Discover The Grammar of Ornament, One of the Great Color Books & Design Masterpieces of the 19th Century

In the mid-17th century, young Englishmen of means began to mark their coming of age with a “Grand Tour” across the Continent and even beyond. This allowed them to take in the elements of their civilizational heritage first-hand, especially the artifacts of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. After completing his architectural studies, a Londoner named Owen Jones embarked upon his own Grand Tour in 1832, rather late in the history of the tradition, but ideal timing for the research that inspired the project that would become his legacy.

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Jones visited “Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey before arriving in Granada, in Spain to carry out studies of the Alhambra Palace that were to cement his reputation.”

He and French architect Jules Goury, “the first to study the Alhambra as a masterpiece of Islamic design,” produced “hundreds of drawings and plaster casts” of the historical, cultural, and aesthetic palimpsest of a building complex. The fruit of their labors was the book Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra, “one of the most influential publications on Islamic architecture of all time.”

Published in the 1840s, the book pushed the printing technologies of the day to their limits. In search of a way to do justice to “the intricate and brightly colored decoration of the Alhambra Palace,” Jones had to put in more work researching “the then new technique of chromolithography — a method of producing multi-color prints using chemicals.” In the following decade, he would make even more ambitious use of chromolithography — and draw from a much wider swath of world culture — to create his printed magnum opus, The Grammar of Ornament.

With this book, Jones “set out to reacquaint his colleagues with the underlying principles that made art beautiful,” write Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Femke Speelberg and librarian Robyn Fleming. “Instead of writing an academic treatise on the subject, he chose to assemble a book of one hundred plates illustrating objects and patterns from around the world and across time, from which these principles could be distilled.” To accomplish this he drew on his own travel experiences as well as resources closer at hand, including “the museological and private collections that were available to him in England, and the objects that had been on display during the Universal Exhibitions held in London in 1851 and 1855.”

The Grammar of Ornament was published in 1856, emerging into a Britain “dominated by historical revivals such as Neoclassicism and the Gothic Revival,” says the V&A. “These design movements were riddled with religious and social connotations. Instead, Owen Jones sought a modern style with none of this cultural baggage. Setting out to identify the common principles behind the best examples of historical ornament, he formulated a design language that was suitable for the modern world, one which could be applied equally to wallpapers, textiles, furniture, metalwork and interiors.”

Indeed, the patterns so lavishly reproduced in the book soon became trends in real-world design. They weren’t always employed with the intellectual understanding Jones sought to instill, but since The Grammar of Ornament has never gone out of print (and can even be downloaded free from the Internet Archive), his principles remain available for all to learn — and his painstakingly artistic printing work remains available for all to admire — even in the corners of the world that lay beyond his imagination.

You can purchase a complete and unabridged color edition of The Grammar of Ornament online.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: A Deluxe New Art Book Presents Hokusai’s Masterpiece, Including “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”

Like most Japanese masters of ukiyo-e woodblock art, Katsushika Hokusai is best known mononymously. But he’s even better known by his work — and by one piece of work in particular, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Even those who’ve never heard the name Hokusai have seen that print, arresting in its somehow calm turbulence, or at least they’ve seen one of its countless modern parodies and tributes (most recently, a large-scale homage in the medium of LEGO). But when he died in 1849, the prolific and long-lived artist left behind a body of work amounting to more than 30,000 paintings, sketches, prints, and illustrations (as well as a how-to-draw book).

None of those 30,000 works are quite as famous as his Great Wave off Kanagawa, but very few indeed are as ambitions as the series to which it belongs, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. It is that two-year project, the artistic fruit of an obsession with Fuji and its environs, that Taschen has taken as the material for their new book Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Produced in a 224-page “XXL edition,” it gathers “the finest impressions from institutions and collections worldwide in the complete set of 46 plates alongside 114 color variations” — all sewn together, appropriately, with “Japanese binding.”

Not only does the book reproduce Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with Taschen’s signature attention to image quality, it presents The Great Wave off Kanagawa in a way few actually see it: in context. For that most widely published of all Hokusai prints launched the series, which continued on to Fine Wind, Clear Morning, Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit, and Kajikazawa in Kai Province, that last being an image held in especially high esteem by ukiyo-e enthusiasts. One such enthusiast, east Asian art historian Andreas Marks, has performed this book’s editing and writing, as he did with Taschen’s previous Japanese Woodblock Prints (1680–1938). Experiencing the whole of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, more than one reader will no doubt become as transfixed by Hokusai as Hokusai was by his homeland’s most beloved mountain. You can pick up a copy of Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji here. Find more beautiful Taschen art books here.

