Cover image for Picturing Experience in the Early Printed Book: Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio from Venice to Jerusalem By Elizabeth Ross

Picturing Experience in the Early Printed Book

Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio from Venice to Jerusalem

Elizabeth Ross


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06122-1

Available as an e-book

256 pages
9" × 10"
27 color/84 b&w illustrations

Picturing Experience in the Early Printed Book

Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio from Venice to Jerusalem

Elizabeth Ross

“Bernhard von Breydenbach’s account of his pilgrimage from Venice to the Holy Land and Egypt revolutionized book publishing when it appeared in 1486. Erhard Reuwich’s accompanying woodcuts include highly detailed, multiblock foldout plates. Thanks to Elizabeth Ross’s beautifully written text, I feel like an armchair traveler peering over the artist’s shoulder as he documents the exotic people, cities, and creatures his party encountered. Part detective, part ethnographer, and always a sensitive art historian, Ross deftly explores the book’s creation, reception, and claims of authority and truthfulness. This is the best study in any language of the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Journey to the Holy Land), first published in 1486, is one of the seminal books of early printing and is especially renowned for the originality of its woodcuts. In Picturing Experience in the Early Printed Book, Elizabeth Ross considers the Peregrinatio from a variety of perspectives to explain its value for the cultural history of the period. Breydenbach, a high-ranking cleric in Mainz, recruited the painter Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht for a religious and artistic adventure in a political hot spot—a pilgrimage to research the peoples, places, plants, and animals of the Levant. The book they published after their return ambitiously engaged with the potential of the new print medium to give an account of their experience.

The Peregrinatio also aspired to rouse readers to a new crusade against Islam by depicting a contest in the Mediterranean between the Christian bastion of the city of Venice and the region’s Muslim empires. This crusading rhetoric fit neatly with the state of the printing industry in Mainz, which largely subsisted as a tool for bishops’ consolidation of authority, including selling the pope’s plans to combat the Ottoman Empire.

Taking an artist on such an enterprise was unprecedented. Reuwich set a new benchmark for technical achievement with his woodcuts, notably a panorama of Venice that folds out to 1.62 meters in length and a foldout map that stretches from Damascus to Sudan around the first topographically accurate view of Jerusalem. The conception and execution of the Peregrinatio show how and why early printed books constructed new means of visual representation from existing ones—and how the form of a printed book emerged out of the interaction of eyewitness experience and medieval scholarship, real travel and spiritual pilgrimage, curiosity and fixed belief, texts and images.

“Bernhard von Breydenbach’s account of his pilgrimage from Venice to the Holy Land and Egypt revolutionized book publishing when it appeared in 1486. Erhard Reuwich’s accompanying woodcuts include highly detailed, multiblock foldout plates. Thanks to Elizabeth Ross’s beautifully written text, I feel like an armchair traveler peering over the artist’s shoulder as he documents the exotic people, cities, and creatures his party encountered. Part detective, part ethnographer, and always a sensitive art historian, Ross deftly explores the book’s creation, reception, and claims of authority and truthfulness. This is the best study in any language of the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam.”
“One of the most popular books of the early printing industry, Bernhard von Breydenbach's Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Journey to the Holy Land) was published in Mainz in 1486 and had many later editions. Breydenbach and his painter/publisher companion, Erhard Reuwich, set themselves ambitious goals. The book was intended, in the first instance, as a practical guide for pilgrims to Jerusalem. Equally important, as Ross discusses at length, was the embedded argument for the return of the sacred lands of the East to Christian control. The first in-depth analysis in English, this study explores both the artistic and intellectual achievements of the Peregrinatio. Beautifully produced, it includes large color plates of the seven famous woodcut views of cities along the route from Venice to the East that set a model for later chronicle books. Especially rich is the chapter on Reuwich’s extraordinary foldout combination map and topographical view of Jerusalem, presented here as a synthesis of multiple sources, from portolan charts to 15th-century Netherlandish ‘world landscapes’—all of it distilled via firsthand viewing. A valuable contribution to the Peregrinatio literature.”
“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. . . . The design [of Ross’s book] is notably generous and the production exceptional, appropriate to the study of an important monument in the history of the book. . . . Above all there is the elegance and clarity of the writing: measured, jargon­free, 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.”
“The persistence of scholarship on aspects of cross-cultural encounters between Christian Europe and the Muslim East in the medieval and early modern period is testament to an ongoing interest in the multifarious ways in which Europeans engaged with, represented, and perceived their eastern counterparts. Ross makes a valuable contribution to scholarship in the field and concurrently to our understanding of authority and representation in early printed works.”
“Elizabeth Ross writes convincing arguments in elegant prose. Moreover, her book is a refreshing, jargon-free study, dripping with ideas and analysis.”
“Ross provides an engaging account of how text and image work together in the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam. The narrative she constructs, however, does more than simply tell us about the making of a single book. It also suggests new ways for scholars to look at how authors and artists collaborated in the earliest days of European printing to construct meaning and authority through carefully recorded, and meticulously packaged, experience.”

