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The Prints and the Pauper

In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg entered into an agreement with one Johann Fust, a Mainzer goldsmith and guildsman, to borrow a staggering 800 Rheingulden at 6 percent interest. Gutenberg’s sales pitch must have been convincing, for Fust would later testify that he himself had borrowed money in order to fund the loan. Gutenberg sank the money into his workshop and promptly defaulted upon the interest payments. Fust must have been incandescent in his rage, and yet, two years later, as recorded in the inevitable court judgment, he would go on to lend Gutenberg another 800 Rheingulden on the condition that Gutenberg take on Fust’s adopted son, Peter Schöffer, as his foreman. Gutenberg assented, Schöffer was hired, and Fust paid out the second loan.

Why was Fust so ready to throw good money after bad? The prize that Gutenberg had dangled in front of his financier was, of course, the invention of movable type: the promise that a book could be replicated over and over again with minimal effort. In an era when a handwritten Bible commanded a price equivalent to a laborer’s yearly wage, the ability to print an endless run of books must have appeared as a license to mint Rheingulden. And so Fust was content, if not entirely happy, to leave Gutenberg to tinker with the devices that littered his printing workshop in anticipation of the truly colossal profits that lay ahead if the process could be perfected.

But wait. It bears mentioning that Johannes Gutenberg, the “father of printing,” was most definitely not the inventor of printing. “The action of making an impression, indentation, etc.,” pre-dates Gutenberg and his Bible by a huge margin, and if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be believed humanity has been printing for far longer than it has been writing books. In Iraq, for instance, archaeologists have unearthed 8,500-year-old stone seals with which the ancient Mesopotamians made marks on clay jars and boxes. (Proving that the human psyche has changed very little in the intervening millennia, one of these very earliest seals is engraved with a stylized penis.) Even if we narrow our definition to the printing of written texts, Gutenberg was still a latecomer. The ancient Egyptians used wooden stamps to impress hieroglyphics on clay tiles within tombs, while the so-called Phaistos Disk, a mysterious artifact found on Crete and tentatively dated to the second millennium BCE, bears a series of distinctly letterlike indentations on its clay surface.

But if Gutenberg did not invent printing, surely he can be given the credit for pioneering movable type, where individual letters and characters can be rearranged to print an infinite variety of texts?

Well, no. Four hundred years before Gutenberg, a Chinese commoner named Bi Sheng preempted the German. As told by Shen Kuo, a contemporary Chinese historian:

During the reign of Qingli, [1041–1048 AD] Bi Sheng, a man of unofficial position, made movable type. His method was as follows: he took sticky clay and cut in it characters as thin as the edge of a coin. Each character formed, as it were, a single type. He baked them in the fire to make them hard. He had previously prepared an iron plate and he had covered his plate with a mixture of pine resin, wax, and paper ashes. When he wished to print, he took an iron frame and set it on the iron plate. In this he placed the types, set close together. When the frame was full, the whole made one solid block of type. He then placed it near the fire to warm it. When the paste [at the back] was slightly melted, he took a smooth board and pressed it over the surface, so that the block of type became as even as a whetstone. […] For each character there were several types, and for certain common characters there were twenty or more types each, in order to be prepared for the repetition of characters on the same page. When the characters were not in use he had them arranged with paper labels, one label for each rhyme-group, and kept them in wooden cases.

This is movable type, almost to its dictionary definition: the printing of a text from symbols on discrete blocks that can be rearranged and reused as necessary. Unfortunately, this passage contains all that is known of Bi Sheng’s invention. Did he cut his letters into the surfaces of clay blocks, for example, or did he sculpt them in relief? The Chinese had a tradition of taking rubbings from engravings in stone and another of printing from wooden blocks carved in relief, leaving this most basic question unanswered. Worse, although Shen Kuo’s account of Bi Sheng’s system has the confident tone of an eyewitness account, no physical evidence survives to corroborate it. We have no texts printed by this method, and neither, despite Shen Kuo’s claim that “[Bi Sheng’s] font of type passed into the possession of my nephews” in the manner of a treasured heirloom, has any physical trace been found of the equipment itself. All that can be said with confidence is that in the middle of the eleventh century a man named Bi Sheng developed a form of movable type that used earthenware letters, and that his invention faded away before it made any lasting impact.

Frontispiece and opening text of the Diamond Sutra, the earliest dated, printed book. Woodblock printed texts are attested in China as early as the seventh century; wooden movable type was first described in 1313. In common with other early printed works, the Diamond Sutra’s images and text are carved into and printed from large, monolithic blocks.
Credit: Or. 8210/P.2, frontispiece and text. British Library.
License: No known copyright restrictions (Flickr Commons)

But China was not finished with movable type. Two and a half centuries after Bi Sheng’s experiments with earthenware type, and many years yet before Gutenberg would address himself to the subject, a government apparatchik named Wang Zhen approached the problem of movable type from a new angle. Books in China at the time were often printed from carved wooden blocks, each one cut to the size of two facing pages and incised with a mix of text and illustrations. This was immovable type, so to speak: each block could be used to print only its specific pair of pages, and each new book required the manufacture of a complete new set of blocks. Wang Zhen, however, saw an opportunity to meld the simplicity of woodblock printing with the flexibility of Bi Sheng’s method. Accordingly, in an appendix to his celebrated Book of Agriculture, written in 1313, Wang Zhen summarized Bi Sheng’s invention of earthenware type before explaining how he had improved upon it to create the new and intricate system of wooden type with which he had printed the book.

First, a block of wood was cut square and planed flat. Next, a calligrapher painted the characters to be cut onto a sheet of waxed paper and laid that paper onto the block; when the paper was peeled off, the wet ink left behind a perfect mirror image of the hand-drawn characters. From there, it was a simple matter for a practiced woodworker to carve out the characters and saw them into separate blocks. And there were many, many blocks. In the course of printing one particular history book, Wang Zhen used more than 60,000 individual characters. Arranging this enormous battery of symbols in some intuitive manner must have taxed his ingenuity. In the end, he settled upon a system composed of two revolving tables not unlike lazy Susans, with each one divided into a series of discrete compartments. On one table were arranged the bulk of the words, numbered and organized according to rhyme; on the other were placed a selection of the most common words, along with special characters such as numerals. One worker stood between these seven-foot spinning tables and retrieved characters as a second read them out in sequence.

A partial view of Wang Zhen’s distinctive circular type case, with sort arranged by tone and rhyme. This is a 1530 edition of the 1313 original.
Credit: 王禎. 農書 :三六卷. [China] : 山東布政史司, 明嘉靖9 [1530]. Image courtesy of Harvard College Library Harvard-Yenching Library.
Alternative credit: Wáng zhēn. Nóng shū: Sānliù juǎn. [China]: Shāndōng bù zhèng shǐ sī, míng jiājìng 9 [1530]. Image courtesy of Harvard College Library Harvard-Yenching Library.
Alternative credit: Wáng Zhēn. Book of Agriculture. [China]: Shandong administrative commissioner’s office, Jiajing 9 [1530]. Image courtesy of Harvard College Library Harvard-Yenching Library.
License: Public domain

With the required characters in hand, each page was assembled, inked, and printed. Characters were wedged into a wooden frame with slivers of bamboo; ink was applied with a brush, column by column; and lastly, an impression was taken by placing a sheet of paper onto the inked page and rubbing it lightly to transfer the ink. Wang Zhen had successfully designed, made, and printed with China’s second complete system of movable type—and this one too failed to last. As the years passed, Chinese (and later Korean) printers resorted to ever more esoteric materials in an attempt to find a workable system. To Bi Sheng’s earthenware type and Wang Zhen’s wooden blocks were added bronze, tin, and copper types; later, in the eighteenth century, porcelain was tried and rejected. There is no suggestion that ancient Chinese craftspeople, engineers, or scientists were any less astute than their Western counterparts, and yet Chinese movable type never reached critical mass. So what were the problems? Put simply, high standards and an unwieldy written language.

Chinese ink was one of the main culprits. Although their ink was essentially the same as that of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the Chinese had refined it to a new level of sophistication. Black pigment was obtained from pinewood from which all resin had been removed (“a small hole is cut near the root of the tree, into which a lamp is placed and allowed to burn slowly […] the resin in the entire tree will gather at the warm spot and flow out,” as one writer explained), which was then burned in a bamboo tunnel to capture the purified soot. The soot was mixed with animal glue and sundry other substances such as musk, mother of pearl, egg whites, cinnabar, black beans, and camphor in order to achieve the desired consistency, fragrance, and color. Finally, the gummy suspension was poured into a mold—decorated with delicate, sculpted designs, ink molds were works of art in their own right—to produce a cake of solid ink for safekeeping.

The end result was a peerless calligraphic ink. When Pliny compared the “India ink” exported from the port of Barbaricum to the best inks made in Rome, he was unwittingly singing the praises of Chinese ink, which had first made its way to the West via this bustling subcontinental shipping hub. Even as late as the eighteenth century, European writers lamented the failure of their indigenous inks to match the deep black color and permanence of their favored “India ink.” The Chinese themselves may have started to believe the hype: by the tenth century, ink was being mixed with substances such as turnip, foxglove juice, and bile for use as a medicine to stop bleeding. But as enticing as Chinese ink was to calligraphers and doctors, it was a stumbling block for Chinese printers who tried to move beyond simple woodblock printing. Water-based inks did not adhere well to metal, earthenware, or porcelain and produced blotchy, indistinct images.

Another famed Chinese invention bound up with books and bookmaking also proved to be an obstacle to the wider adoption of movable type. Chinese paper was too delicate to withstand the pressure required to form a crisp impression, requiring that printers use handheld brushes rather than firm mechanical presses to impress their paper onto their type. Not only that, China’s water-based ink tended to seep through the paper and made it impossible to print on both sides of a sheet.

Opening page of the Complete Works of Lu Xiàngshān) a collection of philosophical writings printed in this edition between 1465 and 1620. Works such as this one printed by means of wooden movable type are rare: woodcut blocks were more cost effective in most cases.
Credit: 陸九淵. 象山先生全集 : 36卷. [China : s.n., 明, between 1465 and 1620]. Image courtesy of Harvard College Library Harvard-Yenching Library.
Alternative credit: Lùjiǔyuān. Xiàngshān xiānshēng quánjí: 36 Juǎn. [China: S.N., Míng, between 1465 and 1620]. Image courtesy of Harvard College Library Harvard-Yenching Library.
Alternative credit: Lù Xiàngshān. Complete Works of Lu Xiàngshān: 36 volumes. [China: s.n., Ming, between 1465 and 1620]. Image courtesy of Harvard College Library Harvard-Yenching Library.
License: Public domain

In the end, however, Chinese movable type was undone as much by economics as by anything else. As Wang Zhen had found to his cost, a font representing a usable fraction of the 50,000 or so extant Chinese characters could run to tens of thousands of individual types. (Others told of vast fonts of 200,000 types or more.) Wooden type had to be cut character by character, and there is no evidence that Chinese printers ever tried to expedite the process by casting type from metal or other malleable substances. Moreover, the mechanics of movable type weighed against it: printers found that it was often faster to cut entire pages in wood, as had been done since time immemorial, than it was to set, print from, and distribute movable type on a page-by-page basis. China’s printers were hamstrung by the writing they sought to reproduce.

And so, though he had not invented movable type, if Gutenberg is to be credited with anything it must be that he made it work—that aided by the comparatively economical Latin alphabet he systematically tackled each aspect of a finicky, delicate process until he had perfected it. If calligraphic ink did not meet his needs, he would look elsewhere; if embossed characters were too costly to cut individually, he would find a way to produce them in bulk; and if a firm hand was necessary to get the best impression of the printed page, he would choose tools and materials that could withstand that pressure. Johannes Gutenberg was not the father of printing so much as its midwife.

Keith Houston is the founder of shadycharacters.co.uk. His latest book, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, is available now from W.W. Norton & Co.

Extracted from Part 2: The Text – “The Prints and the Pauper: Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of movable type”.

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The Prints and the Pauper

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The First Roman Fonts

The Renaissance affected change in every sphere of life, but perhaps one of its most enduring legacies are the letterforms it bequeathed to us. But their heritage reaches far beyond the Italian Renaissance to antiquity. In ancient Rome, the Republican and Imperial capitals were joined by rustic capitals, square capitals (Imperial Roman capitals written with a brush), uncials, and half-uncials, in addition to a more rapidly penned cursive for everyday use. From those uncial and half-uncial forms evolved a new formal book-hand practiced in France, that spread rapidly throughout medieval Europe.

Caroline minuscule, rustic capitals, uncial, and Caroline / square capitals. Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 4. Parchment. 46-46.5 x 35.5-36 cm. Tours, Abbey St. Martin. c. 820–830. Alcuin of York was responsible for introducing the notion of a hierarchy of scripts from old to new: roman capitals, uncials, and Caroline minuscule, with capital forms reserved for display purposes. (See Michelle P. Brown’s A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600, 1990, p. 66) Photo courtesy of University of Fribourg, Switzerland

This Carolingian script flourished in the eighth and ninth centuries. However, from the beginning of the eleventh century, through to about 1225, the Caroline minuscule (accompanied by a form of uncial majuscule) evolved into a more angular and laterally compressed script. Not only were letterforms affected by this compression, but the letter-spacing too, so much so that letters begin to kiss, bite, and fuse. By the twelfth century, this gothic script, with numerous national and local variations, was fully developed and adopted throughout Europe. However, by the fourteenth century, changes were afoot. Humanists like Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), among others, championed a new semi-gothic script that would thereafter evolve into the humanist book-hand.