Note that Taschen is a partner of ours. So if you purchase a book, it helps support Open Culture.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover Japan’s Oldest Surviving Cookbook Ryori Monogatari (1643)

Maybe your interest in Japan was first stoked by the story of the seventeenth-century shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu and his campaign to unify the country. Or maybe it was Japanese food. Either way, culinary and historical subjects have a way of intertwining in every land — not to mention making countless possible literary and cultural connections along the way. For the curious mind, enjoying a Japanese meal may well lead, sooner or later, to reading Japan’s oldest cookbook. Published in 1643, the surviving edition of Ryori Monogatari (variously translated as “Narrative of Actual Food Preparation” or, more simply, “A Tale of Food”) resides at the Tokyo National Museum, but you can read a facsimile at the Tokyo Metropolitan Library.

Translator Joshua L. Badgley did just that in order to produce an online English version of the venerable recipe collection. In an introductory essay, he describes his translation process and offers some historical context as well. Ryori Monogatari was written early in the era of the Tokugawa shogunate, which had been founded by the aforementioned Ieyasu.

“For the previous 120 years, the country had been engulfed in civil wars,” but this “Age of Warring States” also “saw the first major contact with Europeans through the Portuguese, who landed in 1542, and later saw the invasion of Korea.” The foreigners “brought with them new ideas, and access to a new world of food, which continues to this day in the form of things like tempura and kasutera (castella).”

Consolidated by Ieyasu, Japan’s subsequent 250-year-long peace “saw an increased emphasis on scholarship, and many books on the history of Japan were written in this time. In addition, travel journals were becoming popular, indicating various specialties and delicacies in each village.” The now-unknown author of Ryori Monogatari seems to have gone around collecting recipes that had been passed down orally for generations — hence the sometimes vague and approximate instructions. But unusually, note publishers Red Circle, the book also “includes recipes for game at a time when eating meat was viewed by most as a taboo.” In it one finds instructions for preparing venison, hare, boar, and even raccoon dog.

Your fascination with Japan might not have begun with a meal of raccoon dog. But Ryori Monogatari also includes recipes for sashimi, sushi, udon and yakitori, all eaten so widely around the world today that their names no longer merit italics. Taken together, the book’s explanations of its dishes open a window on how the Japanese ate during the Edo period, named for the capital city we now know as Tokyo, which lasted from 1603 to 1863. (In the video just above, Tasting History vlogger Max Miller makes a typical bowl of Edo noodles, based on a recipe from the 1643 cookbook.) “From the mid-Edo period,” says the Tokyo National Museum, “restaurants began to emerge across Japan, reflecting a new trend toward enjoying food as recreation.” By the late Edo period, an era captured by ukiyo-e master Hiroshige, eating out had become a national pastime. And not so long thereafter, going for Japanese food would become a culinary, historical, and cultural treat savored the world over.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Taschen Art Books on Sale Until July 11th: Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali & More (Up to 75% Off)

FYI, from now until Sunday, the art book publisher Taschen is running a summer sale, letting you enjoy up to 75% off of hundreds of display copies of fine arts books–some of which we’ve featured here before. Some titles includes:

Enter the sale here. Note that Taschen is a partner of ours. So if you purchase a book, it helps support Open Culture.

Behold the Astronomicum Caesareum, “Perhaps the Most Beautiful Scientific Book Ever Printed” (1540)

Art, science, and magic seem to have been rarely far apart during the Renaissance, as evidenced by the elaborate 1540 Astronomicum Caesareum — or “Emperor’s Astronomy” — seen here. “The most sumptuous of all Renaissance instructive manuals, ” the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, the book was created over a period of 8 years by Petrus Apianus, also known as Apian, an astronomy professor at the University of Ingolstadt. Modern-day astronomer Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus at Harvard University, calls it “the most spectacular contribution of the book-maker’s art to sixteenth-century science.”

Apian’s book was mainly designed for what is now considered pseudoscience. “The main contemporary use of the book would have been to cast horoscopes,” Robert Batteridge writes at the National Library of Scotland. Apian used as examples the birthdays of his patrons: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his brother Ferdinand I. But the Astronomicum Caesareum did more than calculate the future.

Despite the fact that the geocentric model on which Apian based his system “would begin to be overtaken just 3 years after the book’s publication,” he accurately described five comets, including what would come to be called Halley’s Comet.