Elizabeth Ross is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Florida.


Chapter 1—Introduction: The Pilgrims and their Project

Bernhard von Breydenbach and his Pilgrimage

The Role of Erhard Reuwich

Chapter 2—The Authority of the Artist-Author’s View

The Censorship Edict of 1485

Breydenbach’s Self-Presentation as an Author

The Artist as Eye-Witness

These Animals are Truly Depicted as We Saw Them

Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health)

The Artist-Author’s View in Petrarch and Van Eyck


Chapter 3—Mediterranean Encounters: Lady Venice, Holy Land Heretics, and Crusade

Crusade in the 1480s and the Turks Tithe

Mainz Printing and the Selling of Crusade

The Peregrinatio’s Journey between Venice and Heresy

Other Heretics of the Holy Land

Venice Influenced, Venice as Influence

What They Took from Peter Ugelheimer and What They Left Behind

Chapter 4—The Map of the Holy Land: Art-Making as Cartography

Mappae Mundi

The Burchard Map of the Holy Land

Portolan Charts

The Pilgrims’ Itinerary and Itineraries of Other Travelers

Netherlandish Pictorial Space

Chapter 5—The View of Jerusalem: Perspectives on a Holy City

The Centripetal View from Mamluk Monuments

The Franciscan Indulgenced View

Putting Islam at the Forefront of a Christian View

The Meaning of al-Haram al-Sharif for the Pilgrimage of 1483–84

Coda: The View from the Jewish Quarter



Chapter 1

Introduction: The Pilgrims and their Project

In 1483, an ambitious German cleric named Bernhard von Breydenbach set out to use the new medium of his day—print— to reconceptualize the form and making of a book. Our own historical situation has opened a special sympathy with those who experimented with printing in its first decades. We weigh the purchase of e-readers, navigate Wikipedia’s bounty of fickle facts, contend with piracy, and debate attempts by Google Books and others to shape jurisprudence. In all these ways and others, we apprehend a future transformed without being able to anticipate clearly how its material forms, economic models, legal systems, or structures of knowledge will work out. Breydenbach did not feel the portent of his moment in quite the same way, but he stood, nonetheless, at a juncture in the history of media similar to the one we have been experiencing with the introduction of digital technologies. New technology presented new possibilities, but as creators and entrepreneurs innovated, they opened an era when the nature of a work of art—as well as the nature of a book, an artist, and an author—stood in flux.

Of this instability Breydenbach was certainly aware; he wrote a bit about it. His project offers perhaps the best window available onto the medial shift as a multimedia phenomenon, where the rethinking of the form and role of images is integral to the content, material apparatus, and cultural positioning of the work. He published one of the seminal books of early printing, known as Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Journey to the Holy Land), the first illustrated travelogue, a work especially renowned for the originality, experimental format, and unusually skillful execution of its woodcuts. To accomplish that, he recruited a painter, Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht, to travel with him on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to research these images, create the woodcuts, and print the book. Taking an artist on such a reconnaissance mission was unprecedented, and with this travel their project engages another topic of particular concern—Christian European encounters with the Muslim Middle East. The pair grapple throughout the book with the challenge of Islam militarily, in the Ottoman Empire’s successful offensives, and spiritually, in the Mamluk Empire’s domination of Jerusalem and its built environment. Together author and artist presume to offer readers an authentic introduction to a Mediterranean basin caught in a contest between faith and heresy. But to do this convincingly, they must also work out their own model of authorship and art-making as they work through the problems and potentials of print.

Inspiring and facilitating pilgrimage was a stated and real aim of the book. (2v, l. 42–43; 7r, l. 12-16; 10r, l. 17–20) A good portion of the Peregrinatio is given over to describing the course of a Holy Land pilgrimage, providing readers with geographical information, and offering practical advice, such as a table of distances between Mediterranean islands, guidelines for their contract with the captain of a Venetian gallery or with their escorts through Egypt, and an Arabic-German glossary. (165r–166v, 11r–12v, 136r–137r) The excursus on negotiating passage from Venice to Jerusalem and gathering supplies parallels the handwritten instructions Breydenbach provided to a local nobleman, Ludwig von Hanau-Lichtenberg, who went on pilgrimage in 1484 with his cousin Count Philip of Hanau-Münzenberg. However, the Peregrinatio goes well beyond fostering pilgrimage with the added intention of raising readers’ concern about the centuries-old, but persistent ideological disappointment of European foreign policy and this discontent’s contemporary manifestation. This was namely Europe’s inability to dislodge the successive Muslim empires that had controlled the Holy Land since the fall of the last Crusader outpost in 1291 and their fear of recent Ottoman incursions.