From left to right: Imperial capitals, Rustic capitals, Uncial script, Carolingian minuscule

In late medieval and early Renaissance Italy, the gothic script, as elsewhere in Europe, was the preeminent formal book-hand. However, the extreme angularity and compression of Northern Textura (or Textualis) was resisted in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The southern European variant, rotunda or Southern Textualis, is characterized by rounder bows and broader letterforms.

Florentine ‘humanist’ script of Antonio di Mario, 1448. From Florentine Script, Paduan Script, & Roman Type. Geoffrey Hargreaves. Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Jan 1, 1992, Vol.67, p. 15

‘On Humanistic script’ – The Origin and Development of the Script of the Renaissance, Giulio Menna. [Academia]

The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script, B. L. Ullman, 1960

Thomas, D. (1951). What is the Origin of the Scrittura Humanistica? Bibliofilia, 53, pp. 1-10.

Davies, M. (2006). Humanism in Script and Print in the Fifteenth Century. In J. Krave, The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, p. 210

The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century, Albert Derolez, 2003

Humanism, a cultural and intellectual movement born in Florence, saw in antiquity a culture vastly superior to their own. Burckhardt describes the early Italian humanists as “mediators between their own age and a venerated antiquity.” (Burckhardt, p. 135). A great deal of their enthusiasm was aimed at restoring classical civilization, embodied in its literature. And so they scoured the earth for manuscripts, transcribed, translated, and copied them in earnest. Seeing that a great number of their venerated classical authors were penned in a script so contrasted to gothic, they mistakenly attributed the medieval Caroline minuscule to antiquity, hence the term ‘littera antica,’ or antique letters. By the time two dusty and tired German clerics arrived at the monastery of Subiaco in the quiet seclusion of the Sabine hills east of Rome, the humanist script was fully evolved, and already a natural choice for manuscripts books of classical literature.

Sweynheym & Pannartz
proto romans

Printing had spread from Mainz in the mid-1450s to Strasbourg, Bamberg, Eltville, and Cologne. But despite the close economic and cultural ties between Germany and Italy, a decade would pass before typography breached the Alps. Not in Europe’s most cosmopolitan city, Venice, or even in Rome, but rather in the quiet sanctuary of the Benedictine monastery of Sancta Scholastica at Subiaco, some seventy kilometers east of the hustle and bustle of Rome. A century before, in 1364, Pope Urban V, dismayed by its “incorrigible monks,” ordered Abbot Bartholomew to dismiss them. Many of their replacements came from Germany, something that subsequently was to attract yet more German immigrants including two lower order clerics, Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz. In fact, the two cleric-printers would likely have felt quite at home, surrounded as they were by so many of their countrymen. At the Subiaco monasteries, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italian monks were outnumbered by foreigners. Of the approximately 280 monks recorded by name from 1360 to 1515, fewer than one third (83) were from Italy; 110 from Germany, 19 from France; with others from as far afield as Bohemia, Poland, Prussia, Hungary, Spain, and elsewhere north of the Alps. Sweynheym had perhaps been employed in Mainz with Peter Schoeffer, and Pannartz was from Cologne (not Prague1).

[1] Sweynheym & Pannartz’s first colophon (Rome, 1467) states they are “comrades from the German nation.” Their petition of 1472 addressed to Pope Sixtus IV states unequivocally that they are from the dioceses of Mainz and Cologne: “…Conradus Sweynheym et Arnoldus Pannartz clerici Maguntine et Coloniensis diocesis…”, Scholderer (1996), p. 72. Papal records also corroborate this provenance: “…den päpstlichen Registern hervorgeht Pannartz als Inhaber einer Altarstelle am Dom von Köln, die er vertreten lassen konnte, Sweynheym als Inhaber einer Präbende an St. Viktor vor Mainz.” — Uwe Israel (2006), p. 284

[2] Some have suggested that perhaps the famed German cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) was involved in their invitation to Subiaco. Although his secretary and protégé, Johannes Andreas de Bussi (1417–1475), wrote in one of his earliest prefaces for the Sweynheym & Pannarttz press, a dedication of St Jerome’s Letters to Pope Paul II, that Cusa wished to see printing, the ‘holy art’ brought to Italy, there is, beyond his evident enthusiasm for printing, no evidence of Cusa’s direct involvement. He died 11 August 1464, perhaps around the time Sweynheym and Pannartz arrived in Subiaco.

By 1464, or 1465 at the latest, Sweynheym and Pannartz had arrived in Subiaco. Perhaps they were invited by Juan Torquemada2 (1388–1468), the Abbot in commendum of the Subiaco monasteries, Santa Scholastica and Sacro Speco since 1455. They likely traveled light with a bare minimum of belongings, including their type or at the very least their type-making materials. They would not have had to lug a press across the Alps, as it was something that could easily have been constructed upon their arrival with the help of the Subiaco monks and any others that accompanied them on their journey from Germany. They began by printing 300 copies of a Latin Grammar by the fourth-century tutor of Jerome, the Roman Grammarian, Aelius Donatus, of which, unfortunately, no copy has survived. Their next edition, issued no later than September of 1465 is Cicero’s De oratore, and is thus Italy’s first dated and extant printed book. Thus begins Italy’s association with the printing press and with printed works of the classics.

The first and second roman types. Sweynheym and Pannartz; Subiaco, 1465 (black); Rome, 1467 (red). The Subiaco type was the basis for a type design by William Morris that was later used by the Ashendene Press at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The First Roman Type

Just as the first printers in Germany looked to German manuscripts exemplars for their gothic textura types, so too, Sweynheym and Pannartz modeled their letterforms on contemporary Italian manuscript book-hands, humanistic scripts. There is no single exemplar, just as there is no singular humanistic script. It existed in many forms with local variations, further differentiated by the idiosyncrasies or unique characteristics of individual scribes, like Antonio di Mario and Giovanni de Stia.

Left: N from the Subiaco type, 1465; right: script of Poggio Bracciolini, 1408

Florentine Script, Paduan Script, and Roman Type, G. D. Hargreaves. Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, 67, 1992, pp. 15–34

The capitals of the Subiaco type are clearly roman, though they are antique square capitals as interpreted by fifteenth-century scribes. A is relatively wide with no serif at the apex; H is among the most peculiar of the capitals, with its broken right stem. However, this form was not a fanciful creation of Sweynheym and Pannartz, but is to be found in early fifteenth-century specimens (See Hargreaves, p. 22n24). I has a spur protruding from the left-center of the stem. The diagonal stroke of N meets the right stem mid way – a form not uncommon in humanist scripts. In addition to long s (ſ), short s is included for word endings only.

Subiaco type. Axes or stress in capitals and lowercase.

Furthermore, there is, and it was to be expected for a first effort, a lack of unity between the upper- and lowercase alphabets. For example, the stress or axis in the capitals is sometimes almost perpendicular, while in the lowercase it is oblique. Serif treatment is rather haphazard. As Morison notes, [Morison, The Library, p. 21] the type includes several sorts of d, l, and m – concessions to calligraphic variation.

Overall, there is little contrast in the letterforms. The principal difference between the lowercase of the Subiaco roman and contemporary humanistic scripts is how narrow many of the lowercase letters are cut. This feature, combined with tight spacing makes for a relatively dark color.

Cicero’s De oratore, printed by Sweynheym & Pannartz at Subiaco in 1465. The very first roman type. Image courtesy of the University of Barcelona

A large number of the books printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz made their way to Rome, with sixty copies, almost a quarter of the print run of their De civitate dei, their final Subiaco imprint, shipping to Rome, (Füssel, p. 60) though as Edwin Hall suggests, those books might have been allotted to the monks as remuneration for their help in running the press. That there was no local market for their books likely precipitated their move to Rome in 1467.

See Texts in Transit: Manuscript to Proof and Print in the Fifteenth Century, Lotte Hellinga, 2014, pp. 157, 166–7

It is somewhat peculiar that the Benedictine monks did not continue with their own press. Four years after Sweynheym and Pannartz left for Rome, Benedictus de Bavaria (Benedikt Zwink), a monk at Sacra Speco, a monastery just above Santa Scolastica, wrote to Laurentius, the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Göttweig in Austria, offering to print a breviary, but there is no evidence that Subiaco produced a single title after the departure of the prototypographers.

Reproduced from Lotte Hellinga in Bulletin du bibliophile (Paris: 1989), N° 1, pp. 48–49

“We have all the equipment for printing and also the people who know how to use it. If we could form part of this religious union (the extended congregation), all books, whatever the number required, could be printed and distributed to all the monasteries which in their turn would have joined the congregation, with the equipment which is available on the spot, and with the help of five brethren who could be instructed in this technique…”

The letter also suggests that they could print 200 copies. Even a leaf from Sweynheym and Pannartz’s edition of De civitate dei was enclosed with the letter, as an example of the type they would use. The Subiaco roman type was never again used by Sweynheym and Pannartz, suggesting that the Subiaco monks were heirs to their type and type-making equipment.

Lotte Hellinga wryly concludes that “other duties, such as weeding the garden, must have taken up too much time.” However, it is clear that the monks were intimately involved in the Subiaco press, and that they did “more than provide an empty barn and a wine press.”

Romans in Rome

While popes and antipopes played theocratic tug of war between Avignon and Rome during the Great Schism that straddled the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Rome, neglected, fell into disrepair, and its citizens scattered. When the Schism was finally resolved at the Council of Constance, the newly elected pope Martin V set about restoring Rome. He encouraged immigration and in response a sizeable contingent of Germans settled in the city. At the center of the German neighborhood stood their church, St. Maria dell’ Anima. Sweynheym and Pannartz would no doubt have felt quite at home with their print-shop close to Campo de’ Fiori, just a few minute’s walk from the Anima. With their newly established Roman press, they produced a new roman type.

Sweynheym & Pannartz, Type 2, Rome, 1467

This second roman differs in a number of respects. The approach to serifs is rather more consistent. A number of the capitals are wider: most notably E, F, and K. In the lowercase, most letters are wider, including e which takes on the nib or extended crossbar. Moreover, bowls are rounder – these ingredients make the Sweynheym and Pannartz’s second roman lighter in color.

Though famous for introducing the typographic book and roman type to Italy, it appears that Sweynheym and Pannartz were not the most business-minded of men. By 1472 they were on the verge of bankruptcy, and their editor, Giovanni Andrea Bussi, petitioned the Pope for relief. The petition lists, in chronological order, their editions and respective print runs (totaling an impressive 12,475 volumes), including their Subiaco imprints.

Sweynheym and Pannartz’s petition, printed in the preface to the fifth volume of their edition of Nicolaus de Lyra’s Postilla super totam Bibliam, is a rather desperate sounding plea:

On Giovanni Andrea Bussi’s prefatory letters of dedication, see Saggi di stampa: Tipografi e cultura a Roma nel Quattrocento, Massimo Miglio, ed. Anna Modigliani (Rome, 2002)

“We first among the Germans brought the printing art to Rome, at great labor and expense. We battled against difficulties which others refused to meet, and as a result our money was spent, and our house is full of unsold quires, but empty of the means of subsistence. Broken in strength we implore your gracious help, in return for which we will gladly give you as many copies of our handiwork as you choose to have.”

And, Bussi, writing on their behalf, makes very specific demands:

Scholderer, 50 Essays, pp. 72–73; translation from Renaissance Art Reconsidered: An Anthology of Primary Sources (2007), pp. 116–117

“Your devoted petitioners Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, clerics of the dioceses of Mainz and Cologne, book printers at the house of the Massimo family, beg Your Holiness to concede them two canonries in two cathedrals…”

It was once assumed that their petition had fallen on deaf ears, but a document discovered by Schlecht, in a volume of miscellaneous petitions presented to Pope Sixtus IV from August 1471 to August 1472, reveals that their petition did indeed meet with a favorable response, no doubt owing to the influence of their editor, Giovanni Andrea Bussi, who had recently been appointed chief librarian of the recently re-founded Vatican library. If any one title is responsible for Sweynheym and Pannartz’s desperate financial situation, then it is Nicolaus de Lyra’s Postilla, a five-volume folio work of 1,832 leaves, one the biggest of the fifteenth century (Hall, Edwin, pp. 7 & 15).

Conversely, Ulrich Han, invited to Rome by Torquemada, fared very differently. But why was Ulrich Han to flourish where Sweynheym and Pannartz failed? The answer to their contrasting fortunes lies in their books, in what they chose to print. Sweynheym and Pannartz almost exclusively produced the works of Classical authors; and they never printed with gothic types; in fact, they appear not to have owned a single gothic font. And despite the good graces of the rich and influential Massimo family, and the benefices of the Pope, they printed fewer and sold far fewer books than Ulrich Han. Even after their petition of 1472, when it might have occurred to Sweynheym and Pannartz that, perhaps, their choice of titles to print was the source of their financial woes; and surrounded by mountains of unsold inventory, they did not think to print different genres and authors.

