As printing using movable type spread, along with books copied by hand, books made using the printing press quickly began to become more common. The latter, for almost fifty years, between the last quarter of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the following century, existed side by side with codices copied and decorated by hand, until they finally became pre-eminent. To illustrate these new printed texts, from the second half of the 15th century, innovative ideas had to be tried out for reproducing images by mechanical means. This need was met by relief engraving (most of all woodblock printing, or xilography), which was already a graphic technique in its own right.

What is woodblock printing? Xilography means the relief engraving of images (sometimes with the addition of brief texts) on a wooden block, called a matrix, which is then inked and used to make several copies of the same subject, on paper or even on parchment, pressing down by hand or with a printing press. Because the woodblock was engraved in relief, it was not a problem to insert the wooden matrix into the movable type, thus printing text and images at the same time. This feature of woodblock made the whole process of printing an illustrated book very cost-efficient and explains the huge success of this technique in the printing of incunabula (books printed with movable type in the 15th century) and of early sixteenth-century editions.

Up until the eighteenth century, printing matrices were generally made of hardwood (pear, apple, cherry) cut along the grain (sidegrain) and engraved using chisels. Only later did the use of very hard woodblocks become common – usually boxwood – cut across the grain (endgrain) and engraved using a burin.