Apian also “observed that a comet’s tail always points away from the sun,” Fine Books and Collections writes, “a discovery for which he is credited.” He used his book “to calculate eclipses,” notes Gingerich in an introduction, including a partial lunar eclipse in the year of Charles’ birth. And, “in a pioneering use of astronomical chronology, he takes up the circumstances of several historical eclipses.” These discussions are accompanied by “several movable devices” called volvelles, designed “for an assortment of chronological and astrological inquiries.”

Medieval volvelles were first introduced by artist and writer Ramón Llull in 1274. A “cousin of the astrolabe,” Getty writes, the devices consist of “layered circles of parchment… held together at the center by a tie.” They were considered “a form of ‘artificial memory,’” called by Lund University’s Lars Gislén “a kind of paper computer.” Apian was a specialist of the form, publishing several books containing volvelles from his own Ingolstadt printing press. The Astronomicum Caesareum became the pinnacle of such scientific art, using its hand-colored paper devices to simulate the movements of the astrolabe. “The great volume grew and changed in the course of the printing,” Gingerich writes, “eventually comprising fifty-five leaves, of which twenty-one contain moving parts.”

Apian was rewarded handsomely for his work. “Emperor Charles V granted the professor a new coat of arms,” and “the right to appoint poets laureate and to pronounce as legitimate children born out of wedlock.” He was also appointed court mathematician, and copies of his extraordinary book lived on in the collections of European aristocrats for centuries, “a triumph of the printer’s art,” writes Gingerich, and an astronomy, and astrology, “fit for an emperor.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Who Decides What Words Get Into the Dictionary?

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Once upon a time, we were made to believe that words could never acquire sticks and stones’ capacity to wound.

Talk about a maxim no longer worth the paper it was printed on!

Language is organic. Definitions, usage, and our response to particular words evolve over time.

Lexicographer Ilan Stavans’ TED-Ed lesson, Who Decides What’s in the Dictionary?, rolls the clock back to 1604, when schoolmaster Robert Cawdrey assembled the first English language dictionary “for the benefit of Ladies, Gentlewomen, and other unskilled folk.”

Other English dictionaries soon followed, expanding on the 2,543 words Cawdrey had seen fit to include. His fellow authors shared Cawdrey’s prescriptive goal of educating the rabble, to keep them from butchering the high-minded tongue the self-appointed guardian considered it his duty to protect.

Wordsmith Samuel Johnson, the primary author of 1775’s massive A Dictionary of the English Language, described his mission as one in which “the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.”

Lest we think Johnson overly impressed with the importance of his lofty mission, he submitted the following gently self-mocking definition of Lexicographer:

A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

150 years later, Ambrose Bierce offered an opposing view in his delightfully wicked dictionary:

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.

Stavans points to brothers George and Charles Merriam’s acquisition of the rights to Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) as a moment when our concept of what a dictionary should be began to shift.

Webster, working by himself, set out to collect and document English as it was used on these shores.

The Merriams engaged a group of language experts to curate subsequent editions, striking a blow for the idiom by including slang and regional variants.

A good start, though they excluded anything they found unfit for the general consumption at the time, including expressions born in the Black community.

Their editorializing was of a piece with prevailing views — see “wife.”

But humans, like language, evolve.

These days, lexicographers monitor the Internet for new words to be considered for upcoming editions, including profanity and racial slurs.

If a word’s use is judged to be widespread, sustained and meaningful, in it goes… even though some might find it objectionable, or even, yes, hurtful.

Stavans wraps his lesson up by drawing our attention to Merriam-Webster’s tradition of anointing one entry to Word of the Year, drawn from statistical analysis of the words people look up in extremely high numbers.

“They” got the nod in 2019, a testament to how deeply non-binary gender expression has permeated the collective consciousness and national conversation.

The runner up?


Care to guess which word 2020 placed in the dictionary’s path?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Accurate Recreations of Medieval Italian Longsword Fighting Techniques, All Based on a Manuscript from 1404

Given recent events, the prospect of hundreds of young men meeting on Facebook, then traveling from around the country to a central U.S. location might sound like reasonable cause for alarm. Yet a recent convention fitting that description had nothing to do with political violence but, rather, a celebration and appreciation of the name “Josh” (full disclosure: this writer did not attend). The gathering of the Joshes this past April in Nebraska could not have been more peaceful, including its finishing battle royale, conducted with pool noodles. (Winner: adorable 4-year-old Josh Vinson, Jr., or “Little Josh,” from Lincoln, NE).

The Joshes had no concern for proper pool-noodle-wielding technique, if there is such a thing. But groups of people who gather around the country to stage medieval-style battles in live-action role playing (LARP) games with weapons both real and fake might benefit from pointers.