Ulrich Han’s Type 2:86R in use in this 1468 edition of Cicero’s De oratore. A beautifully delicate type, well-proportioned, and a wonderful example of the best of the humanist book-hand translated into metal. Note the calligraphic outstrokes (right-hand serifs) on n & m. Image courtesy of Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart

That the newly appointed cardinal Torquemada, who had likely invited Sweynheym and Pannartz to Subiaco, did not seek their services for printing his Meditationes, (31 Dec. 1467) is rather puzzling. Torquemada’s book was illustrated with 33 woodcuts, something that Sweynheym and Pannartz never employed, save for a brief experiment with woodcut initials in 1470; and, apparently, those were printed, not with the text, but separately stamped by hand. T.F. Dibdin wryly suggests that Sweynheym and Pannartz had “sworn off decoration.” (The Bibliographical Decameron, 1817) Perhaps that’s not such a far-fetched notion. For indeed, their publishing program – almost exclusively the Classics set in roman –, even in the face of acute financial hardship, says something, perhaps, of either their principled aesthetic or obduracy. Another remark by their editor, Bussi, perhaps speaks to the limits of their typographic abilities, when he remarks in the preface to the first edition of Aulus GelliusNoctes Atticae (1469), that the printers were unable to print marginal commentary. (Edwin Hall, p. 62)

Sweynheym and Pannartz were the first to print a Bible in Italy (1471) set not in Gothic as was customary, but in roman. It is just one of only two Latin Bibles printed with roman types during the entire fifteenth century. That Sweynheym and Pannartz should choose to use roman type for a Bible is very unusual. There is no tradition of manuscript bibles penned in humanistic script. (Kwakkel et al. mention just one, the fifteenth-century Urbanite Bible). The only other incunable Latin Bible, printed in roman type, was published by the R-Printer, Adolf Rusch, in Strasbourg, c. 1473

Why was Ulrich Han able to succeed where Sweynheym and Pannartz failed? While Sweynheym and Pannartz enjoyed the palatial residence of the Massimo brothers, and an important association with Bussi, they continued to publish editions that they struggled to sell, Ulrich Han had not only found the good favor of Cardinal Torquemada, but too he had partnered with Chardella who, though not a printer himself, evidently understood the market for books. Prior to 1471, Han had mostly printed classical texts (Cicero, Livy, Juvenal, Plutarch, et al.), but his partner, Chardella, suggested he publish, not the classics, but books on canon law (it was Rome, after all!). Besides books on canon law this new partnership produced books like the liturgical treatise Rationale divinorum officiorum by the thirteenth-century Bishop and canonist Guillaume Durand (the uncle, not the lesser-known nephew by the same name). Prior to 1470 we see just two religious titles versus eight in the classics; by 1473, just one classic, Virgil’s Opera, and seven religious (including canon law). In the same year, four editions of the classics and not a single religious work issue from the press of Sweynheym and Pannartz. However, though Ulrich Han was on the whole successful, it appears that he, like so many fifteenth-century printers, was never far from financial insolvency. In 1476, Han, unable to pay his back rent of 40 ducats, offered a book in lieu of payment, that his landlords, the brotherhood of the Anima, sold – for only three ducats. (Maas, p. 125) How he paid the difference, we do not know, but he did continue printing until about 1480, with a total of some 100 editions to his name. Owing to the huge investments in capital required to print hundreds of books, a single misstep could spell disaster. The most successful printers were the most flexible, and those who were best at reading the market. We should not conflate the romanticism of the Private Press movement with incunabula printers, most of whom were just one book away from financial ruin. Georg Lauer, in Rome, at the insistence of his editor, Pomponius Laetus, successfully shifted his attention from classical editions to legal texts and pamphlets for the papal court. Incidentally, Lauer, in 1479, was working with Sweynheym and Pannartz’s second roman type. Adam Rot, printing in Rome from 1471, was able to corner the market for guides to Rome, including his edition of Mirabilia Romae, (‘Wonderful Rome’) catering to the city’s hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims.

“The Ptolemy map inscriptions, in turn, document Sweynheym’s great skill as a punch maker, suggesting that it was he who designed and executed the punches for the two Sweynheym and Pannartz types.” – Edwin Hall, p. 23

Within just fourteen months of their petition, Sweynheym and Pannartz’s partnership comes to an end. Their Historia naturalis, another classical text, published in May 1473, is the last work they publish in partnership. Pannartz continued printing alone in the same workshop housed in the Palace of the Massimo brothers, Pietro and Francisco, until 1476. He died some time before 1478. Sweynheym devoted himself to making copper-engraved maps, including those for Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, but died (c. 1477) before completing them. The book was completed by a fellow German printer, Arnoldus Buckinck on October 10, 1478 (ISTC: ip01083000), a folio replete with woodcuts and twenty-seven magnificent copper-engraved maps. The preface is addressed to Sixtus IV, the very Pope who had granted benefices to Sweynheym and Pannartz a little over five years before.

Rudolf Hirsch, 1967: Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450–1550

Many histories of nascent print imply, that upon its introduction, roman type quickly became ubiquitous. However, it is worth noting that, although the roman is an Italian development, its use in Italy, at least in the fifteenth century, was not as widespread as is often suggested. One hundred and thirty-eight fifteenth-century Italian presses appear not to have used any roman types. (Hirsch, p. 115) Nine per cent of European incunabula were classical texts; for Italy that figure rises to just over 30%, and as almost all of those were set in roman type, then close to a third of all Italian incunable were set with roman types – still far out-numbered by books printed with gothic types. And in German-speaking nations, various forms of blackletter or gothic types continued to dominate well beyond the Renaissance.

The early history of roman type is confused by terms like semi-gothic and semi-roman. Daniel Updike employs “pure roman” or “transitional roman” to distinguish the romans of, for example, the da Spira brothers and the Subiaco type of Sweynheym and Pannartz. George Abrams describes the Subiaco type as “certainly transitional from gothic to roman.” Stanley Morison, however, believed such terms to be misnomers. Sweynheym and Pannartz’s didn’t attempt to create a type that was a mix of gothic and humanistic styles. Their type was based on humanistic manuscript hands, scripts that did display some elements of gothic – not because such scripts were somehow semi-humanistic, but because they had, to some extent, evolved from gothic manuscript hands. But their types were humanistic and therefore roman; no more semi-roman than they were semi humanistic. No fifteenth-century reader would have deigned to call such types semi-gothic or semi-roman. Perhaps it is more useful to classify fifteenth-century romans into three broad groups: first, proto-romans for all romans produced prior to Jenson (1465–1470); second, Jensonian roman (1470–1495); and third Aldine roman (1495–), and the roman cut by Francesco Griffo for Aldus in Venice. That is not to say that all type designs between Jenson and Aldus are Jensonian in design. During this period there were a number romans produced that, in design, are proto-roman; and similar overlaps are to be found for the other periods too.

All the Romans

Geographical distribution of fifteenth-century roman types throughout Europe.
■ Italy (89%); ■ France;
■ Germany; ■ Other

The total number of cataloged fifteenth-century roman types, according to TW is 1080 (compared to 4738 gothic, 175 Greek, 129 Hebrew). However, a relatively large number of that total are minor variants; for example, a type reappearing later with a few extra glyphs, or the same design cast on another body. The total number also includes duplicates, or type used by more than one printer. Discounting those forms of variants and duplicates, we arrive at a figure of about 800 roman types. Unsurprisingly, almost 90% of them were produced in Italy, with about 40% of those cut in Venice. Although throughout the fifteenth century, classical authors were set in roman, (following the manuscript tradition of humanist script for the classics) there are, of course, exceptions. For example, of the 350 editions of Cicero, 62% were published in Italy); of those 219 Italian editions, a mere seven, in the course of 35 years, were printed with gothic types.

Incunabula roman types. [y-axis: roman types produced in Europe.]
Data compiled from Typenrepertorium der Wiegendrucke (TW)

Romans North of the Alps
Adolf Rusch

Victor Scholderer suggests that the R in Rush’s roman is a monogram, A R. Daniel Updike calls it the R-bizarre

On the dating of Adolf Rusch’s books, see Paul Needham in Transactions of the Cambridge Society, 9. 1986, p. 68 & Papers of Bibliographical Society of America, 80. 1986, p. 510.

Shortly after Sweynheym and Pannartz moved their press to Rome in 1467, another German printer produced one of the first roman types north of the Alps, in Strasbourg, an Imperial Free City, then part of the German empire, and where Gutenberg had lived prior to settling in Mainz. Long known as the anonymous R-printer, for his peculiar capital R, he was later identified as Adolf Rusch, son-in-law to Strasbourg’s first printer, Johann Mentelin, a scribe and illuminator of manuscripts who likely apprenticed in Mainz. For many years it was believed that Rusch’s roman was the first outside of Italy. However, recent watermark analysis points to a date of around 1472.

Adolf Rusch (the R Printer), 1470. On the identification of Rusch, see Typenrepertorium der Wiegendrucke

Johann Mentelin

Mentelin, 1473. Letters of note:
P with descender; forms with and without bilateral serifs; Gothic rotunda S; A with broad top bar; spiral-form Uncial G; g with loop or lower lobe extending thorough link.

On Johan Schott’s claim, see A Bibliography of Printing, vol. 2, p. 37

While Günther Zainer was first printing in roman types in Augsburg, Johann Mentelin, Strasbourg’s first printer, cut a roman type with some very distinct letterforms, influenced by uncial and gothic forms. Menetelin, then, is one of the very earliest printers outside of Mainz, and likely was apprenticed with Gutenberg or Fust and Schoeffer for a time before settling in Strasbourg, where he gained citizenship. One of Mentelin’s daughters, Salome, later married the R-printer, Adolf Rusch, who took over the press upon Mentelin’s death in 1478. His grandson, Johan Schott later made the unsubstantiated claim that his grandfather, Mentelin, was the inventor of the art of printing.

Johann Mentelin’s Type 7:107R, Strasbourg, c. 1473. [ISTC: iv00283000] Image courtesy of Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek

Günther Zainer

Augsburg’s geographical position with easy access to Alpine trade routes connecting Northern Europe to the Mediterranean and its proximity to important silver mines helped it develop into an important center of banking and commerce. North of the Alps, Augsburg too was one of the first centers of humanist culture. Therefore, it is no surprise that it was in Augsburg that Günther Zainer, who had likely worked with Mentelin in Strasbourg, introduced roman type as early as 1472. His peculiar A and H make for easy identification of his type.

Günther Zainer’s first roman (Type 3:107R), Augsburg, 1472. For more on Zainer’s idiosyncratic romans, see Unusual Fifteenth-century Fonts.

Romans in the Low Countries


Dutch Type by Jan Middendorp, pp. 12–32

Post-Incunabula & their Publishers in the Low Countries, 1978, Vervliet

* Corresponding to the Netherlands, modern-day Belgium & Luxembourg
† Vervliet, 1978, p. 4
‡ Updike, vol. 1, pp. 97–8 & fig. 47. (This roman is not listed in Typenrepertorium der Wiegendrucke)
§ See Literary Cultures and Public Opinion in the Low Countries, 1450–1650, Jan Bloemendal, et al., 2011
# Vervliet, 1978, p. 6

There are very few incunabula books printed in the Low Countries* in roman, despite the region’s relatively early adoption of the printing press in the early 1470s, simultaneously at Utrecht and Alost. Nicolaus Ketelaer and Gerardus de Leempt, in Utrecht, were the region’s proto-typographers; by the 1480s, presses were established in at least twenty towns throughout the Low Countries. One rare example is a roman of Johannes de Westfalia printing in Louvain.

Pius II’s Epistolae familiares, printed by Johannes de Westfalia, 1483, Louvain. Note the very distinctive r with its extended shoulder or ear. [ISTC: ip00718000] Photo courtesy of the University of Glasgow Incunabula Project

After some short-lived experiments with roman, during the last half of the fifteenth century, the output of the Low Countries was predominantly grammars and liturgical books. There are linguistic and cultural grounds behind the absence of roman types; for example, for the latter, the delayed influence of the Italian Renaissance and of Renaissance humanism§ – not felt until the subsequent century, with, for instance, the press of Dirk Martens (friend to Erasmus) in Antwerp, and who Vervliet terms, “the Low Countries humanists’ printer par excellence.”#


The Early Printers of Spain & Portugal, Konrad Haebler, 1897; and Monuments of the early printers part IV: Spain and Portugal; northern and eastern Europe; America, and the East, Bernard Quaritch, 1819–1899

Iberian Peninsula

Printing was introduced into Spain about 1472. Three of the earliest books to emerge from the first Spanish press of Lambert Palmart are printed in roman type (Type 1:103R). Thereafter, the vast majority of Spanish incunabula (around 1,000 editions) employ gothic types.

One of Spain’s first roman types. Lambert Palmart, c. 1475, Valencia. Type 1:103R. Letters of note: s with flat? spine; K with bent leg; bifurcated or cupped serifs most pronounced in r. A rather unsuccessful Qu ‘ligature.’ Detail from the colophon of Elegantiolae, [ISTC: ip00551500]. One of only two extant copies. Image courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

[Segovia]: Johannes Parix, [c. 1472–74]. x-height: 2mm.

Venetian Romans
The Brothers da Spira

Not only was Venice home to a cosmopolitan and literate population, it was a commercial center, and a base for numerous companies that traded internationally. Its geographic position with good overland trade routes across the Alps into Germany and beyond, and its position as a maritime power with extensive sea-trading routes made Venice particularly suited for the printing and distribution of the printed book.

Printing was introduced to Venice in 1469 by two German immigrants, the brothers Johannes and Vindelinus da Spira. Johannes applied for a printing privilege, fundamentally a monopoly privilege. It was granted in 1469 and was to extend for a period of five years. Not only did this privilege grant him monopoly rights for printing in Venice, but precluded the importation of books from outside the Venetian territories. Unfortunately, for the brothers, Johannes died just months after being granted the potentially very lucrative privilege. As the privilege was granted in Johannes’ name, it apparently lapsed upon his death.

Had Johannes lived on, then perhaps the history of early printing would have taken quite another course, at least geographically. Or perhaps, the Venetian collegio would, upon seeing the potential for the new art, not have strictly enforced it. We do know that they most certainly had the power to revoke such privileges. If the privilege had remained in place (until 1474), then men like Jenson, Valdarfer, and Renner might have established their presses elsewhere in the Italian peninsula.

First roman of Johannes de Spira, Venice, 1469

Ratdolt & Co.

