Today, however, I sit here and ask myself a question of my own: what do I mean by historical accuracy?
In a way, it is very simple. Leopold von Ranke described the goal as wie es eigentlich gewesen ist: how it really was. This has been my goal: to show the past just as if a photographer had been there. But is that even possible?
Let's take a best-case scenario.
Now for my work on the Reformation, a time period where there is a great deal of information, but absolutely nothing like the major events of the Civil War.
General bookstore information, especially arrangement of books:
Petroski, Henry, The Book on the Bookshelf, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 1999.
Books shipped unbound, in barrels, with delivery labeling on outside:
Febvre, Lucien and Martin, Henri-Jean, The Coming of the Book, (London: N.L.B.) 1976.
Book on reading platform, and books on the table:
Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Albrecht Dürer Petroski, Henry, The Book on the Bookshelf, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 1999.
Table and drawers, papers on the floor:
Self-portrait drawing by Mattäus Schwartz, bookkeeper to Jacob Fugger, 1516. Deutschland, (information not available)
Wife of Basle Burgher, by Hans Holbein, c. 1520 Davenport, Millia, The Book of Costume, (New York: Crown Publishers Inc.) 1948.
A school sign by Hans Holbein, 1516 no author listed, Hans Holbein the Younger, (London: Massie Publishing Company) 1948.
The Artist’s Family, by Hans Holbein, 1528-1529 Russell, Francis, The World of Dürer, (New York: Time Incorporated) 1967.
Cripple’s clothes (middle-class scholar):
Michael Sattler, modern drawing Martin, David, Understanding the Old World, (Crockett, KY: Rod and Staff Publishers) 2002.
Buildings outside window:
Panorama of Zurich, by Hans Leu the Elder, 1500’s Special Issue - “Zwingli” Christian History Vol. III No. 1
Water-lifting wheel in middle of Zurich bridge:
Sixteenth-century drawing Wick, Johann Jacob and Senn, Matthias, Die Wickiana, (Küsnacht-Zürich: Raggi-Verlag) 1975.
Bookbinder and Embroiderer, by Jost Amman, 1568 Barnes, Donna R., The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker, (Hempstead, NY: Hofstra Museum) 1995.
Sixteenth-century drawings Wick, Johann Jacob and Senn, Matthias, Die Wickiana, (Küsnacht-Zürich: Raggi-Verlag) 1975.
Drawing of Zurich, c. 1600: Bister, Ulrich and Leu, Urs B., Verborgene Schätze des Tauffertums, (Herborn, Germany: Concepcion-Seidel) 2001.
McKee, Alexander, How We Found the Mary Rose, (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 1982.
Grace Before the Meal, by Claes Visscher, 1609 Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches, (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1998.
An illustration can have a very extensive bibliography! I was thrilled to be able to share certain findings with my readers, such as the water-lifting waterwheel on the bridge, and the fact that books were never shelved upright with the spine out, as they are today! I also loved the fact that in a largely illiterate society, packages (books were shipped unbound in barrels) were marked, not with an address, but with some rebus-like symbol of the recipient. Therefore, "Castelberger" is shown by a castle on a mountain.
I do not know of any other drawings, contemporary or modern, of bookstores from the Golden Age of printing. Perhaps they went entirely unrecorded. If so, this drawing unveils a world never seen seen since Shakespeare was born. From very scattered and fragmentary sources, a very special kind of place is shown - a place that would change the world. Bookstores had not existed fifty years before. And absolutely everything in the picture is based on historical research.
And yet . . . would the books have been immediately inside the door? Might there have been more of a counter? Would children have been allowed to look at their own books, even hornbooks? Did Andreas Castelberger's shop face the Limmat River? Even if it did, might it have been on the other shore? When it really comes down to it, the only specific visual element I can be entirely sure of is the owner's crutches!
This is not a problem unique to me. Bringing the past to life is full of ambiguities.
At the close of her magnificent history of the beginning of World War I, The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman introduces her sources in "a paragraph that no one ever reads but I think is the best thing in the book." (Tuchman, Practicing History, p. 18):
"Through this forest of special pleading the historian gropes his way, trying to recapture the truth of past events and find out 'what really happened.' He discovers that truth is subjective and separate, made up of little bits seen, experienced, and recorded by different people. It is like a design seen through a kaleidoscope; when the cylinder is shaken the countless colored fragments form a new picture. Yet they are the same fragments that made a different picture a moment earlier. This is the problem inherent in the records left by actors in past events. That famous goal, 'wie es wirlich war,' is never wholly within our grasp." (The Guns of August, page 442)
Barbara, I read your paragraph years ago. It stuck in my mind because I recognized a kindred soul, one who struggled with the same kinds of problems I have. And now it helps me to understand historical accuracy.
I have assembled dozens of these little colored bits. They are facts, items of material culture, images of the past. I have made them into a scene. Someone else would assemble them differently. If I could start over with a blank sheet of paper, I myself might draw a completely different scene. No one knows how contingent a work of art is like the craftsman who made it. It all depends on how the cylinder is shaken.
Though it may be solidly based on exhaustive, painstaking scholarship, our view of the past is never definitive, never the final and absolute word. But even with subjective accounts, Tuchman labored long and hard to bring a real and solid past to life. And she succeeded. Conscientiously, vividly, she made it real to me. I want to make the past real to others.