Cultural Heritage Imaging

Capturing 15th-Century Prints with RTI by chicaseyc

Our guest blogger is Dr. Lothar Schmitt, a post-doc in the Digital Humanities Lab at University of Basel in Switzerland. Thank you, Lothar!

For some people early prints are a boring topic, but a few specialists appreciate these crude woodcuts and engravings with their stiffly rendered religious subjects. There are reasons for this unusual predilection: Beginning in about 1400, prints became an increasingly important means to make images affordable for the general public. In addition, printing images stimulated the development of several technical innovations. Among these are ways to reproduce three-dimensional surfaces and to imitate the appearance of precious materials like gold reliefs or brocade textiles.

One such technique is called “paste print.”

15th-c. paste print with highlighted areas

Detail of a 15th-century paste print with numbered areas to denote materials used and damage.

With only about 200 examples existing worldwide, this kind of print is rare. It consists of a layer of a slowly hardening oil-based material (Fig. 1, No. 3) that was covered with a tin foil and brushed with a yellowish glaze in order to look like leaf gold (Fig. 1, No. 4). All these layers were stuck to a sheet of paper (Fig. 1, No. 1). To produce an image, the surface of an engraved metal plate was coated with printing ink and pressed into the paste. Through this process, the printing ink was transferred as a dark background (Fig. 1, No. 5), while the cut image of the metal plate generated a relief of golden contours and hatchings. Since these layers became brittle over time, most paste prints are heavily damaged (Fig. 1, No. 2). Moreover, the subjects they show are sometimes hard to decipher.

Traditional photographs are not well suited to reproduce paste prints because it is impossible to record the interaction between the light and the barely discernible relief of the print’s surface with one single capture. To document such effects, our team, a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) research group of four people at the Digital Humanities Lab in Basel, Switzerland, made the decision to try Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). The benefits of RTI are ideal for revealing the material properties of the prints. However, since RTI is not able to properly reproduce the gloss of a metal surface, we were unsure about the results. The first test was very promising.

We traveled from Basel to nearby Zürich, where there is a paste print of an unidentified saint glued into a manuscript at the Zentralbibliothek Zürich (B 245, fol. 6r). The library staff, among them Rainer Walter and Henrik Rörig, were very helpful. Peter Moerkerk, head of the digitization center, even made a high-resolution scan of this print that we could use as a reference image (Fig. 2).

High-res scan of a paste print from Zürich

Fig. 2: High-resolution scan of a paste print of an unidentified saint from manuscript B 245 in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

For capturing RTIs we constructed a Styrofoam hemisphere with a diameter of 80 cm. On the inside of the hemisphere, there are 58 evenly distributed LEDs that can be triggered in succession. The LEDs are synchronized via a simple control unit that is connected with the flash sync port of the camera. The control unit coordinates with the interval mode of the camera in order to capture a sequence of images automatically. The resulting RTI file shows the subtle surface texture and is instrumental for comprehending the relief and the layered structure of the print (Fig. 3).

RTI file of the print

Fig. 3: RTI of a detail of the print in Fig. 2, showing surface texture and layered structure.

As we pointed out earlier, the glossy effects of the golden parts appear too dull, but the “specular enhancement” feature of the RTIViewer helps to distinguish between the surface conditions of the different materials that were employed to make the print.

RTIs of two other paste prints in Switzerland and several others in German collections will be captured in 2015 and 2016. If you are interested in our proceedings, please see our web site:


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