After a dispute with his brother in Augsburg, Erhard Ratdolt, who had spent some time in Mainz as a youth, set off for Venice, arriving there no later than 1476. He partnered with two of his countrymen, Bernhard Maler and Peter Loslein. Following the pattern of many early printers in Italy, most of Ratdolt’s early output was in the classics. However, his debut edition was not the prose of Cicero or the poetry of Virgil, but of a contemporary author, the brilliant mathematician and astronomer, Regiomontanus (1436–1476). Regiomontanus had established his own press in Nuremberg, and in many respects, Ratdolt is his heir, printing many of the editions Regiomontanus had proposed to publish, before his untimely death in 1476. It is also likely that Ratdolt had learned his trade with Regiomontanus in Nuremberg. (Incidentally, his partner, Maler was a native of Langenzenn, a town just 25 kilometers west of Nuremberg.) This first book to come off their press was Kalendarium, a 55-year calendar (1475–1530) based on astronomical observations that would aid in the ecclesiastical calculation of, among other things, religious holidays.

Top: Jenson’s Type 1:115R (1470); bottom: Ratdolt’s Type 1:109R (1476)

During his decade in Venice, Ratdolt printed with just one roman type in two variants (identical but for the form of d and the addition of several other sorts). Ratdolt does not follow Jenson in the form of h, opting instead for the the uncial form with bowed leg. Y with looped tail is a curious addition. Besides these features, Ratdolt’s capitals are just a tiny fraction taller than his lowercase letters with ascenders, and the axis of rounded letters is approximately 45°.

First roman of Erhard Ratdolt and Co., Venice, 1476. Type 109:R. Letters of note: narrow S, h with bowed leg (Jenson’s straight-leg h was influential but as yet not the normative form. Y with curly tail

On April 1, 1486 Ratdolt printed the first known type specimen, his Index characterum diversarum, a broadside, printed on one side and measuring 340 × 220 mm. It features fourteen fonts in all: ten gothic, three roman, and one Greek font. The only surviving copy is at Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Germany. The type specimen wasn’t discovered until the late nineteenth century, hidden away in the binding of another book in Munich. It may also indicate that Ratdolt was in the business of selling type, though perhaps it is simply an advertisement for his new Augsburg press.

Nicolas Jenson

Nicolas Jenson was born in Sommevoire, north-eastern France, in about 1420. He worked his way from apprentice to Master of the Royal Mint at Troyes. The nineteenth-century historian of incunabula, Anatole Claudin, claims that Jenson was, on October 4, 1458, sent on a secret mission to Mainz, where he would learn the secrets of printing and bring bring that knowledge back to France. While in Mainz, Charles VII died (1461) and, according to one account, Jenson decided to stay on at Mainz. Whether Claudin’s account is accurate does not really matter. What does is that Jenson learned how type was made – a process that would certainly not have been entirely alien to him, in view of his familiarity with die-cutting and casting at the Royal Mint.

Type 1:115R by Nicolas Jenson, 1470. One of the first romans with straight-leg h

Daniel Updike wrote that Jenson’s roman types “have never been equaled,” and that “no other man produced quite so fine a font.” It is undoubtedly a fine type and its influence is inestimable. That it was the finest roman of the time is a fair opinion, but “the best roman ever” – nonsense, of course.

* Interesting is Martin Lowry’s take on other factors contributing to the downturn of 1473. See Nicolas Jenson & the Rise of Venetian Publishing in Renaissance Europe, 1991

ISTC lists just one. GW lists two: a classical work, Solinus’s De mirabilibus mundi (‘The wonders of the world’) and a book of decretals (canon law)

During the first decade of printing in Venice, the year 1473* stands out for a significant drop in the number of editions published. From 1470 to 1472, Jenson published over thirty editions, but 1473 sees just two. This significant fall in production is invariably attributed to the overproduction of Classical texts in the preceding two years during fierce competition between Venice’s top two firms headed by Jenson and, Johannes de Colonia (John of Cologne), and whose output in those years accounted for half of total Venetian book production. Moreover, there was considerable overlap in the publishing programs of the two competitors. A contemporary scribe complained that Venice was “stuffed with books”, though his consternation is likely, at least partially, fueled by sour grapes.

Kay Amert, Stanley Morison’s Aldine Hypothesis Revisited, 2008, p. 70

Nicolas Jenson & the Rise of Venetian Publishing in Renaissance Europe, Martin Lowry (1991)

A number of manuscript models have been proposed for Jenson’s roman types. Although, no single manuscript hand served as an exemplar, many cite the script of Battista Cingulano – for his letterforms and certain abbreviations, that are common to both Cingulano’s script and Jenson’s type (See Lowry, 1991, pp. 80–81).

Facsimile of Battista Cingulano’s script, c. 1450, that likely served as a model for Jenson’s romans. From Lowry, 1989, p. 20

Jenson’s Last Will & Testament bequeaths his types to his business partner and friend, Peter Ugelheimer. Ugelheimer’s widow, Margarita, continued his publishing business after his death, even commissioning Aldus to print St. Catherine’s Letters in 1499, incidentally, the very first book printed with a very small sampling of his italic type, used proper in the following year. From 1482, we see Andrea Torresani, later father-in-law of Aldus, printing with one of Jenson’s gothic rotunda types, one that Jenson had used from 1477 to 1479, mostly for works of civil and canon law. Perhaps Ugelheimer had sold the types to Torresani prior to moving to Milan.

Romans for Romans

Roman type was simply a reflection of the genre of books in which they appeared. Jenson would no more have printed a liturgical book in roman, than a printer of liturgies would print one with gothic types. Why? For the same reason that twenty-first-century newspapers set in gothic Fraktur types don’t sell. A decline in the number of classics, most notably from 1473, is reflected by a concomitant fall in the number of roman types produced. Though Lowry suggests that Jenson’s early classics, printed exclusively in roman types, were something of a commercial failure*, it would be wrong to blame the romans. Compared to Jenson’s publishing program thereafter, one might rightly deem his early classics as a relative financial failure, but there is nothing to suggest that he had any difficulty selling them, prior to 1473. When the market had become saturated with editions of the Classics, he wisely shifted his focus to large and expensive folio editions of canon and civil law (a genre that had proven lucrative for Ulrich Han in Rome); and a category of books that had, traditionally, in southern Europe, been produced in formal gothic scripts like rotunda. Therefore, if Jenson’s early works of the classics were indeed a “commercial failure”, then it is a failing, not of the types, but of the genre he chose to print.

In review of Lowry’s, Venetian Printing – Nicolas Jenson & the Rise of Roman Letterform, Paul Gehl writes, paraphrasing Lowry, that, “Jenson’s noble Roman fonts and elegant page layouts were a commercial experiment that largely failed.” See Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 609–611

Between 1473 and 1476, five Italian presses experimented with law books set in roman types, but thereafter no books of civil or canon law were produced with roman types. (See Hirsch, p. 114) Of those ten editions, produced in Rome (7), Ferrara (2), and Perugia (1), all were folio editions of civil rather than canon law, and the relatively small number of surviving copies suggests that they were not printed in large numbers.

Venetian incunabula by period. [y-axis: % of total editions printed.]
■: Classics; ■: Religious; ■: Law; ■: Philosophy & Science; ■: Vernacular
Source: Gerulaitis, pp. 70–71

During the fifteenth century, Italy, led by Bologna, Milan, Rome, and Venice, dominated the market for law books, producing two and a half times as many as the rest of Europe.

Jenson’s shift away from roman types to gothic has little, if anything, to do with letterforms, and everything to do with genre. Jenson’s abandonment of roman types is more accurately an abandonment of the classics, for which roman types, at least in Italy, were the natural choice. Especially after 1476 we witness a marked shift in Jenson’s publishing program – away from the classics to Jurisprudence and religious works. Something that Vindelinus de Spira had already started doing. In 1477, Jenson published seven editions, all set in gothic types: three religious works, including a Papal Bull in German, and Aquinas’s Summa theologiae; and four works of Jurisprudence, including one of canon law, Decretum, by the twelfth-century Bolognese lawyer, Gratian. And all but the Papal Bull were large format folio editions. Jenson’s only use of roman types after 1476 – once in 1478 for a two-volume Plutarch, and once in 1478 – were for works likely “commissioned by outside patrons rather than planned by Jenson himself.” (Lowry, Venetian Printing: Nicolas Jenson and the Rise of the Roman Letterform, 1989, p. 23.)

Jenson: number of editions employing roman (red) and gothic (green) fonts. Jenson used no gothic types for his first three years at Venice. By contrast, after 1476, he printed just two editions in roman. Data compiled from ISTC and GW

In 1474, Jenson partnered with two Frankfurt businessmen, Johannes Rauchfas and Peter Ugelheimer to form Nicolas Jenson et Socii. Five years later, in 1479, we witness yet further consolidation with a new merger to form Johannes de Colonia, Nicolas Jenson et Socii. However, this partnership proved to be short-lived owing to the deaths of both of its principal partners, Johannes de Colonia, who died shortly before the merger was formalized, and Jenson who died in September, 1480.

Although Jenson’s type was often imitated, there are few that rival it. Of the hundreds of romans between Jenson and Aldus, one of my favorites is Type 5:95R by Francesco del Tuppo, one of the – if not the – first printer at Naples. Good, classically proportioned capitals, but for wider B, E, and S, and a marginally slimmer N.

Type 5:95R by Francesco del Tuppo, Naples, 1480. Cap height is equal to the height of ascenders. Note the g with loop stroke crossing through the link (as in Mentelin’s Type 7:R, for example)

And another fine roman, this time from Perugia, and later used in Florence:

Type 2:115R by Bartolomeo de Libri Florence, 1487 that is either a recut or a reproduction cast on a larger body of Steffen Arndes’ Type 4:R, Perugia, 1482 (20 ll. = 104/5 mm). A very fine a; e with short outstroke

And this lovely sharp, angular Italian roman from the early 1480s, with some of its rhythm attributable to the repetition of angles in, for example, the crossbar of e, head serifs, and even the ear of g:

Type 2:97R by Bartholomaeus & Laurentius de Bruschis, Reggio Emilia (northern Italy), 1481–2 (related to Type 6:98R by Leonhard Pachel & Ulrich Scinzenzeller in Milan, 1481)

Rhythm through repetition

* The “Sack of Mainz.”
Erhard Ratdolt (though not yet a printer) was another who left Mainz for Italy shortly before the city was sacked.
Printing Types, vol. 1, p. 73

After the tumultuous events in Mainz of 1462–63,* Claudin claims that Jenson left along with Sweynheym and Pannartz, and the da Spira brothers. He also suggests that Jenson had cut the first roman of the Subiaco press. Updike even credits Jenson with the roman of the da Spira brothers in Venice. This does coincide with a gap in Jenson’s story of a half-dozen years between his last known appearance in Mainz and his arrival in Venice. However, besides Claudin’s account, written in the nineteenth century – and he cites no corroborating sources – there is no evidence beyond the circumstantial; though his account is not entirely implausible.

Peculiar Early Romans

Although Jenson’s roman would come to influence printed roman letterforms for centuries, their adoption was by no means immediate. The first roman of Johann Neumeister, the first printer at Foligno, Italy, from 1470, bears little resemblance to other early Italian romans.

Type 1:124R by Johann Neumeister, Foligno, 1470

We can only assume that the anonymous punchcutter behind this roman of 1472 was promptly fired and banished from Germany. Although, to be fair, it was his first (and last) effort.

Type 1:96R by Anon., Lauingen, Germany, 1472

Early French Romans


The First Paris Press; an account of the books printed for G. Fichet and J. Heynlin in the Sorbonne, 1470-1472, A. Claudin, 1898. Read at archive.org

Johann Neumeister, who perhaps was associated with Gutenberg in Mainz, initially found investors in the goldsmith Emiliano Orfini and his brother. He published several works in Foligno, but fell on hard times, eventually winding up in jail for unpaid debts. By 1498 he was a pauper; and despite being remembered as the printer of the very first edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he died in destitute obscurity in the first decades of the sixteenth century.

Prior to the establishment of the first French print-shop, Fust and Schoeffer via their representative, Hermann Stabeon, supplied many editions to the French capital and beyond. In fact, it was in Paris, while Fust was visiting the city with a consignment of books, that he died in 1466, probably of the Plague that ravaged Paris during 1464–66, claiming some 40,000 souls. His partner, Peter Schoeffer had attended university in Paris before apprenticing to Gutenberg in Mainz. Printing in France got its start in Paris in 1470. Ulrich Gering, Martin Crantz, and Michael Friburger, three Germans, were invited by the university’s prior, Johann Heynlin and Guillaume Fichet, former rector, and then librarian of the Sorbonne. Although the press has sometimes been called the first university press because it was set up in the buildings of the Sorbonne, it was never sponsored or funded by the university, but privately by Fichet. The three German invitees are merely extras in the story of the Sorbonne press. Fichet and Heynlin are the protagonists: Fichet, who since his youth, had profited from the generosity of his benefactor, Cardinal Rolin, Bishop of Autun in Burgundy, was the financier; Heynlin was the director. Again, in our story, we see Cardinal Bessarion, a friend and benefactor of the mathematician and one of the first printers at Nuremberg, Regiomontanus, connected to Fichet via his benefactor, Cardinal Rolin.

The first two books issued from their press were works by the Italian grammarian, Gasparino Barzizza: Epistolae, a collection of his letters intended to serve as exemplars of correct Latin style; and Orthographia, a manual of Latin orthography. The roman type cut for these books (Type 1:116R) is, according to historian of the Paris press, Claudin, based on Sweynheym and Pannartz’s second roman type (Type 2:115R) – Heynlin’s library of 300 volumes included a Roman edition of Sweynheym and Pannartz. The capitals, though generally of the same proportions are a fraction taller than those of the Sweynheym and Pannartz Rome type. In the lowercase, the Sorbonne type is, for most letters, fractionally wider.

