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The World’s Oldest Multicolor Printed Book Was Too Fragile to Read…Until Now

The 1633 book has now been digitized

A painting of a bird from the 1633 Manual of Calligraphy and Painting. (Cambridge University Library)
smithsonian.com

The front cover of the Manual of Calligraphy and Painting might look a bit shabby, but pages within are pretty stunning if you open it up — which readers can now do online, reports Allison Meier for Hyperallergic. Cambridge University has added the 1633 volume, which is the oldest existing printed multicolor book, to its digital library.

Previously, the book’s butterfly binding was too fragile for researchers to open. Now that it's been digitized, readers can see one of the finest existing examples of an early printing technique called polychrome xylography (or douban in Chinese). To print the book, printers used multiple blocks to sequentially apply inks of different hues. The results look more like watercolor paintings than prints. Artist and print maker Hu Zhengyan pioneered the technique at his Ten Bamboo Studio in Nanjing.

Popular among artists, the manual remained in print for more than 200 years, explains Meg Miller for Co.Design. This remains the most complete and well-preserved copy. It features 138 images with texts and poems by dozens of different artists and calligraphers. The pages depict fruit, birds, bamboo, orchids and other objects.

In addition to the artistic text, librarians took high-resolution images of oracle bones with ancient Chinese script carvings, an early Buddhist text from 1127, a volume on how to cope with famine and a bank note from the 14th century. The eclectic collection is now online and awaiting readers.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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