neighborhood of the Pyramids in Egypt, present many curious hieroglyphical and other characters which leave no room for doubt that the impressions were made from. blocks of wood. It is-.impossible to fix a time when these were executed. In the. same way with occasional specimens of a similar character, of Chinese origin, exhibited in cabinets and. museums in European cities; their antiquity is simply a matter of speculation. As we are cut off ftom any data previous to the fourteenth century, when wood engraving aa an art was first adopted in Europe, we are compelled to accept the above theory. In its application to bookBthe earliest accounts that can be traced are in the first quarter?? theififteenth century, when engraving on wood was applied to the multiplication of copies of religious designs, which were at this period in demand among the people of Italy and Germany. This demand was created from the establishment of a number of monasteries and -other religious institutions in these two countries, and a consequent demand for the reproduction of manuscripts of a devotional character. Strange to say, the demand for playing-cards, about the same time, led to the employment of a number of artisans who engaged in the business of wood engraving; religion and its antipodes, in this regard, being in perfect accord. The story retailed by certain history manufacturers that the first wood engravings known in Europe were executed by a brother and sister of a noble fam ly of the name of Cunio, in 1285, representing the actions of Alexander the Great, is without the slightest foundation. Montague tells us that the sister, who had a talent for drawing, may have sketched some designs on tablets of wood, then used as slates are in our modern schools, representing in a crude form, Alexander in some of his heroic exploits; and that the brother may also have cut into the lines, thus drawn, with a stiletto or sharp instrument, as school boys are in the habit of cutting letters animals, etc., with their penknives, on walls, fences, etc. It was not until late in the fourteenth century that the Venitian merchants were allowed to have commercial intercourse with the inhabitants of China. It is fair to suppose therefore that in that part of Italy bordering on the Adriatic, specimens of wood engraving brought over from China by the trading argosies, were then seen for the first time. This agrees with the time when Carrigi is said to have inaugurated the art of wood engraving in Europe. From this period until the middle of the fifteenth century rapid strides were made in perfecting the art and in making it available for business purposes. At first the demand was limited and confined to thereligiousorders.The representations of saints and other scriptural objects which the monks had for some centuries been in the habit of painting in their parchment Bibles and missals were by the early wood engravers cop ied in outline on wooden blocks,and divested of their brilliant colors and rich gilding, presented figures exceedingly rude in their want of proportion and not a little grotesque, from their constrained and ludicrous attitudes. But they were nevertheless highly popular, and as these crude pictures were, accompanied with certain passages from scripture, they supplied the first inducement of the laity to learn to read, they being extremely ignorant at the time. There is no doubt that as crude and simple as these illustrations were, they assisted in a measure in preparing the way for that diffusion of knowledge which subsequently accompanied the invention of printing from movable types. Mankind however, are not indebted to religion, as previously remarked, for the introduction and application of Wood engraving as an art, or a business vocation. Carrigi and his playing cards undoubtedly have the precedence, and called forth the art of the limner and the engraver long before religion stepped in to as a foil neutralize the bad effects they were producing upon the noble and the wealthy classes of Venice. Gambling, like many other vices and follies, is an heir loom that dsscends from the great to those below them in the social scale. It is easy therefore, to understand that the followers of courts and camps, as well as the artisans and dealers in the towns, seeing the amusement which their superiors derived from these bits of stout parchment, would be anxious to possess the same means of pleasurable excitement in their hours of idleness. In this way the demand for playing cards increased so rapidly that other engravers beside Carrigi entered the field, and for some time a thriving business was done in supplying not only the home demand, but for export to other countries. Wood engravers were subsequently employed in getting up illustrations for books. The first specimen of any note of this kind is in the collection of the late Earl Spencer. It is a curious cut taken from a wooden block, representing St. Christopher carrying the infant Savior. Thisork bears date 1423. If not the first specimen of the art of line engraving, it is the