The first French roman typeface. Type 1:116R, ‘Sorbonne Type’ by Ulrich Gering, Martin Crantz, & Michael Friburger. Paris, 1470. Letters of note: Alternate narrow R; alternate ‘sans serif’ X; very large comma; inclined xxx and xxx

* Unusual marks of punctuation in Gering & Co.’s first roman. Perhaps forms of punctus elevatus denoting a short pause

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the roman font used for these books, in particular the book about orthography – among other things, correct punctuation – should contain punctuation marks that are so remarkably emphatic (large); the two marks of punctuation that resemble an inclined question mark and exclamation mark are curious additions to the font. I have thus far been unable to identify their function, though in transcriptions of the Latin, they are often rendered as commas, or passed over entirely.*

Type 1:116R by Ulrich Gering & Co. Alternate forms of R (1470)

In 1473, Crantz and Friburger return to Germany, but Gering remains in Paris with a press of his own. Gering’s later roman type of 1478 led a particularly long life, appearing in use as late as 1529, in an edition of Ambrose’s Omnia opera, printed by Claude Chevallon in Paris (USTC: 146072; See also Vervliet, pp. 62–3, 125). Gering was also the first to print Gothic types in France, in 1473. For the following three decades the Paris presses printed predominantly in gothic. Also in 1473 a press was established in Lyons, though not yet a university town, it was a major commercial hub. By the close of the fifteenth century Lyons would become Europe’s third most active center of book production in Europe, after Venice and Paris. However, roman type was not used in Lyons until the last decade of the fifteenth century, with the press of Jean Du Pré.

On true German gotico-antiqua types, see Some characteristics and antecedents of the majuscules in fifteenth-century German gotico-antiqua typography. Hargreaves, Geoffrey. Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Jan 1, 1986, Vol.61, p. 162–176

Certainly Gering’s most curious type (Type 3:115G) is something that surely must best be described as semi-roman or semi-gothic. First employed around 1473, after departing the Sorbonne press, for a folio edition of thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian, Duns Scotus’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (ISTC: id00376000), it combines roman capitals with a gothic rotunda lowercase.

Gering’s Type 3:115G with its unusual admixture of roman and gothic rotunda letterforms. Paris, c. 1473. Letters of note: Greek form of Y, R with bent leg. Numerous contractions and fused letters
The first native Italian printer was Clement of Padua (Clemens Patavinus), printing in Venice, in 1471, with roman type.

In Italy from the the early 1480s, we witness what Scholderer terms, “the end of alien tutelage.” Since the introduction of print to Italy, by two German immigrants, the printing trade had been dominated by their fellow countrymen, and by other foreigners like Jenson. However, roughly coinciding with Jenson’s death in September 1480, more native Italians establish presses.

Aldus Manutius


Aldus Manutius: Printer & Publisher of Renaissance Venice, Martin Davies, 1999

Born in Bassiano, some 80 kilometers south of Subiaco, Aldus Manutius is perhaps the best-known figure of early printing. He arrived in Venice at the end of the 1480s, spending a half-dozen years preparing for his publishing venture, gathering manuscripts, securing financial backing, and familiarizing himself with the business of printing and publishing. Prior to printing himself, he commissioned Andrea Torresani (also Andreas Torresanus), formerly associated with Jenson, to publish his own work, Institutiones grammaticae, a Latin Grammar (1493). In addition to Aldus’s italic and Greek types, his romans are also remarkable. The first, cut by Griffo in 1495, is a type that would not look out of place in a twenty-first-century book.

De Aetna, 1495. Image courtesy of Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze

But not everyone has been quite so effervescent about Aldus’s achievements. In 1950, former rare book curator at the Pierpont Morgan Library, Curt Bühler, wrote:

From Aldus Manutius: The First 500 Years, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society, 1950, vol. 44, p. 207

“Aldus was not a great printer in the sense that Nicolaus Jenson or Erhard Ratdolt, or even his own father-in-law, Toressano, were masters of the art & technique of book-making. His presswork was indifferent and his types poor.”

Raymond Roberts, Typographic Design, 1966, p. 10

Although a fairer assessment was made by Raymond Roberts:

“An examination of [the 1495] Bembo… shows many characteristics common in a Venetian roman design, but the over-all effect of the type is one of much greater regularity, consistency, and precision than any Venetian type possesses. The main vertical strokes are of even thickness, the serifs are no longer cupped, while many of the terminations of the letters are softer or rounded. In addition, the rather shallow brackets of the Venetian style are replaced by much more pronounced curves, and the terminations of the serif strokes are considerably sharper, or even pointed.”

Type 2:114R, Aldus Manutius, Venice, 1495.

The Aldine Hypothesis

* Daniel Berkeley Updike, Printing Types, Their History, Forms, & Use. A study in Survivals, 1937 ed. vol. 1, p. 76

The historian Daniel Updike claimed that the Aldine roman was “distinctly inferior to Jenson’s.”* For a superb overview of the Jensonian vs Aldine romans, see Kay Amert’s Stanley Morison’s Aldine Hypothesis Revisited.

Annals of Printing, W. Turner Berry & H. Edmund Poole. 1966, p. 65

In one corner, we have William Morris, Daniel Updike, and Bruce Rogers; in the other, Stanley Morison, who claimed the Aldine roman to be superior. It is Morris and the Private Press movement that are most responsible for Jenson’s apotheosis.

Proportions of the Jenson and Aldine romans in comparison to classical proportions. * Adobe Trajan Pro is used as an example of classically proportioned capitals.

All Romans Great and Small

On average, most fifteenth-century romans measure about 100–115 mm for 20 lines, with x-heights of approximately 2mm. Sweynheym and Pannartz’s first roman has an x-height of 2mm. Jenson’s Euseibius roman, 2.2 mm; the Aldine ‘De Aetna’ roman, 2.3 mm. Of the smaller romans, Johann Amerbach’s Type 24:75R in Basel, produced in 1494, has an x-height under 2 mm. For comparison, Monotype Bembo & Requiem Text printed at 16pt have x-heights of 2.3 mm; Adobe Garamond, an x-height of 2.2 mm.

Johann Amerbach’s Type 24:75R, 1494

But perhaps the record for the smallest fifteenth-century roman goes to Type 23:64R of Johann Grüninger in Strasbourg, with an x-height just a shade over one millimeter. It is accompanied by a gothic type, that is even smaller, Type 4:52G.

Type 23:64R by Johann Grüninger, 1494. This book employs five typefaces; 3 gothic & 2 roman. Image courtesy of Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg.

One of the largest fifteenth-century romans (discounting woodcut initials) is a type produced by Ratdolt for a single edition of 1505 (USTC: 691414); a beautiful little book, Conrad Peutinger’s, sylloge or anthology of ancient Roman inscriptions that Peutinger had discovered in and around Augsburg. This remarkable little book, of just sixteen pages, Romanae vetustatis fragmenta, is the first printed reproduction of the Roman lapidary inscriptions. Ratdolt had 8 mm capital letters cast (larger than almost any other known roman). The Latin poem on the last page was recited to the Emperor Maximilian by Peutinger’s daughter, not yet four years old.

Conrad Peutinger’s Sylloge printed at Augsburg by Erhard Ratdolt in 1505. The caps measure 8 mm (240 mm over 20 lines). I believe this makes it the largest metal roman of the fifteenth century (although it is a titling font with no lowercase counterpart). Image courtesy of Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek

Early Sixteenth-century Romans
The study of incunabula ends somewhat arbitrarily in the year 1500. But some of the most important and formative details of the early history of roman type extend beyond this cutoff to the work of the great early sixteenth-century punchcutters, like Claude Garamont.

For most of the fifteenth century printers produced their types in-house, with the punches, matrices, and types themselves seldom changing hands, but for the death of the printer or closure of the print shop. However, towards the end of the century we begin to witness greater mobility of types, as type production (typefounding) came to be established as a separate business. For example, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the type (Type 4:80R) of Paris printer Jodocus Badius appear in Germany and Italy (Vervliet, p. 24) The story of these early sixteenth-century romans will be the subject of a future ILT article.

Making an Impression

One downside of the facsimile alphabet specimens presented in this article is that they reproduce just one state of the printed type. In letterpress printing, each time the inked type meets the paper, its impression is unique. The texture or tooth of the paper, the dampness of the paper, the viscosity of the ink, evenness of the inking, age of the type, and the composition of the type metal are all factors contributing to the form of the type on the printed page. This variation in the minutiae is one of the most endearing qualities of letterpress, but those same variations obscure the true or original forms of the type.

Type 3:112R by Boninus de Boninis, Brescia (northern Italy), 1484. In addition to variations attributable to casting, ink spread or insufficient inking contributes to the variety of impressions. The five examples of m and p are almost certainly cast from the same mould, yet their impressions vary considerably.

Ink spread might transform slab serifs into bracketed serifs, while other sharp corners and transitions become rounded, and junctions blurred or softened. Without access to the original type, punches, or matrices, it is difficult to determine the precise letterforms as conceived by the the letter designer or punchcutter. Each printed letter, therefore, is quite literally an impression or interpretation of the the archetype, the physical piece of type metal – a kind of typographical-Platonic modes of forms and appearance. The true form of any letterform can only be determined by analyzing many impressions of the same letter, ideally with a loupe or from high-resolution photographs.

Roman Letterforms

Top: Jenson (1470); middle: Aldus (1495); bottom: e with ‘nib’, Petrus Adam de Michaelibus (1472).

* Prior to Aldus’s roman, there appear to be just four roman types with a horizontal crossbar in e: Type 1:116R by an anonymous printer in Venice (1471); Type 2:84R by Andreas de Bonetis in Venice (1480); Type 4:86R by Adam Rottweil in Aquila (1482); & Type 1:113R by Philippus de Lavagna in Milan (1471);

70% of all incunabula were printed in Latin

Throughout the evolution of the roman minuscule we witness its gradual harmonization with the majuscule alphabet. These two alphabets were conceived almost a thousand years apart. It is perhaps an accident of history – the Caroline minuscule was mistakenly attributed to Antiquity – that brought the two alphabets together. And although the minuscule letterforms evolved from their capital counterparts via uncial, half-uncial, through Caroline minuscule and the humanistic book-hands, it was to be in letters cut in steel, punched into copper matrices and cast in lead that they would be immortalized.

The evolution of individual letterforms is not linear, but branching, where experiments with their form disappear altogether, or find their way through will or happenstance into the typographic canon. A great deal of their early evolution is rationalization of form: the gradual departure from calligraphic detail and variation. Calligraphic details like the hooked terminal are replaced by bilateral serifs. Overall, serif structure, contrast, and stress are treated more consistently. For individual letters, the crossbar of e transforms from oblique (sometimes with the addition of a nib) to horizontal. I had always assumed that Aldus was the first to introduce this form of e. However, after too many hours spent poring over hundreds of specimens of fifteenth-century roman types, I found four other examples: Three from the early 1480s, and a fourth from 1471.* After Jenson, straight-leg h soon became the most common form. By the close of the century it was the normative form. However, there are four roman types prior to Jenson that include h with straight, rather than bowed leg. We also witness a steady decline in the use of contractions and abbreviations, coinciding with the decline of Latin and the rise of vernacular tongues, (later accelerated by the Reformation), and greater standardization in the design and form of punctuation.

Abbreviations and contractions in Gering’s Type Type 4:80R, Paris, 1478

Pre- and post-1470 forms of h

From the second quarter of the sixteenth century, roman types, hitherto reserved almost exclusively for classical and humanist literature, began to make inroads into those genres that had traditionally been printed in gothic types. In 1525, Geoffroy Tory printed the first liturgical book in roman type.

* Ullman attributes this development to Poggio Bracciolini from 1403–1408, p. 56

Two Latin alphabets inspired by both antique and medieval antecedents. Majuscules first incised in stone more than two millennia ago, married to minuscule letterforms that evolved from manuscript hands of the eighth and ninth centuries. The Carolingian or Caroline minuscule joined forces with antique Roman square capitals at the very beginning of the fifteenth century* – a conjunction willed by the great Florentine humanists; their forms first wrought in metal by two German immigrants at Subiaco and Rome, honed by a Frenchman, and consummated at the hands of Griffo of Bologna and Aldus the Venetian. A thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the romans returned and re-conquered – yet another thing the Romans have done for us.

Icons by Linearicons.
Header image: Painting of the great Italian mathematician, Luca Pacioli [by Jacopo de’ Barbari, 1495].
Thanks to Alec Julien for help in tracking down a rare book.
Thanks to Lars Schwarz for help in collating some of the GW & TW data sources.
And thanks to Dr. Paul Dijstelberge, of the University of Amsterdam, for providing exceptional high-resolution photos of many fifteenth-century types.

This article is a sketch or outline for a book on the topic.

Main text set in Ideal Sans, large ‘call-out’ quotations in Quarto, and captions in Operator.

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The First Roman Fonts

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The First Title-Pages

The book in its present form is a product of evolution, serendipity, and design. Its size and proportions accommodations to the human form: the length of our arms; the type size a concession to our visual acuity. Ostensibly, the form of the book has changed little in the past 500 years. The very first printed or typographic books resembled their manuscript forebears, but as printing spread rapidly throughout Europe in the fifteenth century, the printed book took on its own, unique characteristics. Page numbers, running heads, indices, colophons, printing in color – some unknown to manuscript book production – soon became commonplace.

