In the early 16th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1486–1519) commissioned several monumental woodcut prints in his efforts to demonstrate and maintain his position as titular ruler of central Europe. The most prominent of them, the Triumphal Arch, remains one of the largest composite image prints ever produced. It was devised to be distributed throughout the Holy Roman Empire as sets of separated sheets intended for wall mounting. The print functioned as a propaganda piece for the representation of the emperor’s person and the dynastic ambitions of the Habsburgs through the depiction of a manifold of allegorical scenes. Modeled after the ancient triumphal arches of the Roman Emperors, an arch printed on paper proved to be a less costly alternative. Moreover, because of the spread of the mechanised printing press in the age of the upcoming Reformation, paper proved to be a powerful medium for the rapid dissemination of information and ideas.
The architectural design and overall arrangement of the Triumphal Arch was conceived by architect and painter Jörg Kölderer, originally as a miniature. It was developed further by court historian and mathematician Johannes Stabius, who designated the various narrative sections and their subdivisions. Acclaimed printmaker Albrecht Dürer and his workshop assistants then designed the architectural elements of the arch in detail, as well as all of its individual scenes. Finally, woodblock cutter Hieronymus Andreä produced the actual woodblocks. The Triumphal Arch is printed on 36 sheets of paper using 192 woodblocks placed in register, a complete set of joint sheets measuring 295 by 357 centimetres.
Within two years after its completion in 1515, the first edition of the Triumphal Arch was printed in about 700 sets. A smaller second edition was printed between 1526–1528, and a third edition in 1559. Two and half centuries later, in 1799, the fourth and last edition was published by the Austrian scholar and printmaker Adam Bartsch, printed by T. Mollo in Vienna. This edition is fundamentally different from the first three. By this time, the woodblocks showed considerable wear and a number of the blocks were lost; the missing blocks were replaced with etchings by Bartsch himself. Of the original 192 woodblocks, 171 have survived and are now kept in the Albertina museum in Vienna.
Five centuries after its conception, between September 11 and November 16, 2014, a first edition set of the Triumphal Arch was shown at the British Museum in London as part of the exhibition ‘Dürer’s Paper Triumph’. For this occasion the museum team worked with scientists on documenting the unrolled print (which was already joined and backed onto linen in 1894) in their specialised photographic studio.1 Besides research and conservation purposes, the museum also used the high-resolution documentation to create an interactive zoomable image of the Triumphal Arch, which was published on their website at the time of the exhibition.2
With the process of digitising a print of such scale, a new method of quantization is applied to the Triumphal Arch. While the original format is defined by technical aspects of printing media, the digital image as found on the website of the British Museum was processed using Deep Zoom software.3 Deep Zoom is a technology developed by Microsoft for “optimized storing and downloading of images”. It allows web users to zoom in a large, high-resolution image and manoeuvre on its surface. Similar to Google Maps technology, the Deep Zoom file format breaks a single image into a collection of tiles, reducing initial load time by downloading only those pieces being viewed. The collections of image files are stored on the British Museum web domain and categorised according to zoom level and tile positions. An optional feature of Deep Zoom is the functionality of ‘Sparse Images’, which renders selected parts of the image with greater detail than others.4 These sublayers are not limited by a maximum resolution cap, as generally applied to all zoom levels, and can be used to emphasise certain areas of interest.
The use of Deep Zoom raises complexities to the compositional nature of the Triumphal Arch. Both the original print and its digital representation are ‘constructed’ of fragments, each dealing with their own technical barriers. In that sense the arrangement of paper sheets and woodblocks is analogous to the digital tiles made out of pixel blocks. Furthermore, while the original print provides insight into its production process, the process of perceiving its interactive reproduction on the British Museum’s web page virtually abolishes the experience of material and scale. Interestingly, however, the distinct digital image files that make up the composite image are all written in a specific document size and resolution. This definition of digital images by use of physical dimensions, as with any raster graphics image, construes a potential return to print. The digital image as such manifests itself as an interim information format, between printed matter and immaterial, numeral code.
Another consequence of the digital conversion has a more direct effect on the representation of the Triumphal Arch. Through Deep Zoom’s inclusion of Sparse Images, the image is actively altered by rendering some parts in a higher resolution than other parts, causing fields of distortion on closer inspection. Areas bordering these select ‘sparse images’ reveal compression artefacts of pixel block discontinuities, misaligned renders and differences in tonality. Through this abstraction, the technical limitations and conditions that are inextricably connected to the original production of the Triumphal Arch are reflected in its digital afterlife.