14.11.06, Ross, Picturing Experience

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Peter Parshall

The Medieval Review 14.11.06

Ross, Elizabeth. Picturing Experience in the Early Printed Book: Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio from Venice to Jerusalem. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Pp. xv, 235. ISBN: 9780271061221 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Peter Parshall
National Gallery of Art

In 1483, Bernhard von Breydenbach and a small cortege including Erhard Reuwich, a trained draftsman, made a pilgrimage from Mainz to the Holy Land. Their journey took them first to Venice, and thence to several cities along the Adriatic, to Cyprus, and finally to Jaffa from where they proceeded by land. During their stay in Jerusalem the party took on Felix Fabri, a Dominican preacher from Ulm, who was then on his second pilgrimage to the Holy City. On their return they travelled by land to Mount Sinai, Cairo, and Alexandria before embarking once again for home. The entire journey--with its extended stay in Jerusalem and surroundings, subsequently improvised itineraries, inclement weather, and accommodations for illness and the death of one of their number--required nearly a year to complete. Then in 1486 an illustrated account of the journey appeared in Latin, German, and Dutch editions, to be followed by others in subsequent decades. Almost certainly printed by Johannes Gutenberg's protégé Peter Schöffer under the supervision of Breydenbach and Reuwich, it set a milestone in the history of book printing for the quality of its decoration, its maps, and city views. Although the Peregrinatio has been studied in considerable detail by bibliographers, historians, and art historians, Elizabeth Ross sets out to reconsider the enterprise in its totality. In particular she seeks to identify a guiding principle that can situate the text and its illustration within the fuller context of Christian history and contemporary politico-religious territoriality--a no less contested issue then as now. To this end she reconstructs a broadly inclusive notion of "viewpoint" extending from the geographical to the anagogical: from the singular perspective of an individual on a hillside transcribing the layout of a city, to the collective investment of a chosen people seeking to fulfill a divine plan.

Breydenbach, who was born into the minor nobility and became a cleric in the Church of Mainz, seems to have had primary responsibility for compiling the text of the Peregrinatio. It was Reuwich who dealt with the design, the cartography, and probably the management of the printing. Reuwich is named several times in the text, an unprecedented acknowledgment for an artist in such an undertaking, and likely an indication that this was a genuine collaboration between the two men. Both text and illustration are the result of first-hand experience as well as appropriations from earlier accounts, maps, and very possibly drawings. Although the intermingling of direct observation and adopted material is to be expected, the complex interplay of text and image indicate that the Peregrinatio was very deliberately composed and had a large ambition behind it. At one point Ross draws an analogy between the presentation of Jerusalem and Petrarch's all-encompassing vision from Mont Ventoux. The parallel is apt, and indeed in some ways Breydenbach and Reuwich's achievement is the more remarkable for being less solipsistic.

Chapter 1 deals with the initiation of the pilgrimage itself, the actual production of the book, and what little is known of its compilers. Art historians looking for something new on the relationship between Reuwich and the Housebook Master, and bibliographers wanting to know more about the various configurations of the text and its illustrations over time will find that Ross offers no new evidence on these topics. She has, however, examined many different copies and recorded occasional inscriptions by their early owners, thus shedding light on the book's reception. In short, this is a cultural history, not a cataloging project, and while it is obvious that Ross has full control of such details, it is not her purpose to resolve them further.

Chapter 2 recounts the circumstances attending the printing of such an extravagant book: access to presses and typeface (Peter Schöffer?), proofreading (rigorous in the extreme in order to out-compete scribal practice), censorship regulations (delegated by the bishopric to university faculties), and intended audience (educated males, and potentially also cloistered nuns, for whom travel was necessarily a virtual matter). The use of sources, the collective authorship of the book itself, and the ad hoc approach to constructing its geographical and topographical views are discussed at length. In addition to these larger matters the Peregrinatio is also a practical guide with pointers for those planning to undertake the journey.

Chapter 3 investigates the record of Mamluk sites scattered throughout Jerusalem. (The Ottomans did not take control until 1516). There are also some ethnographical observations along with woodcut illustrations of the various peoples and their costumes to be encountered, as well as samples of their written languages. Ross argues that the overriding objective of the project was to show the city under an infidel occupation that denied the faithful their right to visit and worship at Christian sites. In compensation Breydenbach and Reuwich offer their readers the opportunity for a kind of spiritual repossession of Jerusalem through actual or imaginary pilgrimage. And still more consequentially they are building the case for a new crusade.