The earliest printed books bore no titles, and like their manuscript exemplars, they began with an incipit, from the Latin, here begins. The incipit was most often the first line of the book, and sometimes, in both manuscript and typographic books, it was written or printed in another color – in the latter books most often in red. Bound books bore no titles on the cover or spine. That was a much later innovation.

“Even at the end of the [fifteenth century], well over 40% of the editions still had their dates printed nowhere in the book.” – Smith, p. 97

One of those peculiar elements was the title-page. The title-page marks the beginning of the book; it is an announcement, including title, author, date, and place of publication.

It was to be in Venice, the fifteenth-century world capital of book-making, that three Germans, Ratdolt, Löslein, and Maler, created the world’s first decorative title‐page for their 1476 quarto edition of the astronomer Regiomontanus’s Kalendarium, the very first book to be put out by their press. We might say that it is the first true title‐page. Other candidates, such as Schoeffer’s Bull of 1463 and Arnold ther Hornen’s Cologne edition of Rolewinck’s Sermon of 1470, lack the information required of a title‐page as we know it today. By contrast, Ratdolt and Company’s Kalendarium includes almost everything one might expect to see in a modern-day title‐page: title, author, date, and place of publication, bibliographical information that had hitherto be included in the colophon. And, although its presentation in verse rather than prose is certainly unusual by today’s standards, it is still recognizable as a title-page. In fact, the book’s title is not presented as as standalone element, but rather is to be found within the poem (second line) – a text that reads something like a modern-day publisher’s blurb. (Smith, p. 44n18)

“it is rare to find dates on title-pages during the incunable period and early sixteenth century. If dates were to appear anywhere in the book, they remained, for the most part, in the colophon.” – Smith, p. 97

The elegant decorative border of the title‐page comprises five woodcuts and is printed in outline, i.e., the background or ground is cut away, leaving just the outline. The book also contains Ratdolt’s first set of decorative initials which, like the title‐page border, are cut in outline.

The first decorative title-page, introducing Regiomontanus’s Kalendarium (Italian edition).

During the fifteenth century, some 40% of editions were printed with some form of title on the opening page. (Smith, p.49) Soon after the publication of Ratdolt and Company’s Kalendarium, we witness a significant surge in first-page titles, from fewer than 1% in the period 1455–1484, to 40% for 1485–1500 (Smith, p. 50).

Left: Title-page of Cristobál de Morales’ Missarum liber primus, Lyon, 1546. [USTC: 124716] Printed by Jacques Moderne. Image courtesy of John J. Burns Library. Right: Baskerville title-page, 1757.

That the title-page evolved as a means to utilize the opening blank page or leaf is sensible and convenient, but not entirely convincing. If the opening blank page was intended to protect the first page of text proper (as fifteenth-century books were invariably sold unbound), then why, once the title-page had become an established element of the book by the close of the fifteenth century, did the blank not reappear? (see Smith, pp. 52–3) Rather, I think that the adoption and success of the title-page is attributable to its utility, its unambiguous way of introducing the printed text – a consolidation of useful biographical information presented on the opening page – evidenced by the concomitant decline in the use of an incipit.

Though the origins of the title-page appear to be somewhat accidental, its survival through the subsequent 500 years undoubtedly testifies to its utility. And whether a lavishly illustrated sixteenth-century design, or a crisp, clean, sparse typographic page like those favored by the likes of Baskerville and Bodoni in the eighteenth century, the title-page serves not only as a reflection of prevailing typographic tastes, but as an invitation to one of humankind’s most magnificent inventions, the typographic book.

Bibliography & Source
The Title-Page: Its Early Development 1460–1510. Margaret Smith, 2000.
The Practice of Typography: A Treatise on Title-Pages. Theodore de Vinne. 1902. [Available to read online]
Two Hundred Decorative Title Pages. Alexander Nesbitt. 1950.
Title-Page Borders Used in England & Scotland: 1485–1640. R.B. McKerrow & F.S. Ferguson, 1934. [Available to read online]
John Baskerville of Birmingham: Letter-Founder & Printer. F.E. Pardoe. 1975
Post-Incunabula & their Publishers in the Low Countries. 1978.

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The First Title-Pages

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Pure Gold

Both the Roman Pliny (ca. 61–113) and the Greek historian, Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BC), mention gilding; the latter writing that the Egyptians gilded wood and metal. It has been used in decorating ceramics, in art, and at least from the fifth century in the production of illuminated manuscripts, reaching its peak in the especially exquisite illuminated Books of Hours produced from the thirteenth century.

Although the term “illuminated manuscript” is often used to describe all decorated manuscripts, strictly speaking, it refers to those ornamented with gold and silver. The gold reflects light and therefore literally illuminates the page. From the late fifteenth century, printed illustrations (though still most often hand-colored) replace the illuminated manuscript.

First printing in gold

Giovanni Mocenigo, Doge of Venice, from 1478 to 1485, to whom Ratdolt dedicated his first edition of Euclid’s Elements.

Erhard Ratdolt was undoubtedly one of the greatest innovators in printing during the fifteenth century. In addition to be the very first to use a title-page and among the very first to print diagrams and in multiple colors, he is also the first to print in gold. In several copies of his edito princeps (first edition) of Euclid’s Elements (Venice, 1482) he printed the dedication to the Doge of Venice, Giovanni Mocenigo, in gold. The book also contains some 400 geometrical diagrams (more about those in a future article).

Zacharias Callierges (ca. 1473–after 1524) began printing in Venice in 1499. By 1515 he had transferred his press to Rome, where surprisingly, he was the first to print in Greek. See Greek Scholars in Venice, D. Geanakoplos, pp. 201–22.

In fact, during the incunabula, he is only one of two printers who experimented with printing with gold; the other being the Cretan printer and calligrapher, Zacharias Callierges, best known for his Greek press. In 1499, he printed a folio edition of a Byzantine Greek dictionary, Etymologicum Magnum Graecum, (ISTC: ie00112000) for Nicolaus Blastus and Anna Notaras; in some copies the headpieces and initals are printed in gold. Whereas the illuminators of medieval manuscripts prepared their liquid gold ink or shell gold by combining flaked gold with gum arabic, it appears that Ratdolt first dusted the paper or vellum with a powdered adhesive and then applied gold leaf to the surface of heated type. That gold leaf rather than a gold ink was used is clearly evident from the specks of gold that, under magnification, are clearly visible across the entire page – remnants from the brushing away of the excess gold leaf. With this process, upon impression, the lightly heated type melts the adhesive, with the gold leaf clinging to the page, whereupon the excess is dusted off. This is incredibly tricky. Overheat the type and one risks scorching the vellum or paper; under-heat it, and the gold will fail to adhere to the page.

Euclid’s Elements, printed on May 25, 1482 in Venice, by Erhard Ratdolt. The dedication, printed in gold, is the first extant example of printing with gold. Image courtesy of Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek.

Ratdolt again printed in gold on his return to Augsburg, in the preface of an edition of Johannes de Thwrocz’s Chronica Hungarorum (1488; ISTC: it00361000), though this time with gold ink rather than gold leaf. He used gold a third and last time in the colophon of Conrad Peutinger’s Romanae vetustatis fragmenta (1505; USTC: 691414).

Book of Hours, illuminated manuscript on vellum. Southern Netherlands (Ghent or Bruges), ca. 1500. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

Gold does appear in printed books prior to Ratdolt’s edition of Euclid. The first page of a Dante’s Divine Comedy printed by Johann Neumeister at Foligno in 1472 (ISTC: id00022000) is, in some copies, richly decorated with a colorful border on a gold background, and gold capitals. But these letters are gilded, not printed with gold. The underlying forms are printed, then over-painted with gold pigment. An even earlier example of gold is to be found in a book put out by Fust and Schoeffer (1465), where, in some copies, the headings are written in gold (chrysography).

These days, with the easy availability of good gold inks (most a mixture of copper and zinc), printing in gold – even letterpress printing – is considerably easier; but just as alluring.

Contemporary printing in gold, 500 years on: Letterpress print, Forever Blond, in gold by Susanna Dulkinys & Erik Spiekermann of galerie p98a

The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques.
A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. – Christopher De Hamel.
Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540 – Freyda Spira & Gregory Jecmen.
Printing with gold in the fifteenth century, Victor Carter, Lotte Hellinga, et al., The British Library Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring 1983), pp. 1–13.

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Pure Gold

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The First Illustrated Books

The early history of illustrated printed books is also the history of woodcut. Woodcut illustrations long predate the mid-fifteenth-century introduction of movable type to Germany. They were used extensively in the printing of textiles many hundreds of years before in Europe and the Far East. Designs were cut in relief in wood, inked, then stamped onto fabric by hand. Woodcuts were also used in the production of playing cards, most notably in Augsburg. Prior to Gutenberg, woodcut or xylographic books, including Ars Moriendi and the Cologne Chronicle, – where entire pages of text and illustration were carved in relief – have survived in relatively large numbers.*

Ars Moriendi, ca. 1487–1488. Each page is printed with a single woodcut. Image courtesy of Staatsbibliothek Bamberg.
* Some 100 editions of fifteenth-century blockbooks have survived; printed by 33 printers. Total 600 copies. Source: Staatsbibliothek Bamberg

Woodcut initials were used in some of the very earliest printed books. The 1457 Latin Psalter, printed by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, contains dozens of delicately carved initials. The very first illustrated (typographic) books were published by the cleric printer, Albrecht Pfister (c. 1420 – 1470), in Bamberg, 1461. Very little is known about him, outside of his printed books, and that he was secretary to Bishop Georg I von Schaumberg.

Hand-colored woodcut illustrations in Historie von Joseph, Daniel, Judith und Esther, Bamberg, 1462. Image courtesy of The University of Manchester Library. [ISTC: ih00286500]

Incidentally, Pfister was among the first to print in the vernacular. Of the three editions of an illustrated Bible, Biblia pauperum, or Paupers’ Bible, that he published between 1462 and 1463, two were in German, one in Latin. Prior to its typographic appearance, the Biblia pauperum had already proven incredibly popular as a xylographic or blockbook.

Shortly after the introduction of print to Italy, the German printer, Ulrich Han, working in Rome, published the first illustrated book in the Italian States. Working in Rome, he published, in 1467, Cardinal Torquemada’s Meditations on the life of Christ, illustrated with thirty-three woodcuts.

A spread from the first typographic book to be printed with both text and illustrations. Der Edelstein. Printed by Albrecht Pfister, Feb. 14, 1461. Image courtesy of Staatsbibliothek Bamberg.

A Frosty Reception

When printers arrived in town, they were not necessarily met with open arms, parades, and confetti. Günther Zainer’s arrival in Augsburg was met with suspicion and then outright conflict. The local Guild of Woodcutters, fearing that Zainer’s newfangled printed book — containing woodcuts! — would put them out of business, or at the very least put a dent in their monopoly, attempted to prevent him from printing. Similarly, in 1441, Venice** had sought to protect its woodblock printers by banning the importation of printed cloth and playing cards.

** See Prints & People, A. Hyatt Mayor, p. 24. As the Venetian chronicler and biographer, Tommaso Temanza, reports, the Venetian card-makers complained that ‘the injury they sustain by the daily importation of Cards and printed figures which are made out[side] of Venice; by which their art is brought to total decay.’ Likely those cards were coming from nearby Padua and even Augsburg in Germany. See Researches into the History of Playing Cards, Samuel Weller Singer, London, 1816. pp. 23–24.

Finally, after a rather lengthy standoff, and thanks to the intervention of the Abbot of the Monastery of SS. Ulric and Afra (later home to its own printshop), a compromise was reached: Zainer was permitted to produce books with woodcut illustrations on the condition that he employ only woodcutters from the local Woodcutters’ Guild. No doubt owing to this dispute, Zainer’s first book of 1468 contains no woodcut illustrations. Zainer’s first book to contain woodcut illustrations was published in 1471, Augsburg’s very first illustrated book.

Günther Zainer: A prolific German printer, who introduced printing to Augsburg in southern Germany in 1468. During his relatively brief career, cut short by his death in 1478, he published no fewer than 100 titles, a fifth of them illustrated. His brother (or relative) Johann Zainer is best known for introducing the art of printing to the city of Ulm in 1473.
The Paupers’ Bible is not, as sometimes claimed, an abridged and illustrated Bible for the poor. First, the term Paupers’ Bible was applied later. And here “pauper” or “poor” references “poorly educated.” Such books would be well beyond the means of the economically poor. Rather, they were likely used by clerics for teaching purposes.

The First Illustrated Bible

The Paupers’ Bible is not technically the first illustrated Bible. In fact, it cannot be called a Bible at all. It is rather a compendium of texts that highlight parallels between the Old and New Testaments (typology). The woodblock versions of the fifteenth century are based on fourteenth-century manuscript exemplars. Moreover, these books were generally only 40 to 50 pages. The first illustrated Bible, containing the complete and unabridged Latin text was likely printed by Günther Zainer in Augsburg. Zainer’s German-language Bible contains seventy-two woodcut illustrations, or historiated initials, and although undated, a reference to it in a later reprint, dates it to about 1474.

Opening spread (contents and the opening of the book of Genesis) from the first illustrated Bible. Günther Zainer, Augsburg, 1474. ISTC: ib00627000.

Of all fifteenth-century illustrated books, the best examples are to be found in Italy, especially during the last quarter of the century. Some of my favorites come from Venice, Florence, and Milan. In Venice: Jenson, Ratdolt, and Aldus Manutius, whose famed and glorious Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499), a sublime congruence of type and illustration. In Florence, Lorenzo Morgiani and Johannes Petri produced a large number of fine illustrated books, including an edition of Epistolae et Evangelii (1495) – one of the very finest Florentine examples of incunable.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Aldus, Venice, 1499). ISTC: ic00767000. Image courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library).

