Librarians Finally Open World's Oldest Book of Multi-Color Prints, And Immediately Upload It to the Internet

You can now see the oldest multi-color prints in the world — but only online. Cambridge University Library has digitized its copy of the almost 400-year-old Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu), which is so fragile that the librarians had never even opened it. "Until it was digitized, we have never been able to let anyone look through it or study it – despite its undoubted importance to scholars,” said Charles Aylmer, Head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library.

Created in 1633 by the Ten Bamboo Studio in Nanjing, the book is "the earliest and finest example of multi-colour [sic] printing anywhere in the world," according to Aylmer, and consists of 138 images, most with accompanying poems, interspersed with advice for artists. The tome was one of the first to be made with the printing technique called polychrome xylography, in which the printmaker successively applies blocks with different colored ink to replicate the look of watercolor painting.

The prints are divided into eight categories: birds, plums, orchids, bamboos, fruit, stones, ink drawings (round fans), and miscellany. They're very much in keeping with traditional Chinese style, meaning that I selfishly wish I could hang them on my wall. If you have any interest in Chinese painting, art history, or pretty pictures of birds, definitely take a look at the images in Cambridge's digital library.

Aside from its remarkable beauty, the manual is important because it served as an inspiration for many other artists, staying in print for 200 years. Even so, complete sets of the original binding, like this one, are exceptionally rare. It's definitely worth a look!

Image: Chrisgel Ryan Cruz/Flickr