So, too, might those who choreograph sword fights on stage and screen. Where can serious historical re-creators learn how to wield a real blade in historically accurate combat? One resource can be found at Wiktenauer, a wiki devoted to collecting “all of the primary and secondary source literature that makes up the text of historical European Martial arts (HEMA) research.”

The Fior di Battaglia (“Flower of Battle”) — an Italian fencing manual by Fiore de’i Liberi dating from circa 1404 — offers richly- and copiously-illustrated demonstrations of medieval Italian longsword fighting techniques. In the original manuscript, seen here and at The Getty, “the illustrations are inked sketches with gold leafing on the crowns and garters,” notes the Wiktenauer entry. They dominate the text, which “takes the form of descriptive paragraphs set in poor Italian verse, which are nevertheless fairly clear and informative.” So clear, indeed, the brooding young men of Akademia Szermierzy — a Polish group that recreates medieval sword-fighting techniques — can more than convincingly mimic the moves in the video at the top.

Once they get going, after some requisite pre-fight rigamarole, it’s impressive stuff, maybe already familiar to modern fencers and certain members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the LARP-ing organization of amateurs recreating everything from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But for those who think all live-action role-playing is the equivalent of the Battle of the Joshes (or off-brand Nazis running through the streets in homemade armor), the sheer ballet of historical sword-fighting may come as a surprise — and maybe inspire a few more people to pull on the doublet and hose. See more medieval sword-fighting recreations from Akademia Szermierzy here, and the full text of the Fior di Battaglia here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Beautiful 19th-Century Indian Drawings Show Hatha Yoga Poses Before They Reached the West

Yoga as an athletic series of postures for physical health came into being only about 100 years ago, part of a wave of gymnastics and calisthenics that spread around the Western world in the 1920s and made its way to India, combining with classical Indian spirituality and asanas, a word which translates to “seat.”  Yoga, of course, had existed as a classical spiritual discipline in India for thousands of years. (The word is first found in the Rig Veda), but it had little to do with fitness, as yoga scholar Mark Singleton found when he delved into the roots of yoga as we know it.

Asana practice was often marginal, even scorned by some 19th century Indian teachers of high caste as the domain of “fakirs” and mendicant beggars. “The first wave of ‘export yogis,’” writes Singleton, “headed by Swami Vivekananda, largely ignored asana and tended to focus instead on pranayama [breath practice], meditation, and positive thinking…. Vivekananda publicly rejected hatha yoga in general and asana in particular.”

In the 20th century, yoga became associated with Indian nationalism and anti-colonial resistance, and imported Western poses were combined with asanas for a program of intense physical training.

Westernized yoga has obscured other traditions around the world that developed over hundreds or thousands of years. For his book with James Mallinson, Roots of Yoga, Singleton consulted “yogic texts from Tibetan, Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Tamil, Pali, Kashmiri, Old Marathi, Avadhi, Braj Bhasha, and English,” notes the Public Domain Review, who bring our attention to this early 19th-century series of images from a text called the Joga Pradīpikā, made before classical yoga became known in the west by adventurous thinkers like Henry David Thoreau.

A few millennia before it was the provenance of lycra-clad teachers in boutique studios, asana practice combined rigorous, often quite painful-looking, meditative postures with mudras (“seals”), hand gestures whose origins “remain obscure,” though yoga historian Georg Feuerstein argues “they are undoubtedly the products of intensive meditation practice during [which] the body spontaneously assumes certain static as well as dynamic poses.” The collection of drawings in the 118-page book depicts 84 asanas and 24 mudras, “with explanatory notes in Braja-Bhasha verse,” notes the British Library, and one image (top) related to Kundalini yoga.

Whatever the various practices of yogic schools in both the Eastern and Western world, “the methods and lifestyles developed by the Indian philosophical and spiritual geniuses over a period of at least five millennia all have one and the same purpose,” writes Feuerstein in his seminal study, The Yoga Tradition: “to help us break through the habit patterns of our ordinary consciousness and to realize our identity (or at least union) with the perennial Reality. India’s great traditions of psychospiritual growth understand themselves as paths of liberation. Their goal is to liberate us from our conventional conditioning and hence also free us from suffering.”

Under a broad umbrella, yoga has flourished as an incredible wealth of traditions, philosophies, religious practices, and scholarship whose strands weave loosely together in what most of us know as yoga in a synthesis of East and West. Learn more at the Public Domain Review, and have a look at their new book of historic images, Affinities, here, a curated journey through visual culture.

via Public Domain Review

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