Chapter 4 explores the great foldout woodcut of the Holy Land, extending all the way from the northern Levant to the corner of Egypt, considering its relationship to earlier images in the mappae mundi, to written descriptions in circulation since the thirteenth century, and to contemporary illuminated manuscripts, as well as Italian and Netherlandish paintings and drawings. Jerusalem, omphalos of the world, lies at the center of the map, and at its center the Dome of the Rock--then under Mamluk control, but proprietarily labeled Templum Salomonis. The synthetic origins of the city plan in the Peregrinatio must qualify any interpretation of it as an early example of modern mapmaking. It is largely bound to tradition, both textual and pictorial, except for the fact that the layout of the city itself is, according to Ross's convincing analysis, carefully constructed from a single vantage point on the Mount of Olives. That perspective is spatially, spiritually, and politically charged by the historical conditions of the moment and the inherited cultural overlays of the late medieval city.

Chapter 5 develops this theme with particular attention to the symbolic relationship among the various monuments. It becomes evident at critical points that the care taken with architectural detail reflects close observation deployed in order to tag specific structures, to identify them as Christian or Muslim, to plot their approximate location in relation to one another, and thus to interpret them in the context of a struggle to claim actual and spiritual ownership of the city. For the Peregrinatio this meant focusing attention especially on those sites where one could receive an indulgence--the so-called Franciscan itinerary--including banned locations for which a mere visual encounter from a distance gained spiritual credit. Thus, the importance of visual apprehension directly informs the emphases of Reuwich's map, and by extension grants the reader the benefit of spiritual encounter by sight. On this basis the Peregrinatio becomes a virtual pilgrimage with all the attendant rewards. And it is with a detectable note of poignancy that Ross describes the Reuwich view as "an image of the Holy Land that they [the readers] themselves can occupy, rather than an ideal vision of a Palestine regained" (182).

This study is a monograph in the proper sense, a broadly cast and well integrated interpretation of a major marking point in the history of travel, geography, religious politics, and book printing. Regarding the many unresolved problems--for example Reuwich's pictorial sources, the precise circumstances of the book's production, the texture of the narrative and its basis in actual experience--Ross is fully informed and ventures no unsupported conclusions. It becomes evident, as she says, that the Peregrinatio was an inherently conservative undertaking with an officially sanctioned purpose, and that Felix Fabri's independent report on the pilgrimage, delivered in part for the nuns under his charge, makes livelier reading. Ross's overall thesis that the Peregrinatio embodies--both literally and figuratively--a kind of single viewpoint, tempts us to plot this document on a trajectory toward self-fashioning and an early modern concept of the individual. This is not altogether convincing, and she is careful not to press the issue. Indeed, the notion of a "renaissance" hardly makes an appearance. Nonetheless, the extravagance of Reuwich's view of Jerusalem had its legacy, not least Jacopo de' Barbari's great aerial map of Venice, published by another German printer in 1500. In many ways the distance between these two accomplishments is minute, a matter of only fourteen years. Neither construction can claim a consistent use of one-point perspective even though the technique was widely available at the time. Both must be accounted as partly intuitive and partly measured. Both were made with an individual viewer in mind, but more in the manner of a shifting experiential presence than a fixed mathematical one. And both endeavors carry an over-riding allegorical message. That message, however, is markedly different. Breydenbach and Reuwich are fully invested in presenting the Holy City as an historically stratified sacred site, whereas the de' Barbari map--best studied by laying it out across a table like Lear measuring out his kingdom--is all about power and commerce.

The overall quality of Ross's book merits a final word of praise. The design is notably generous and the production exceptional, appropriate to the study of an important monument in the history of the book. The illustrations are very good, and the gatefold of Jerusalem a laudable and worthwhile expense. Above all there is the elegance and clarity of the writing: measured, jargon-free, and often commanding as well. Not only is this book a pleasure to read, but also the care taken in the research and the soundness of the author's judgment are manifest throughout.

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Peter Parshall

National Gallery of Art