The woodcuts Reuwich produced include a complex and unusual frontispiece featuring a Venetian woman (figures 2 and 45), seven city views of ports of call composed with rare topographical accuracy (one inserted in a resourcefully synthesized map of the Holy Land), renderings of the entrance court of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (figure 12) and the aedicule over the grave of Christ (figure 89), six images of peoples of the Levant with seven charts of their alphabets (figures 7, 25, 30–32, 34), a page of Holy Land animals (figure 19), initials with the arms of the book’s dedicatee (figure 4), and his own printer’s mark (figure 3). Printed across multiple attached sheets, four of the city views and the map fold out from the book to a length of up to 1.62m for the longest View of Venice (figures 1, 28, 35, g). <insert figure 1 here> Such technical achievement occurred also on the smallest scale, with the frontispiece in particular made possible by the precocious intricacy of the cutting of the print block to produce plastic modeling through cross-hatching that is unmatched by other contemporary woodcuts. Breydenbach and Reuwich published Latin, German, and Dutch editions of their work in 1486 and 1488 (about 180 of the Latin, 90 of the German, and 40 of the Dutch survive), and other printers translated it into French, Spanish, and Czech before 1500. The Peregrinatio pervaded the visual imagination of readers across Europe to inform paintings, prints, Passion parks, sculpture, maps, and other books. In total, there were thirteen editions before 1522, as the original woodcut blocks were passed from Mainz to Lyons to Speyer to Zaragoza, while also copied four times.

Though some late fifteenth-century and many more sixteenth-century prints will mimic the scale and space of painting, Reuwich’s work stands out for the—at first—seemingly discordant yoking of the experience of viewing a panorama to the material circumstances of reading and the bound book. Artist and editor used these viewing experiences, including the visual rhetoric of perspective, as the foundation for creating a model of knowledge, authorship, and reading for print. Through pictorial, textual, and material means, the woodcuts are self-consciously constructed as eyewitness views that pronounce their origin in an artist’s on-site looking and recording. The first mode of viewing proposes a single viewpoint over a unified pictorial space, while the second mode offers the close-held, dispersed, sequential perusal of reading a map or an illustrated book—or of peering closely at the details of some painted panels.

The available information about the provenance of surviving copies, albeit dissatisfyingly meager, supports the supposition that the period readership adopted both approaches to the images. The Nuremberg patrician Hans Tucher’s own pilgrimage account was formative for the text of the Peregrinatio, and his hometown compatriot Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum (known as the Nuremberg Chronicle) will in turn look to the Peregrinatio for influence. Both these print authors owned copies of the first German edition that retained the full complement of illustrations. Yet, a recent census of the 44 copies of that edition extant in Germany shows that this is true for less than half of them. While some of the copies were no doubt unintentionally damaged or fleeced for their saleable parts in later centuries, these results suggest, circumstantially, that some of the views were removed early to be used as independent images.

The panoramic viewpoint of the ‘views’ belies the book’s sympathies with the values and working methods of period cartography. At the heart of the Peregrinatio lies the Map of the Holy Land that surrounds the view of Jerusalem embedded within it, and the process for assembling this chart presents a microcosm for the construction of the book as a whole (figure g). The Peregrinatio was created at the end of a century when late medieval mappae mundi were gradually giving way to charts that incorporated the modern findings of merchant navigators into a systematic geographical framework like that described by Ptolemy. This cartography is not necessarily distinguished by the accuracy of its topography, but rather by an impulse to gather information from several types of sources and to integrate it, which means harmonizing geographical schemes that imagine and visualize space in disparate ways. Reuwich uses this critical procedure for collecting and collating knowledge in the construction of the Peregrinatio’s Map of the Holy Land. For the book as a whole, Breydenbach writes that he spared no expense or effort in gathering materials. This seems to be the case, as the text itself brings together the works of well over a dozen authors on various topics from pilgrimage to current events, and almost every image provides the spectacle of a place, person, or animal that readers would have never before seen.

