Visiting Alois Senefelder – inventor of lithography

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In Berlin, there is a metro station named after him and a statue in his likeness. Another statue of him can be found in the town of Solnhofen. But if you actually want to visit Alois Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, you need to head to Munich’s Alter Südfriedhof cemetery. And what could be a better way to spend a sunny autumn afternoon.

Alois Senefelder's grave in Munich.

Alois Senefelder invented lithography in the late 18th century and with this planographic printing method revolutionised the printing industry. Today, lithography has been replaced by offset printing, but it essentially follows the same planographic principles of Senefelder’s invention. Some people like to emphasise the difference, but basically offset can be considered merely an extension of lithography. Also modern process colour printing (CMYK) is a kind of continuation from chromolithography.

Before Senefelder printing was done mainly by letterpress, which was invented by Gutenberg. Letterpress is a relief printing method, where the printing area sits higher than the non-printing background. The basic relief method was invented by the Chinese already in the early centuries CE, and was used in Medieval woodcuts. Relief printing was followed during the early Renaissance by the intaglio method which was used, for example, in drypoint engravings. Here the printing area consists of engraved cuts which sit lower than the non-printing area. Ink is first applied to the entire plate but then the plate is wiped clean so that ink remains only in the grooves. When damp paper is pressed against the plate, the paper sucks the ink from the grooves. In planographic methods the printing and non-printing areas are on the same level and the separation is done chemically. In the original lithography the printing area was drawn with an oily substance on stone slabs. When ink was applied it would stick only to the oily areas and wash away from the plain stone surface.

Infographic of three main printing methods: relief or letterpress, intaglio or engraving, planography or litography

Several books erroneously state that intaglio replaced letterpress, woodcuts, and other relief methods because is was supposedly a ‘better’ or ‘more accurate’ method. This is incorrect. Letterpress and relief methods remained the common printing methods until about the mid-twentieth century. Intaglio was never a commercially viable option for printing texts. In a limited and purely technical sense, intaglio does allow to print images with ‘higher resolution’ or in other words with more details. But it is impossible to mix printing methods. Intaglio can not be printed together with relief in the same print run. Technically, one can print text with letterpress and images with intaglio but this means putting the pages through two different print runs on two different machines. Or printing image pages and text pages separately and combining the pages during the binding stage. This means higher costs and complications. Perhaps viable for artbooks and such special publications, but not at all for regular newspapers and books.

So for a long time letterpress coupled with relief image blocks1 remained the staple printing method. That is until litography came along. Even then letterpress remained the champion of printing methods for a few hundred years. But now we have moved to an era where letterpress is only done by few specialist shops and hobbyists, while planography has taken over. Most of the printed material we encounter today – books, newspapers, posters, etc. – are produced with some planographic method. And all of these methods can be considered offsprings of Senefelder’s invention.

If you are a fan of Senefelder you can visit Munich to see his old neighbourhood and his grave. The grave is quite easy to find, it sits almost at the north-eastern corner of Alter Südfriedhof behind St. Stephan’s church.

Senefelder's grave can be found at the Alter Suedfriedhof cemetery in Munich

Another reminder of Senefelder can be found a couple of hundred meters from the cemetery. Next to the southern U-bahn entrance at Sendlinger-Tor-Platz you can find a little plaque on the wall indicating that it is the location where Senefelder died.

Today the block has all kinds of shops. You can go home bragging about how you enjoyed a coffee or a kebab at the location where Senefelder died. Or pop in to the gay bar Kraftwerk just around the corner. The annual gay Christmas market Pink Christmas is also held in front of St. Stephan – pretty much half-way between the memorial plaque and Senefelder’s grave. Seems Senefelder rests in lively surroundings.

  1. This is why Thomas Bewick’s method of wood engraving was such a big deal. It allowed higher quality for relief printing. [⇧ back]

2 thoughts on “Visiting Alois Senefelder – inventor of lithography”

  1. In 1818 Senefelder published a manual of lithography in Munich entitled Vollständiges Lehrbuch der SteindruckereyThis outstanding and comprehensive manual, which included many different examples of offset lithography, also introduced  chromolithography, with a two-color lithographic reproduction of the first page of the 1457 Mainz Psalter reproducing its large two-color initial letter.

    Senefelder’s book was translated into French and published Paris in 1819 as l’Art de la lithographie en construction pratique contenant la déscription claire et succincte des différents procédés à suivre pour déssiner, graver et imprimer sur pierre; precédée d’un histoire de la lithographie et de ses progrès. The same year the book appeared in English, published in London by Ackermann as A Complete Course of Lithography: … Accompanied by Illustrative Specimens of Drawings. To Which is Prefixed a History of Lithography. Of the three editions of Senefelder’s textbook, it has been argued that the English edition had the most impact in spreading the technique of lithography around the world.

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