Prints & Propa­ganda

In the early 1500s the brilliant Albrecht Dürer had an epiphany. He describes it in a letter to a client dated 29 August 1509. In it he writes that, rather than laboriously producing countless unique works of art, he’d make a lot more money, and with a great deal less effort, selling prints of his work. His only regret was not having thought of it sooner. Dürer was among the first to fully exploit ‘art publishing’ or printmaking, selling his own prints individually and in sets. Today, we’ll take a brief look at a very popular set of prints created at the end of the sixteenth century, by which time European printmaking was a burgeoning international industry.

‘Moderation Disarming Vanity’ by Stradanus. Before turning to engraving later in life, Stradanus was a painter. Photo: Musée du Louvre

Nova Reperta, or ‘New Discoveries’ was a set of 20 engravings (including a title-page), each illustrating ‘modern’ inventions and discoveries. The print series was a brilliant collaboration between the Netherlandish artist Jan van der Straet, better-known by his Latinized name Johannes Stradanus; the engraver Philips Collaert; the Galle family of engravers and print publishers; and the Florentine scholar Luigi Alamanni (1558–1603) one of the set’s dedicatees.


Born in Bruges in 1523, Stradanus ended up in Florence via Lyon and Venice. He was a versatile and accomplished artist. In the early 1550s, he began working at the Medici court designing tapestries, then worked under Giorgio Vasari. However, like Albrecht Dürer, Stradanus appears to have experienced a similar epiphany, and from the 1570s began putting his artistic energies into designs for print.

Title-page for Nova Reperta, highlighting 9 of 19 discoveries & inventions. Photo: The Met
Plate 4 of Nova Reperta. Perhaps the best-known print of the series. A typical sixteenth-century printshop, although owing to some inaccuracies in the rendering, it appears that the artist is not completely au fait with how the printshop and some of its equipment functions. Photo: The Met
The invention of eyeglasses, Nova Reperta, plate 15. Eyeglasses were invented at the end of the 13th century in Italy. Photo: The Met
Longitudes. Nova Reperta, plate 16. Ship wit Jesuit flag bearing the IHS Christogram. The seated figure in the stern is using, what appears to be, a floating magnetized needle as a compass to trace longitude. Photo: The Met
The invention of gunpowder (Pulvis Pyrius), Nova Reperta, plate 3. Interior of a cannon foundry. In the right background a tower collapses from the destructive force of cannonballs propelled by gunpowder. Gunpowder was of course not a European invention, but a 9th-century Chinese one. Photo: The Met

From the title-page it appears that Nova Reperta was originally conceived as a title-page plus a series of nine engravings, with a heavy emphasis on America. For whatever reason, the series grew to 20 plates.

The 20 engraved plates of Nova Reperta

* See Lia Markey’s ‘Stradano’s Allegorical Invention of the Americas in Late 16th-Century Florence’, pp. 385–442

The Prime Directive

In 1499, seven years after Columbus landed in the Bahamas, Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the continents were named, sailed to the northern shores of South America. The first plate of the Nova Reperta series portrays Vespucci’s first encounter with America.*

Zoom in: ‘America’ (pl. 1) of Nova Reperta. The caption reads, ‘Americen Americus retexit…’ or, ‘Americus (Vespucci) rediscovers America’. Theodoor Galle’s engraving is remarkably faithful to Stradanus’s original drawing

Holding a mariner’s astrolabe and wearing a sword and armor, visible beneath his parted robe, he is both explorer and conqueror, his god-given authority to vanquish represented in his banner and cross. The almost nude figure of an Indianized indigenous woman seated on a hammock personifies America. She is of course portrayed sexualized and vulnerable. According to Vespucci, in what today sounds rather like the words of a rape apologist, the native women were ‘very desirous to copulate with us Christians’.

“Stradano’s engravings could declare that the New World was a Florentine invention and patriotically revel in these discoveries.” —Lia Markey, p. 119

#See Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography & the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps & Monsters (esp. ch. 8, ‘Spit-roasts, barbecues & the invention of the Brazilian cannibal’), 2016

A recent biographer likens Vespucci to a salesman and sorcerer; see ch. 5 of Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America,.

