The margin as canvas: A forgotten function of the early printed page

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This chapter examines a little-studied genre of marginalia, one that may be called visual glossing or visual commentaries. It consists of the reader’s drawings on the margin that served as a tool for textual interpretations. Such drawings illustrated the scenes, objects, symbols, historical figures and other characters mentioned in the corresponding passages of the classical texts that Renaissance humanists read. These drawings sometimes existed alone, and sometimes co-existed with textual commentaries. They showed the reader’s understanding, and often imaginations, of the text, more vividly than words. This paper examines closely the visual glossing of Ambrosius Blarer (1492-1564), a Benedictine who eventually became a Lutheran minister, Thomas Smith (1513-1577), an English jurist and statesman, and John Dee (1527-1608/8), an English humanist and magus. Their drawings are suggestive in many ways: as evidence that readers sought a vivid experience of the past not afforded by texts on their own, but also as attempts at a distinctive kind of visual explication of texts. They constitute an unexplored chapter in the history of reading - and, it seems, of pedagogy and philology - in Renaissance Europe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationImpagination - Layout and Materiality of Writing and Publication
Subtitle of host publicationInterdisciplinary Approaches from East and West
Publisherde Gruyter
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9783110698756
ISBN (Print)9783110698466
StatePublished - Jan 18 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


  • Enargeia
  • Engaged reading
  • Explication
  • Marginal drawings
  • Marginalia
  • Pedagogy


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