Digital brings ancient art to the masses
Digital has become so engrained in our lives that it can be easy to take for granted all it has afforded us.
It’s great, then, when you see something which really makes you appreciate technology and the times we live in.
Thanks to modern digitisation, the world’s oldest multicolour book - Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu, a 1633 Chinese calligraphy and painting manual which resides in the vaults of the Cambridge University's Library - is now available for everyone to see.
Created almost four centuries ago, the book made use of a block printing technique called polychrome xylography, often referred to as douban.
The method was honed by Chinese artist Hu Zhengyan and involves using multiple printing blocks to successively apply coloured ink to paper. This reproduces the effect of watercolour painting.
The book’s use of colour gradations, combined with the skill required to produce this effect has led to its reputation as one of the most beautiful sets of prints ever made.
What makes this particular copy even more special is that it has been identified as the only complete copy in the original binding known to exist.
CNN notes that the book had remained untouched in the university library’s vaults, through fear that its pages were too fragile for anyone to see the beauty within.
Thankfully, in 2015 the library allowed a hotshot team of its operatives access to the book, who over a period of two weeks painstakingly digitized each of its 388 pages. The book suffered no damage.
"What surprised us was the amazing freshness of the images," Charles Aylmer, head of the Chinese Department at the Library, told CNN, "as if they had never been looked at for over 300 years."
What’s incredible is that these beautiful prints, which would otherwise have been seen by very few modern-day eyes, are now available for us all to experience.
In fact, given it was created at a time when few had access to books, Zhengyan’s masterwork will be enjoyed by more people in the 21st century than it was in the 17th.