Seventeenth Century Finishing Tools - France

Atelier du Maitre Doreur
1623 Maitre Doreur

Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis, Anvers, Plantin, 1622, (24 x 18 cm)

To bring the subject of these web pages back into focus for a moment I must remind the reader that in the history of decorative gold tooling, the French appear to have been unrivaled, especially in the seventeenth century. Of the names that stand out, one is remembered as the "Michelangelo" of this craft, a person so endowed with artistic genius that his work is instantly recognized by its grace and flawless elegance. Known as "Le Gascon", the grand master of all time, his name and work is legendary, yet we still do not know his true identity. Stranger than this is the fact that a large part of his work, as well as his name, has been attributed to another equally mysterious and gifted artisan of the same period -- a second Le Gascon.

Bibliophiles and specialists in the decorative arts have been researching this question now for well over a century. The number of books published in late 19c dealing specifically with the subject of French decorative gold tooling in the seventeenth century is quite remarkable. However it seems that only one expert stands out head and shoulders above the rest, a man who has discovered many important clues by the means of a thorough comparative analysis of finishing tool imprints.

Raphaël Esmerian's 1972 publication Bibliotheque Raphaël Esmerian, published in French by Georges Blaizon, Paris 1972-1974 and particularly the 2eme Partie-Annexe: 12 Tableaux symnoptiques sur la reliure au XVIIe siecle, is a landmark in comparative 17c gold tooling research. Thanks to his efforts, we now have a firm grasp of the tools of the two Le Gascons. In as much as Le Gascon is remembered mainly for his pointillé masterpieces, we need to recognize that of the two only one specialized in the use of pointillé tools; this person has been dubbed "Le Maitre Doreur" by Esmerian and others, and may be considered by some, as the legendary "Gascon". Let us now examine closely Esmerian's illustrated Maitre Doreur tool imprint models.

Tableau III - LE MAITRE DOREUR vers 1622-1638

Esmerian Maitre Doreur imprint models

Note that I have added to Esmerian's original imprint models, identifying numbers. When referring to these imprint numbers I add the prefix 'md' (i.e. md-1) to further qualify these imprints as deriving from the work of the Maitre Doreur, similarly I have also prefixed the imprints from other binders. On the previous page we were comparing the work and tools of Antoine Ruette with that of Pierre Rocolet, and specifically the Ruette 8 imprint (ar-8).

1622 Maitre Doreur

Comparative Diagram 1 - 1645 Rocolet imprint extraction vs a scanned imprint from a post 1659 Antoine Ruette binding (the small white square = 1 x 1 mm).

Maitre Doreur tool 1

Comparative Diagram 2 - a and c extracted from a 1630 Maitre Doreur binding (Esmerian No. 15); b and d from 1645 Rocolet binding (#14, Isabelle de Conihout & Pascal Ract-Madoux, Relieures Françaises du 17c, Paris 2002, page 38); e, f, g, and h, from Alonso Chacon's Historia utriusque belli Dacici a Traiano Cesare gesti, Rome, 1616. (See Esmerian Tableau III, binding is attributed to the Maitre Doreur, vers 1623).

In Diagram 2 we see that all the imprints derive from the same tool, md-1 (i.e. Maitre Doreur tool imprint number 1), a tool used by Maitre Doreur in some of his first recorded work. According to Esmerian, around 1630 Le Maitre Doreur founded a second workshop with new tools nearly identical to those used for his previous work. Florimond Badier who was but an apprentice in 1630 joined this workshop at some point and his work can be identified by this second set of Maitre Doreur tools. Esmerian has named this second Maite Doreur workshop "Atelier Florimond Badier Avant 1662" due to the fact that Badiers work derives from this shop; however, Esmerian notes that some of the bindings from this workshop are possibly the work of Le Maitre. In 1638 Pierre Rocolet acquired what must have been the first Maitre Doreur workshop along with the early tools. Thus in the bindings attributed to Rocolet after 1638 we see the original Maitre Doreur tools, specifically md-1. Fourteen years later md-1 resurfaces in the Atelier des Caumartin bindings of 1652. It can also be seen in the second period of the Caumartin activity i.e. post 1685, and is perhaps the same tool used by Boyet at the turn of the century in the Anne of Austria retro bindings.