earliest undoubted document which determines with precision the period when wood engraving was generally applied to books, and objects of a devotional character. In a very few years after the period above named, the art of wood engraving reached a more important object: viz.,that of aiding in popularizing books of instruction. Up io this time Bibles were written on parchment and could only be obtained at a fabulous cost. It was then thought that a selection of subjects from the Bible with appropriate illustrations, both engraved on wood, might be acceptable to the common people. Such a book was produced in the year 1440, and was called Biblia Pauperum —the. Bible of the poor. This very rare book consisted of forty leaves of small folio, each of which contained a small wood cut with extracts from the scriptures and other religious authorities. This was followed by other works of a similar character, the most remarkable of which is called Speculum Sajutis —the Mirror of Salvation. In this performance the explanation of the texts are much fuller than in the work previously named. In this work the illustrations and the texts are printed from wooden blocks. In addition to these religious works Wooden blocks were also used to print small manuals of grammar, called Donatuseg, which were used in schools. From this period the art of engraving on wood gradually merged into the art of printing from movable types. The early printers, imitating the manu script books upon papyrus and parchment, used largely wood engravings of initial letters, and at times the pages of their work were adorned with wood-cut borders and frontispiece illustrations. At this period if a figure or group of figures wetefntroduced, little more than the mere outline was attempted. In the Historic Vetwifa, Smi Testamenti, published about this time, a number oi Wood-cut illustrations appeared in it, the one in the frontispiece is especially note-worthy from the fact that a better class of wood engraving, in which gradations of light and shade, and the light hatching dots subsequently used, were represented. Mr. Ottley, in his Early History of Engraving tells us that an engraver on wood named Wohlgemuth, who flourished in Nuremburg, in 1480, first succeeded in imitating the bold hatchings of a pen drawing, on wood. Subsequently Albert Durer, became the pupil oi Wohlgemuth; and by him and later by Holbein (both artists of note) wood-engraving was carried to a perfection, which it subsequently lost until its renewal in England by Bewick. For a century and a half, however, after the above named period, wood cuts were profusely employed in the illustration of books in Italy, Holland, France, Germany and England. Two of these early works, ptiblished in England, viz., Hol-lingsheds Chronicles, and Foxs Book of Martyrs, clearly attest how instructive and amusing illustrated works were considered even at that early day. The gradual diffusion of knowledge and the consequent increased demand for books among the nobles and wealthy classes, led to a more costly style of embellishments than the crude wood-cuts then in use. This demand of the wealthy classes led to the discovery of engraving on copper plates. Sir John Harringtons translation of Orlando Furioso, published in 1690, was the first English work in which copper plate engravings were used. From this time until the latter part of the eighteenth century the use of wood cuts gradually declined; that is to say, that as a high branch of art, wood engraving was almost entirely lost, until the appearance of Bewick, an ingenious artisan, who prosecuted his business at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His cuts of quadrupeds and birds are as remarkable for their force and delicacy of execution as engravings, as for the vigor and accuracy with which he drew them; and his humorous vignettes possess a truth ol character which has been seldom equaled. The success of Bewick created a number of artists in wood engraving,-but until the last half century the art was not applied to its legitimate purpose, which is the art of design naturally associated with cheap and rapid printing. The wood engravers, who were contemporary with and immediately succeeded Bewick, were generally employed In the illustration of the most costly works, the introduction of the cuts often rendering the printing of the other portion of the book so expensive, that volumes thus embellished were as costly as though they had been printed from metal plates. The cause of this was simply because these engravers employed a certain method in working their blocks, requiring extraordinary care in the impressions after the engravings were executed, and the wood cuts being included in the same page and sheet with the text, even though a single wood cut appeared on a sheet, the attention it demanded from the pressman prevented the rapid working off of the other pages, thus compelling a great waste of time.
This article was originally published with the title "Wood Engraving—Ancient Process" in Scientific American 20, 20, 309-310 (May 1869)