* Sean Roberts

From Cannibals to Cannonballs

And what scene of colonial conquest is complete without a little cannibalism in the background. This trope was pretty much an invention of the Renaissance.# Contriving a cannibalistic indigenous population meant that it was easier to justify their murder and enslavement. What’s more, Vespucci’s accounts of cannibalism in the New World appear to be, for the most part, borrowed or fabricated, concocted and sensationalized primarily to sale books in Europe. And this ‘oscillation between ethnography and fantasy’,* was by no means accidental, but was always intended to highlight the deficiencies of the conquered and the superiority of the conqueror, ultimately emphasizing the stark dichotomy between savagery and civilization, a construct that the West appears not to have entirely repudiated.

§ If I were an Antwerp publisher in the latter half of the 16th century, I might not be in a hurry to publish a print lauding a Spanish protagonist, what with the Eighty Years War and the atrocities committed during the Sack of Antwerp in 1576

Nobody Invents Better Than Me

That Vespucci appears instead of Columbus is again no accident. Columbus was Spanish§ — much better to highlight Italy’s role in the discovery of the New World, and not any Italian, but a Florentine no less! And if artful propaganda was not enough, then how about unequivocal appropriation: Gunpowder (pl. 3) was of course not a recent European invention, but a ninth-century Chinese innovation. Similarly, the compass (pl. 2) and silk production (pl. 8) originated not in the West but in China.

Stradanus’s brilliantly rough preliminary sketch for the Nova reperta title-page, c. 1590. Photo: Cooper Hewitt

More Renaissance Invention

International collaborations were a customary feature of sixteenth-century printmaking. The Nova Reperta series was designed in Florence by a Flemish artist and printed and published in Antwerp. Such alliances effected a rich cultural exchange, a cross-pollination of art and ideas which spawned new art and new ideas. The splendid visual culture of the period, rich in its use of emblems and diverse iconography, and even propaganda, reveals much about the artistic and intellectual climate of the age, a time-machine of sorts that permits us fascinating insights into life in Renaissance and early modern Europe.

Shortly after beginning to prepare this article, the Newberry opened an exhibition on Stradanus and the Nova Reperta, co-curated by Dr. Suzanne Karr Schmid & Dr. Lia Markey. Be sure to check out the dedicated web portal, this video, and the accompanying book.

Related ILT articles
Festival Books: Type, Pomp & Circumstance
Inventing Posters

Reference & reading
Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters, 2016

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America, 2007

Luciano Formisano (ed.), Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America, 1992

E. H. Gombrich, ‘Eastern Inventions and Western Response’, Daedalus, vol. 127:1, 1998, pp. 193–205

Shirley Lindenbaum, ‘Thinking about Cannibalism’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33, 2004, pp. 475–98

Robert S. Munger, ‘Guaiacum, the Holy Wood from the New World’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 4:2, 1949, pp. 196–229

Lia Markey, Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence (esp. ch. 8, ‘Stradano’s Invention of the Americas’), 2016

—————, Renaissance Invention: Stradanus’s Nova Reperta, 2020

—————, ‘Stradano’s Allegorical Invention of the Americas in Late Sixteenth-Century Florence’, Renaissance Quarterly, 65:2, 2012, pp. 385–442

Alison G. Stewart, ‘The Birth of Mass Media Printmaking in Early Modern Europe’, in Babette Bohn & James M. Saslow (eds.), A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art, 2013, pp. 253–73

Micahel J. Schreffler, ‘Vespucci Rediscovers America: The Pictorial Rhetoric of Cannibalism in Early Modern Culture’, Art History, 28, pp. 295-310

M. S. Sellink, Philips Galle (1537–1612): engraver and print publisher in Haarlem and Antwerp, PhD thesis, 1997

Header image: Detail from ‘Lapis polaris magnes’ (pl. 2) in the series Nova Reperta, from The Met

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