Comparative Diagram 3 click to enlarge

Comparative Diagram 3 - Esmerian models vs md-1 imprint samples.

While I must praise Esmerian for his comparative research, his diagrammatic model of the Maitre Doreur imprint (md-1) is a bit of a mystery as it does not fit well the actual imprints. I have made many comparative studies of this imprint, collecting samples from both its early and late appearance. By far the nearest match in the various Esmerian models of this type is that of the Atelier des Caumartin.

Comparative Diagram

Comparative Diagram 4 - Esmerian Caumartin imprint model vs 1645 Rocolet imprint.

Comparative Diagram

Comparative Diagram 5 - Esmerian Ruette imprint model (inverted) vs 1659 Ruette imprint.

Comparative Diagram

While comparing the Esmerian models with actual imprints we often see quite a number of differences, such as can be observed in Comparative Diagram 5, where the Esmerian model is substantially different yet the overlay assures one that this is the correct imprint. The Esmerian pen and ink models cannot really emulate closely the actual imprints. The pen and ink work tends to illustrate the forms as a series of beads when, in fact, the actual tool has been fashioned by a series of cuts. Thus I think that, in a comparative study of this type, it will be best to not count too heavily upon the Esmerian models. In a collection of several good imprint examples from one tool, the collected overlays should yield an accurate model, or if one can scan an exceptionally good single specimen, that is not cluttered or overlaid with other tooling, this would provide a more useful model than illustrations.

In this critical examination of illustrated models, one should bear in mind the fact that when Raphaël Esmerian was making his Comparative Tables of the French decorative gold tooling of the seventeenth century, he did not have the luxury of high resolution digital imagery, or the wizardry of Photoshop image enhancing filters, let alone powerful desktop computing in his own home.

Before we look at the other small tools I want to present the large spirals as an example where Esmerian's models prove very useful. I found that the best source of almost high resolution images of the binding of Alonso Chacon's Historia utriusque belli Dacici (a supposed early Maitre Doreur example) was not the British Library Database of Bookbindings (BLDB). You will find good clear detail on the cover of this book...

click to enlarge

... however, since the scale is not indicated, I decided to measure the large spirals found on this book cover and then adjust the image size proportionally basing the spiral measurement on Esmerian's 12 millimeter mesurement for the 8a (md-8a) model, you will notice that he gives precise measurements of some of the other imprints, so I assumed this measurement to be at least close. The two models, md-8a and md-8b, have the same diameter measurement. This is a tricky measurement as the spiral has to be oriented correctly. A slight variation in the rotation of the spiral makes an important difference in a diameter measurement. I made measurements with various md-8a examples and finally came to an estimated figure of a 110 percent increase in the image size.

I then remembered that there is a copy of part of this binding in the BLDB. It is not a high resolution image; however, a measurement scale has been included in the photo, so I decided to superimpose my scaled bookcover detail on this photo to try to verify the 110 percent enlargement. After some considerable juggling I discovered that I needed to rotate my enlarged detail, and that this exact section of the detail is not found on the BLDB photo, yet I was able to line up my detail with an identical section. Thus, all the details do not match. However, much to my amazement the centers of the strapwork matched exactly, indicating that my enlargement was indeed correct, and also Esmerian's 12 mm diameter measurement!

click to enlarge

Comparative Diagram 6 - 110 % scaled enlargement (shown with a colour inversion) with matching centers, click to enlarge.

Comparative Diagram 6

Comparative Diagram 7 - 1623 spiral md-8b vs 1630 spirals.

Once we have verified that our scaling is correct we can now proceed to Compare the 1623 Maitre Doreur spirals with those of 1630. These spirals look similar but are they imprints from the same tool?

comparative diagram 8

Comparative Diagram 8 - 1623 spiral md-8b vs 1630 spiral.

comparative diagram 9

Comparative Diagram 9 - 1623 spiral md-8b vs 1630 spiral.

The overlay image in Comparative Diagram 9 is the result of experimentation with a Photoshop "Paste Layer" option called "Difference". The coloured 1623 layer has been pasted onto the black and white 1630 image (opacity setting = 100%). Photoshop automatically paints the black and white, 1630 image with a color opposite to the pasted layer. As the two images match up closely I have deliberately offset the layer image to be able to show both imprints simultaneously. I would say there is a good chance that both imprints were made by the same tool.

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