When this book was originally published, just 509 years ago, the air was pregnant with change. Only the year before, Columbus had sailed the ocean blue, and down in Italy they were having some-thing called a Renaissance. Neither of these world-affecting events, however, are in any way mentioned in Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle. Although it was, therefore, already out-of-date when it went on sale, the chronicle (now available in facsimile) is nevertheless a fascinating object. It tells the complete history of the world, right from the point of Creation – represented as a series of concentric circles being conjured up by the sort of disembodied hand you might find urging you to turn the page in a book of Victorian engravings. Schedel brought together Biblical, Classical and contemporary scholarship, and ran up copies to sell to the German public using the new printing presses.

The booksellers’ commendatio for the chronicle promises that the reader “will see not only portraits of emperors, popes, philosophers, poets and other famous men, each shown in the proper dress of his time, but also views of the most famous cities and places throughout Europe”. Well, up to a point. The “proper dress” of these historical luminaries – whether Egyptian pharaohs, Old Testament patriarchs, Greek philosophers or saints – is invariably the latest Medieval duds. And it is amusing to see the extent to which Schedel recycles his favourite generic prints over and over again to represent different figures. It seems that Jupiter, by an incredible coincidence, looked exactly the same as the philosopher Anaxagoras, the prophet Micah, the religious reformer John Huss, and four other notables. The same scholarly attention to detail is lavished on the geographical pictures, with frequently hilarious results. The city of Cairo has the Gothic stone turrets and enveloping green valleys of a Bavarian hill town; Paris is represented by re-using one half of the woodcut of Magdeburg, and therefore features such noted Parisian landmarks as St Maurice’s Cathedral and the statue of Roland. It is all most entertaining.

There is a slight drawback, however. All of Schedel’s meticulously slapdash scholarship is set out in the kind of dense Gothic script that Medieval monks were in the habit of using – and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s in Middle High German, too. The informative appendix is, regrettably, no substitute for being able to read Schedel’s own words.

But despite this, the chronicle is an excellent example of the “book as object”. The facsimile pages sumptuously reproduce every last stain and marginal note of the original, and the cover is in strokeably soft suedette. It is perhaps a shame to turn a lifetime’s worth of Medieval learning into an unread picture-book, but if you are going to do it, there can be few better choices than this.

First published in World of Interiors issue 237. Reproduced with permission.

Chronicle of the World 1493

by Hartmann Schedel  (Taschen)

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