Author and artist then wrap the product of this cartographic model—the map itself and the entire Peregrinatio—in the unifying cover of eyewitness authority, expressed as the artist’s view, depicted visually in his ‘views.’ The pictorial genre of the ‘view’ reached its greatest circulation in the eighteenth century when such works for sale as a token of the Grand Tour came to be known as vedute (Italian for “views”). That term functions handily in art history to distinguish the genre and its products from other uses of the English version of the word. To call the Peregrinatio’s cityscapes “vedute,” however, would be to burden them proleptically with a history that was just emerging. They help invent a genre whose conventions and meaning were hardly resolved in the 1480s. For that reason, the cityscapes and their like will here be called simply ‘views.’ The single quotes distinguish them from other types of views—such as the artist’s view (what Reuwich beheld on the trip), the author’s view (what Breydenbach opines in the book), or the reader’s view (what a period person experiences through the Peregrinatio’s pages). The choice to keep such a multivalent word is meant also to reconnect the pictorial work to its most fundamental rhetoric: the visual proposition that all ‘views’ arise from an act of viewing, namely the artist’s view of the sites before him. Implicit within the Peregrinatio are also other types of views, even though we do not usually call them that—the cartographic view as expressed materially in the map; the view of space that the map engages in the reader; and the pilgrims’ cognitive map that structured their view on the road. By foregrounding so distinctively the pictorial form of the ‘view,’ the book catches up the reader in a connection between his own view and the artist’s.

The Peregrinatio project relies upon the pretense that everything has come together in the artist’s and author’s field of view, where it is endorsed as credible because they saw it. The book uses this visual testimony to cohere the elements of the book (mechanically reproduced text and image), to elide the seams among diverse sources, and to create an author. The instabilities brought about by print were the subject of explicit commentary and action in Breydenbach’s milieu. With his concern for giving the book a new form, filling it with novel sights, and building the cover of assertive authorship, Breydenbach gave an answer to that particular challenge.

After introducing Breydenbach and Reuwich and the facts of their pilgrimage in this chapter, Chapter 2 will look at how Breydenbach and his circle understood and responded to the print dilemma through the person of the author and his partner, the artist. The images of the Peregrinatio are constructed to say “I, the artist, saw” as a visual argument working in tandem with the text’s repeated declarations that they are, indeed, records of the artist’s act of viewing. These statements are amplified by their singularity; this is the first time the artist for a published book is identified or promoted in the text. Reuwich’s city ‘views’ are among the very first, and the use of the trope of the view here also amplifies themes developed by its earliest progenitors, such as Petrarch and Jan van Eyck. Later in the early modern era, the claim of printed images to be reliable copies of nature or other images will become routine. In the Peregrinatio, we see how this notion of authenticity was originally orchestrated.

Chapter 3 takes up the question of the Peregrinatio’s portrayal of the European encounter with Islam: how the theme of crusade pervaded the politics and financial strategies of Church, Empire, and press; how the Peregrinatio packaged the issues; and how its choices contrasted with the presentation of Islam in some of its source material. The Peregrinatio exemplifies the intersection of crusade rhetoric, indulgences, and print innovation that marked the culture of print in Mainz. The visual materials that show off what the team learned in Venice, some of their freshest materials and most forward-looking, serve this emphasis on crusade. The book’s text and images are not just organized to follow a pilgrimage, but to describe also a journey from a bastion of orthodoxy and resistance to Muslim aggression, Venice, to the Holy Land, a region overrun by heresy. The story of the Peregrinatio’s reception of the Levant is also the story of its relationship to Venice and visa-versa. The Peregrinatio team and Venetians artists are mutually admiring and wide open to each other’s influence, but their different picturing of Islam demonstrates how its presentation can vary starkly with audience.

The View of Venice may be the Peregrinatio’s longest image, but the Map of the Holy Land with View of Jerusalem is its core construction, most essential to its message and most illustrative of the type of intellectual and artistic activity that animated the project. The creation of the map epitomizes the creation of the book. Chapter 4 parses the map to demonstrate this, while recouping its value in the context of the period cartography.

Chapter 5 continues the focus on that woodcut, zooming in on the View of Jerusalem that takes control of the center of the landscape. While Muslim patrons composed the built environment of Jerusalem itself to generate an Islamic experience of the space, Reuwich fights pictorially for a sovereign Christian view. He depicts a vantage near the place where pilgrims earned indulgences for viewing sites that Muslims forbid them to visit. This was a moment in the tour that served simultaneously to remind the pilgrims of Christian subjection and to overcome their subjection by means of a view. Reuwich offers a woodcut ‘view’ with the same double purpose to display both the center of Christian sacred history and an object lesson on the contemporary threat. He translates into a picture a practice shared then and now by all three Jerusalem religions, their setting up distinct, physical outlooks—contingent views dependent on vantage—that nevertheless show the city as they believe it to be absolutely. The artist’s personal experience of viewing the city endorses the ‘view’ he prints, which the reader then inhabits, encouraged by the routine of spiritual pilgrimage; and through the image of the artist-author’s authority, the contingency of the Christian point of view, physical and metaphorical, is fixed in place as a true image of Jerusalem.

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