Taschen just released a massive slipcased tome, a facsimile of a cosmographic piece of history writing from the late 15th century: Chronicle of the World 1493 (Original title: Weltchronik/Liber Chronicarum), and its accompanying study The Book of Chronicles. Is this old tome relevant today? And if so, what makes it relevant?
Let's just put the sheer beauty of the book aside for a while. And let's focus instead on the grandeur of the ambition that was a part of this specific age in certain sections of society. The renaissance wasn't just an Italian phenomenon but part of a well-to-do mind frame in Europe in general in the 14th to 16th centuries (approx). It was a (re)definition of where leading Europeans were at. A celebration of human ingenuity and intelligence so far, through art, science and commerce. Also one that wanted to break free from a too intolerant religious doctrine.
To be able to see oneself as a contemporary being, one needs to be centered in time as well as in space. The manufacture of history was therefore highly interesting and relevant to the renaissance mind, as was cosmography and map making. The latter being especially relevant, as budding imperialism and colonialism had proven so lucrative in its initial phases. Have map, will not only travel but also control new territories!
A German humanist by the name of Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) decided to combine a history of the world with portraits of leading people, and with maps and vistas of contemporary and prominent European cities: a chronicle of the world, so to speak. Perhaps it seems like an odd combination to us, but it really isn't, is it?
Consider our own combo gadgets in, for instance, watches (a.k.a. "time pieces") with integrated GPS functions. Or the interactive maps in our phones that make us lose track (or at least sight) of the real terrain. Perhaps nothing much has changed at all? We want to be able to look at something else, a tool or a display, to be able to trust (?) where and when we actually are. A strange psychological trait but one that seems persistent.
Schedel's friends and allies in the learned city of Nürnberg created a masterpiece of a book, one that has been revered for centuries and one that has survived thanks to its staggeringly impressive form and content. The history writing was basically Biblical, dividing known history into sequences and tales of key persons that people were familiar with from Church indoctrination. However, and this is important, Schedel was smart and avoided a collision with the totalitarian Catholic Church by sneaking in pieces of learning and wisdom from other cultures too, mainly Greek. A real renaissance step forward in freeing the human mind from Biblical bondage.
Hartmann Schedel wasn't by any means the sole author of the opus though. He culled, quoted, copied and intersected the pieces with descriptions of his own. Thereby acting as editor of the most useful bits and pieces from both sanctioned and otherwise available sources. That in itself was a tremendous task, given the scope and ambition of this project. Yet his name isn't even clearly stated in the book. There wasn't even a proper title page in the original edition (this was common at the time). The book should speak for itself, simple as that. The age of the author/editor-ego hadn't begun quite yet.
Also, one very probable reason for Schedel's not taking the entire credit for the book in itself was that book making was definitely more of a communal labor than it is now. At the facilities of the book's printer, Anton Koberger, there was room for 18 printing presses, and more than 100 typesetters, printers and assistants worked there. Not forgetting the artists who provided sketches or drawings for the wood cutters. In this particular project, the most well known one today was the least well known back then: Albrecht Dürer, who was an illustrator's apprentice in the production of this book.
Who can read the type today? Or who has the energy? Not many outside the German sphere, I'd say, but that in itself is irrelevant (and a great summary is available in Taschen's companion volume The Book of Chronicles by Stephan Füssel, which is included in the slipcase). But the type is beautiful. All in all, the book is actually overwhelming. When flipping through its pages, what beams out is pure wealth and pure value. What Schedel and his investors were after was not a "quick fix content platform to rake in some immediate positive cash flow", but rather to really sum something substantial up that would have an immediate, yes, but also a lasting value. While at the same time showing off their craftsmanship. They succeeded very well on all levels (and I'm quite sure they actually did make a decent profit while still alive).
This is most likely one of the major differences between then and now: esthetic focus in and of the craft. To make something beautiful and lasting was harder and more expensive then and these people really made an effort. Who can match that today? Consider this a new growth market though: faithful facsimiles of books that simply aren't possible to make today. Taschen's Schedel tome is one example, MAPP's outpouring of digital facsimiles of old sources another. There will be more, I'm sure.
Taschen go full circle in their chronicling of this proto-chronicle. Their ambitious publishing scheme of books containing defining works of art and architecture is more or less the same as Schedel's original ambition: displaying the here and now in the most advanced, beautiful and lasting way possible. The future will undoubtedly be grateful.
Please consider the following: Of the Latin version of Chronicle, 1287 copies remain in library collections today. Of the German edition: 343 copies. They were conceived and made 520 years ago. Isn't that remarkable? Please show me an e-book that has the potential to be able to match that.
So, in essence, Chronicle and similar books won't show us "accuracy" or teach us anything we don't already claim to "know". The books do, however, share an inspiring attitude of curiosity and joy in exploration, and an almost unsurpassed skill in the book making craft. That's what makes them very relevant today. Again, the perspective is staggering. What if... What if we actually peaked in our civilization some 500 years ago?
Chronicle of the World 1493 and The Book of Chronicles, Taschen 2013