At the close of the fifteenth and opening of the sixteenth centuries, the French Books of Hours are magnificent examples of the illustrated book. Sumptuous borders, vignettes, and initials conspire to make some of the loveliest books of all time – some, like those printed by Philippe Pigouchet in Paris, who employed both woodcuts and metalcuts (fl. 1488–1518), rivaling their illuminated manuscript exemplars.

Coloring: a great many fifteenth-century books are colored by hand, by the book’s owner, or by someone he or she employed (a colorist). It was, of course not practical to color the books prior to sale. Imagine a book with, say, fifty woodcut illustrations, and a print run of 500 copies. Now imagine how long it would take, even a skilled colorist, to color 25,000 illustrations by hand! – for a single edition.
Blockbook: xylographic or blockbooks, where each page of text and illustration is printed with a single woodcut appear about a decade or so prior to letterpress or typographic books. Only one side of the paper was printed, then two sheets were pasted together to form a single leaf. Blockbooks did not disappear with the introduction of the printing press and movable type, but continued to be printed alongside their typographic counterparts well into the fifteenth century. See, for example, a digital facsimile of the German, Wem der geprant wein nutz sey, Bamberg, 1493.

By the mid-sixteenth century woodcut was being replaced by intaglio printing techniques – engraving and etching on metal; a material that is both more durable and permits finer detail. Some 550 years have passed since printers like Pfister introduced Europe to the illustrated typographic book. Printing techniques have evolved and improved, from dry-point techniques like mezzotint in the mid-seventeenth century, lithography in the late eighteenth century, through the invention of the rotary press in the mid-nineteenth, shortly followed by offset and hot metal type, and the laser printer in the late 1960s. So, the next time you print an illustrated page in glorious color, spare a thought for our forebears, who through their inventiveness and dedication to their craft, made it all possible.

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The First Illustrated Books

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The First Printed Children’s Books

Anyone who has children understands that books are a crucial part of their development. Parents also know that children’s books are likely to have relatively short shelf lives; torn pages, chewed corners, and crazed crayoning conspire toward the book’s inevitable annihilation. Fifteenth-century children were no different, and so it is no surprise that most of the very earliest printed children’s books, despite being printed in relatively large numbers, have not survived. And, of those that have, many bear the hallmarks of accelerated wear and tear.

Of course, prior to the introduction of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, all books were handwritten. These manuscript books were unique and expensive – not the kind of item one would put in the hands of a child or infant. The thought of a five-year-old enthusiastically attacking an illuminated manuscript would likely bring most curators and bibliographers to tears. During the Middle Ages, then, children were not exposed to the wonder that is books. There are rare exceptions; for example, the Ashmolean manuscript, produced for the children of wealthy parents. In fact, until the eighteenth century, and the work of educators like John Newbery, the genre, that we today call children’s books, did not exist. Moreover, until this time, books produced for children were almost exclusively didactic works: Latin grammars and texts, and moral and religious instruction. Reading for entertainment or leisure was frowned upon as a frivolous waste of time and energy.

The first children’s picture book, Orbis Pictus, was published in 1658 by the Czech philosopher and pedagogue, John Comenius. For more about this book, see The Public Domain Review.

Another important factor when considering the introduction of children’s books is literacy rates. Although it is very difficult to determine exact rates for literacy among fifteenth-century children, we are able to extrapolate data from extant records. For example, in Florence in 1480, with a total population of about 42,000, approximately 28% of boys aged between ten and thirteen attended formal schools, suggesting a literacy rate of around a third. Though during the Middle Ages and even the Renaissance, the consensus was that girls were not scholastically inclined and that their education should comprise only those subjects conducive to good housekeeping, there are again notable exceptions.

Girls, if they received any scholastic education, were those from wealthy families, and taught by private tutors. Among the notable exceptions is, the otherwise anonymous, Catharinetta, the daughter of a barber, who was the sole female student out of 500 listed in Genoese documents for 1498–1500. I wonder what became of her!? Even Venice, during the High Renaissance, fairs little better, with approximated literacy rates of one-third and one-tenth for boys and girls, respectively.

The very first printed children’s books were most often Psalters, a collection of Psalms and prayers in Latin. One early example was printed by the German, Erhard Ratdolt, while working in Venice. His Psalterium puerorum, or Children’s Psalter, was almost certainly printed in the hundreds, yet just a single copy has survived. Kids!

Opening page of Erhard Ratdolt”s Psalterium puerorum, Venice, not after 1486. Size: 15.41 x 21.19 cm. ISTC: ip01073500. Reproduction courtesy of München BSB.

Of all Ratdolt’s books, and he printed about 200 different titles during his long career, this is one of my favorites. It opens with an alphabet, including some alternate letterforms (e,g, g, s and long-s). The final three glyphs are the tironian et (and), and the tachygraphic signs for the Latin word parts, con and -rum. Then follows the Pater Noster or Lord’s Prayer, that all children would be expected to memorize. The Gothic Rotunda typeface, Ratdolt’s Type 9:130G, was usually employed only for headings, owing to its large size, but here it is used for the text – a nice concession to the younger reader. The beautiful vine-leaf woodcut border, printed in a magnificent red first appeared in an edition of Historia romana, printed by Bernard Maler, Erhard Ratdolt, and Peter Löslein, in 1477. The border is, unsurprisingly, after a decade of use, showing signs of wear after thousands of impressions.

Spread from Psalterium puerorum. Note the red ring stain on the verso leaf. The printer’s wine, or the child’s grape juice? Reproduction courtesy of München BSB.

Such books served a dual purpose: literacy and devotion. Though they are a far cry from contemporary children’s books, they yield valuable insights into the culture, learning, and literacy of Renaissance Europe. A lot has changed, but books still stand as one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

Erhard Ratdolt’s Type 9:130G, usually employed as a display face; in Psalterium puerorum it is used to set the body text.

Illustrations by Ella, Tilo (he’s five and has a YouTube Channel!), and Tina Eisenberg.

Qutation: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Set in Quarto Black Italic.

Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy & Learning, 1300–1600, Paul F. Grendler.
Women and the Book Trade in Sixteenth-Century France, Susan Broomhall.

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The First Printed Children’s Books

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Printing the Stars

For tens of thousands of years, humans have looked up at the night sky in awe, intrigued by the motion, manner, and nature of the stars. And with our propensity for pattern recognition and our proclivity for causal inference, or attributing meaning or significance to coincidence, we joined the dots, so to speak, perceiving in the stars’ contingent distributions, patterns, pictures, and amalgamations — reflections of temporal phenomena; as Hume wrote, “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds…’. And of those armies in the clouds, we see a host of the animate: fishes, dogs, a ram, a bull, rabbits, a crab, a scorpion, a swan, and a centaur, spared by Heracles; and the inanimate: ships, a lyre, a triangle and a bow and arrow – all immortalized in the heavenly spheres.

The origins of astrology can be traced back at least as far as the Babylonians in Mesopotamia in the second millennium B.C., for whom it was a source of divination and hence the purview of priests; their celestial omens, recorded on cuneiform tablets, reference yet earlier oral traditions. They associated the five visible planets, or wandering stars,† Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury and Mars, with gods. The Greeks adopted the names of the planets from the Babylonians. The earliest references to the constellations in Greek literature are to be found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The earliest extant graphical depictions of the Western constellations are to be found gracing the magnificent Farnese Atlas, a second-century B.C. Roman copy of a Greek statue depicting Atlas, condemned by Zeus to support the heavenly spheres on his shoulders.

† Planet from the Greek ἀστήρ πλανήτης (astēr planētēs), literally “wandering star.”

** Aristarchus of Samos (fl. third century) was one of the first to propose that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of the universe, with a rotating earth orbiting it.

The astrological tradition of the Middle Ages was transmitted from Ptolemy, through the Greek and Romans of antiquity, kept alive by Arab and Persian Scholars from the ninth century, and translated into Latin in the twelfth century.

Medieval and early Renaissance astronomy was based in large part on the Classical astronomy established by Aristotle and Ptolemy some fifteen hundred years before. Their epistemology underpinned the geocentric model of the universe that prevailed until the dawn of the Copernican Revolution in the sixteenth century.

Statue of Atlas holding the celestial sphere (Farnese Atlas). Second century B.C. Courtesy of Naples, National Archaeological Museum.

During the present day, when astrology is little more than a popular pastime, it is perhaps difficult to comprehend its all-pervasive influence on the culture of people’s past. For millennia, astrology and astronomy were ostensibly two facets of the same discipline. Even Johannes Kepler and Galileo, heroes of the Scientific Revolution, practiced as astrologers: the latter writing horoscopes for Emperor Ferdinand’s General Wallenstein. The Medieval preoccupation with astrology was indelibly writ into both Eastern and Western cultures. However, although it was widely revered and practiced by Christian and Islamic scholars alike, it was never without its detractors: Cicero (106–43 BC), Plotinus (c. 204–270), St. Augustine (354–430), Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) and others objected. The twelfth-century Jewish astronomer and philosopher Moses ben Maimon wrote, ‘Astrology is a disease, not a science.’ Dante’s Divine Comedy, depicts the famed thirteenth-century astrologer, Guido Bonatti, residing in hell as punishment for his “magical deceits.” And one of the foremost fifteenth-century opponents of astrology, and one of that century’s greatest philosophers, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,* inveighed against astrology, in his posthumously published (1494), Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinicatrium (Treatise Against Divinatory Astrology). And Luther later disparagingly referred to astrologers as “star-peepers” and that “astrology is framed by the devil.”1

1. Alexander Chalmers: The Table Talk of Martin Luther, (1857) pp. 341–344.

* Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, famed for his Oration on the Dignity of Man, a kind of humanistic or Renaissance manifesto stressing the importance of the quest for knowledge or “intellectual research,” … and that humans are masters of their own destinies. Ironically, the astrologer, Lucio Bellanti, predicted Pico’s death before his thirty-third birthday. Pico died aged 32, perhaps poisoned. See Wilhelm Knappich: Geschichte der Astrologie, (1998) p. 228.

Portrait of Pico by Cristofano dell’Altissimo. From Galleria degli Uffizi.

But despite its articulate detractors, these were minority opinions, crowded out by an overwhelming conviction that the trajectories and conjunctions of celestial bodies had real and significant effects on the sublunary world, and therefore important implications for the fates of those who lived in the shadows of their heavenly trajectories. Predicting their movements (astronomy) was an attempt to contravene or at least mitigate their effects. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the admixture of eschatological speculation and astrology, its focus on the End Times and the revelation of the Antichrist – thus astrology and astronomy worked in concert to affect preparedness. Not until the latter part of the sixteenth century was astrology vigorously and widely challenged. At the Council of Trent that concluded in 1563, astrology was forbidden, and later reinforced and reiterated through Pope Sixtus V’s 1586 bull, Coeli et terrae (Heaven & Earth). The work of Kepler and others of The Enlightenment in the subsequent century signaled the end of Aristotelian physics and astrology.

2. Medicine, diagnosis and treatment in the Middle Ages

One might assume that astrology was at its most popular during the Middle Ages, when in fact it was during the Renaissance that astrology was most enthusiastically practiced. During the Renaissance, in response to political turmoil and uncertainties, astrology witnessed a vigorous resurgence, especially so in the Italian courts. Astrology was a legitimate subject of the university curriculum. Renaissance astrologers and astrologer-physicians were patronized by princes and patricians. In medicine too, especially prior to the resurgence of Galenic medicine, spurred by the influx of Greek scholars to the West upon the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the stars played their part in medical astrology. Physicians believed that the celestial bodies influenced the balance of the four humours (sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric). “By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the Moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding.”2

Astrology & Astronomy in Print

Regiomontanus (1436–1476), astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician, pupil and collaborator with Peurbach.

As books on astrology and astronomy were already popular in the fifteenth century, it was only natural that these titles should be among the first to be transmitted via print. Some of the earliest of this genre were put out by the famed mathematician and astronomer, Regiomontanus (also known as Johannes Müller) working from Nuremberg in the 1470s.

Excluding the many broadside almanacs, more than a hundred works on astrology and cosmography were published during the fifteenth century. Almost all were issued in Latin, while a great number of single-sheet (broadside) almanacs, intended for a wider audience, were published in the vernacular. These annual publications could be nailed to the wall and consulted throughout the year.

3. See Renzo Baldasso, “La stampa dell’ editio princeps degli Elementi di Euclide (Venezia, Erhard Ratdolt, 1482)”, in Lisa Pon and Craig Kallendorf (eds), The Books of Venice – Il libro veneziano, Miscellanea Marciana, xx (2005–7) (New Castle, DE, 2008), 61–100; and The Geometrical Diagrams in Regiomontanus’s edition of his own Disputationes (c. 1475): Background, Production, and Diffusion.

Erhard Ratdolt

During the 1480s, Ratdolt had something of a monopoly on the market for Latin treatises on astrology and astronomy, producing about a third of the total production of this genre, while in Venice and latterly in Augsburg. Books on these subjects were typographically challenging, not only because they were often lengthy, some running to several hundred leaves, but too because they demanded numerous illustrations and complex tables. But then Ratdolt relished a typographic challenge. It was during this decade that Ratdolt produced more than a dozen works on astrology and astronomy: Ptolemy, Abu Ma’shar, Regiomontanus, and Johannes de Sacro Bosco, including a large number of first editions. His competitors, perhaps put off by the complexity and cost of producing these books, or simply ceding this niche market to Ratdolt on the basis of his already having cornered the market. And Ratdolt, by the 1480s, had plenty of experience printing the kinds of diagrams that these titles demanded. Although he was not the first to print diagrams (that accolade goes to Regiomontanus in Nuremberg), it appears that he developed a new method of setting them, using metal bands, perhaps set in plaster.3

Woodcut depicting Sagittarius. Poetica astronomica, 22 Jan. 1485. Erhard Ratdolt, Venice (type 8:91R). The 1482 edition is set in gothic (type 7:92G). Image courtesy of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

Many of these books were aimed at scholars and used as text books. Erhard Ratdolt, like Jenson, also in Venice, appears to have been particularly skillful at cornering a niche market with the right titles, and then producing relatively large, quality editions at a competitive price.

