Erasmus, Froben and Holbein

Des. Erasmi Roterodami in Nouum Testamentum. [Basel] : Apud inclytam Rauracorum Basilæam, [Io. Frob. typis excudebat], an. MDXXII [1522].

Des. Erasmi Roterodami in Nouum Testamentum.
[Basel] : Apud inclytam Rauracorum Basilæam, [Io. Frob. typis excudebat], an. MDXXII [1522]. Ornamental border by Ambrosius Holbein. Magdalene College Old Library A.3.4.

This commentary by Erasmus on the New Testament, published by Johannes Froben and embellished with woodcuts by Hans Holbein the younger, is a culmination of the talents of scholar, printer and illustrator.

Basel was one of the earliest centres of printing, beginning in the 1460s by apprentices of Johann Gutenberg. Basel’s established University, paper industry and location at the head of the Rhine contributed to its success in the printing trade, and Johann Froben became the most prominent printer in the city. Born in c. 1460 , Froben trained in the workshop of Amerbach, and became an independent publisher in 1516 upon Amerbach’s death.

Johann Froben created a network of scholars chiefly from Basel’s University, who worked as editors and proofreaders, as well as providing material for publication. This helped to establish Froben’s status amongst the most prominent printing presses of Northern Europe. His most famous scholarly connection is with Erasmus, who arrived in Basel in 1514 and subesquently lived in Froben’s house, having previously travelled through many European centres of learning. Erasmus offered most of his work to Froben for its first printing.

Des. Erasmi Roterodami in Nouum Testamentum [Basel] : Apud inclytam Rauracorum Basilæam, [Io. Frob. typis excudebat], an. MDXXII [1522]

Ornamental borders in the book by Ambrosius Holbein, Urs Graf and Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger moved to Basel at around the same time as Erasmus, and worked as a designer for Froben in addition to painting portraits. Holbein’s brother Ambrosius also worked for Froben, and this book in Magdalene’s Old Library features work by both Holbein brothers and also Urs Graf. Born in 1485 in Solothurn, Graf was a goldsmith and a designer of stained glass windows, in addition to being talented engraver.

Printer's device at the rear of the text, designed by Hans Holbein the younger.

Printer’s device of Johann Froben.

This is the ‘Printer’s device’ at the rear of the text, designed by Hans Holbein the younger. It features a Caduceus, the traditional symbol of the Greek God Hermes.  Printer’s devices were used as a visual aid to identify the printer of a book, and acted as a form of ‘copyright’ to protect the contents and guarantee the quality of manufacture.  Froben’s device is an example of how these marks became more ornate throughout the 16th century.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections

References

Campbell, G. (ed) The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hilgert, Earle. ‘Johann Froben and the Basel University Scholars, 1513-1523’. The Library Quarterly 41, no. 2 (1 April 1971): 141–69.

Nuechterlein, Jeanne. Translating Nature Into Art: Holbein, the Reformation, and Renaissance Rhetoric. Penn State Press, 2011.

Winger, Howard W. ‘The Cover Design’. The Library Quarterly 30, no. 1 (1 January 1960): 91.

‘History of Publishing :: Early Printer-Publishers in Germany’. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 2 February 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/482597/history-of-publishing/28614/Early-printer-publishers-in-Germany.

Holbein: Eye of the Tudors – A Culture Show Special (2015) BBC2, January 2015.

‘Johann Froben, Holbein and Erasmus’. On Books and Streets – An Approach to Cultural History. Accessed 2 February 2015. https://abeautifulbook.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/johann-froben-holbein-and-erasmus/.

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