Ptolemy’s second-century geocentric model of the cosmos, set forth in Almagest, was generally accepted until Copernicus in the sixteenth century.

Ratdolt was the very first to print-publish the works of Abu Ma’shar (also Albumasar). The Persian, Abu Ma’shar (787–886), lived in Baghdad, a former Islamic scholar of the Hadith, he was the most influential and prolific writer on astrology during the Middle Ages. Not only was he revered by his contemporaries, but his work, via twelfth-century Latin translations was very familiar to Renaissance astrologers and astronomers in the West.

Pages from Flores astrologiae (left) and Chronicon (right).

In 1482, while still in Venice, Ratdolt printed Johannes de Sacrobosco’s thirteenth-century Sphaera mundi. This work, a compendium of astrological treatises (including Regiomontanus’s Disputationes contra Cremonensia and Peuerbach’s Theoricae novae planetarum), was probably the most popular text on elementary astronomy for students new to the subject. With more than twenty printed incunabula editions, it was one of the century’s most popular texts on astronomy, with about thirty editions put out prior to 1500. The significant number of extant copies suggests that Ratdolt’s book was printed in a very large edition. Ratdolt printed this title again in 1485. The 1482 edition is set in Ratdolt’s Types 3 & 4; the 1485 edition in Types 4, 6, & 8. It is richly illustrated and signposted with numerous vine-leaf, black-ground initials, and sold well enough to warrant a second edition put out in 1485.

Ratdolt’s 1482 edition of Johannes de Sacrobosco’s Sphaera mundi. ISTC: ij00405000

In 1488 Ratdolt printed, in Augsburg, the first incunable edition of Abu Ma’shar’s Flores astrologiae (‘Flowers of Astrology’), an instruction manual for the training of students in astrology, in a twelfth-century translation by Johannes Hispalensis (John of Seville). Originally an Islamic scholar of the Hadith, Abu Ma’shar, only in his forties, developed an interest in astrology. Ratdolt’s edition is illustrated with seventy-two woodcuts, seven half-page and 52 smaller (square) ones (with a number repeated). Floriated initials divide and signpost text, and many are comparable in size and weight to the smaller woodcut illustrations, making for a rather beautiful harmony. None of the woodcut illustrations has a border, and the illustrations are crisp and clear with just a minimum of shading to hint at shadow. The main text is set in a small Gothic (type 4:76G), with titles set in type 9:130G, and captions for the half-page woodcuts are set in roman, type 8:90R. The woodcut outline illustrations exemplify what Landau and Parshall characterize as “the engaging simplicity and cleanliness” of the Augsburg style. This really is a delightful book, with some variation in the placement of the smaller woodcuts – some in the margins; others within the text flow. The colophon repeats a familiar self-aggrandizing refrain:

Erhardi ratdolt Augustensis viri solertis eximia industria: et mira imprimendi arte: qua nuper venetiis: nunc Auguste vindelicorum excellit nominatissimus.

Through the outstanding industry and wonderful skill at printing of the expert gentleman Erhard Ratdolt of Augsburg, for which he excelled with the utmost renown recently at Venice and now at Augsburg.

Flores must have sold well, as Ratdolt published it again in 1495. The only one other incunable edition of this work was put out by Johannes Baptista Sessa in Venice about 1500.

While Abu Ma’shar’s Flores was a manual for astrologers, another book, that for Ratdolt at least proved perhaps even more popular, was a star atlas or atlas of the constellations, Hyginus’s Poetica astronomica that describes the constellations of the zodiac and recounts their origin myths (dating back to Eratosthenes). Regiomontanus had planned to publish this work, but died before its realization. It is very likely that Ratdolt and Regiomontanus worked together, perhaps in Nuremberg; and in many respects, Ratdolt is Regiomontanus’s heir, for he published many of the titles that Regiomontanus had planned prior to his death in 1476, aged just forty. Of the five extant incunable editions, Ratdolt published three (1482, 1485, 1491). The 1485 Poetica astronomica, is one Ratdolt’s last Venetian imprints (before returning to his hometown of Augsburg in Germany) and one of the very last books that he set in roman type. Ratdolt’s Poetica of 1482 is the first illustrated edition of this work. An earlier edition of 1475, printed in Ferrara had left spaces for the insertion of illustrations by hand. Ratdolt’s third and final edition of Poetica is the only German translation of Hyginus published during the fifteenth century. Between these two editions of Hyginus’s Poetica, Ratdolt published, in 1489, Hyginus’s Introduction to Astronomy.

And we see the effect of book illustration’s influence on iconography outside of print. Visitors to the library at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain need only look up to its vaulted ceilings, the Cielo de Salamanca, to see evidence, perhaps, of Ratdolt’s influence on Fernando Gallego’s magnificent fifteenth-century depictions of the constellations and planets, painted between 1483 and 1486.

Left: woodcut of Mercury from Ratdolt’s Poetica astronomica, of 1482; right: detail of ceiling mural from the University of Salamanca, Spain.

The imagery bears a rather striking resemblance to the woodcut illustrations from Ratdolt’s 1482 Poetica astronomica, (see figure above) even down to the silhouettes of the zodiac signs Virgo and Gemini, for which Mercury is the ruling planet, on the chariot’s wheels. Mercury is dressed as a tradesman in reference to his Roman origin as the god of trade or commerce. He holds aloft the caduceus, a rod entwined by two snakes, that in Roman times represented commerce.

“The first artistic depictions of the Ptolemaic constellations on paper are found in early medieval illuminated manuscript copies of the works of Aratus and Hyginus. Two famous examples are known as the Leiden Aratea and Harley 647. However, the images they contain bear little relation to the constellation figures as described by Ptolemy, so the artist’s impressions in these manuscripts are only a sidelight in the history of constellation illustration, albeit an entertaining one.” Source.

It is difficult to trace the model or source of Ratdolt’s woodcuts of the constellations. They resemble more those in the Harley manuscript than those found in the Spencer Collection manuscript (Ms. 28; 1475–80). There is something thoroughly medieval about those in the former, while in the latter, the artists, Giovanni Vendramin and the anonymous ‘Douce Master’ reproduce something that mimics antiquity. Perhaps, then, we must look to another manuscript to find models for Ratdolt’s woodcut illustrations of the constellations. Perhaps the illustrations of Michael Scot, the early thirteenth-century Scottish polyglot, in Aratus’s didactic poem, Phaenomena, published in Bologna in 1474 – just eight years before Ratdolt’s first edition of Hyginus’s Poetica astronomica. – were the model for his illustrations. [I have yet to see a copy, so can’t be certain.]

Ratdolt’s woodcuts — and reversed copies of them — appear in the books of at least two other printers: in Thomas de Blavis’s 1488 reprint of Ratdolt’s 1485 Poetica and in October of 1488 (between Ratdolt’s second and third editions) in Venice, by Antonius De Strata, de Cremona. And his Poetica woodcuts were copied even by the likes of Aldus Manutius for his own 1499 edition of Aratus’s Phaenomena.

Left: Ratdolt’s woodcut of Sol (1482); right: Aldus Manutius’s copy (1499).

These charming though sometimes rather crude or even comical constellation woodcuts also demonstrate something of what was lost in the transition from manuscript to printed book. The coming of the printed book is almost always couched in terms of progress, of improvement; and though, while it is true, of course, that there were innumerable benefits to the printed book, something of the art of the manuscript was lost. For example, the illustration of the constellation Cygnus from the Harley Manuscript was beyond the means of any printer during the fifteenth century.

Harley Ms 647, f. 5v. Ninth century. Image courtesy of The British Library.

Although most of Ratdolt’s books on astronomy and astrology were printed during his decade in Venice, he printed a number of editions of this genre while in Augsburg from 1486. One such example is Pierre d’Ailly’s Concordantia astronomiae cum theologia, of 1490, a book that attempts to harmonize astronomy and theology. This work is edited by Johannes Angelus, who must have spent a great deal of time with Ratdolt in 1488–90, for Ratdolt, during this time, printed four Almanacs authored by Angelus. Not only did he work as editor with Ratdolt, editing the 1489 De magnis coniunctionibus of Abu Ma’shar, among others; but too was an important author: and it was to Ratdolt who he turned to publish the first edition of his Astrolabium, in 1488.

Concordantia astronomiae cum theologia, printed in Augsburg, 1490, by Erhard Ratdolt. Image courtesy of Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt.

This book is notable for concluding with a woodcut of Ratdolt’s enormous red and black printer’s device.


The above is a very brief introduction to the very first printed books on astronomy and astrology. We have only scratched the surface of what is a particularly rich genre of fifteenth-century books. Not only do we continue to marvel at their beauty, but their influence, both in terms of layout and iconography, persists to this day. So the next time you look up at the night sky in awe, perhaps you will recall those printers, long dead, who brought the wonder of the heavens to print and thus influenced generations of scientists and stargazers to explore and expand our knowledge of our rather magnificent cosmos.

Header image: shows a region of star birth and death in the Carina Nebula. The nebula contains at least a dozen brilliant stars that are 50 to 100 times the mass of our Sun. Credit for Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
The pure CSS solar system animation was designed and coded by the very clever, Malik Dellidj. You can view the source on CodePen.

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Printing the Stars

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Unusual fifteenth-century fonts: part 2

Nowadays, with tens of thousands of fonts available, we are accustomed to a great variety of letterforms. But, of the approximately 1,000 cataloged fifteenth-century roman fonts, very few stand out as unusual. Most share the same fundamental attributes. Almost all roman typefaces of the period are, what we now call humanist: of low contrast, lowercase e with an inclined crossbar and, in most instances (from Jenson), capital letters shorter than the ascenders of the lowercase alphabet. Not until the subsequent century do we begin to witness any significant changes to these features.

Previously, I wrote about several of Günther Zainer’s unusual fonts from the 1470s. I have since discovered another example of the pearl decoration in two fonts issued by Petrus Caesaris and Johannes Stol, in 1473, from their print shop in Paris — less than a year after Zainer’s in Augsburg.

Type 1:109R by Petrus Caesaris and Johannes Stol, Paris, 1473, shares the pearl decoration of Zainer’s fonts (Types 3:107R & 4:95R), includes some bifurcated (split) serifs, and, for the 1470s, a not usual Rotunda influence, especially evident in letters like E and P. Some unusual lowercase forms (that k!) a number of familiar contractions, e.g. the (an abbreviation of the Latin, ergo); some not so familiar, like the reversed c (which stands for con or contra, I believe); and a couple of question marks that resemble interrobangs. The fat capital T (that resembles the capital I) is very tuscan with its bifurcated serifs. Image courtesy of Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke.

When first coming across these embellishments in Günther Zainer’s fonts, my initial reaction was: Where did he get the idea? What influenced his designs? Zainer is the first to use this pearl decoration as an embellishment to printed roman capitals, so I had to look to manuscript books in search of precedents.

Zainer type 4, 1472
Günther Zainer’s Type 4:95R, 1472. Image courtesy of Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke.

In my search for manuscript exemplars for the pearl decoration, I wrote to Dr. Erik Kwakkel, who teaches paleography and codicology at Leiden University, and who kindly replied with a number of medieval examples. The detail of a twelfth-century manuscript, (figure 1) shows a diacritic, the macron (with ‘pearl’ decoration), above V (where it stands for vt, I believe).

Fig. 1: V macron with pearl decoration in “v[t] venit igitur.” Troyes, Bibl. mun., ms. 0900, f. 125 – v 2. Dated 1158. Courtesy of La Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux.

When it comes to the first roman types, we are left in no doubt as to their origins and influence. There are numerous manuscript exemplars written in contemporary humanist book-hands — these letterforms didn’t simply pop into existence; but the origin of our unusual pearl-decorated fifteenth-century fonts remained something of a mystery. Perhaps this decoration has its origins in Greek or Cyrillic letters. Reproduced below is a page from an eleventh-century Greek manuscript with letters decorated with ‘pearls’ or spurs.

Theodore Psalter, Add MS 19352. Photo courtesy of The British Library.
Fig. 2: Bibliothèque municipale, MS 121 (France, 1052). Image from Catalogue des manuscrits en écriture latine portant des indications de date, de lieu ou de copiste. Paris, 1984.

Figure two is a mid-eleventh-century example of an actual letter (initial H) bearing the pearl ornament. Therefore, this style of letterform predates gothic script.

It is, I think, highly unlikely that Zainer, Caesaris and Stol had before them an eleventh-century manuscript. Perhaps a fragment or a later copy, though I have found no evidence of these letterforms in later medieval manuscripts. I think the most likely source of their letterforms is medieval or early Renaissance painting. In fact, those very sources were the inspiration for Jonathan Barnbrook’s twentieth-century, Nylon.

Jonathan Barnbrook’s Nylon (1997) inspired by letters in European paintings dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.
Petrus Caesaris and Johannes Stol’s type in use: Ars versificatoria, ca. 1480–81 (ISTC ig00006800.) Photograph courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library).

In conclusion, I think it likely that we have answered the question, where did Zainer get the idea for these letterforms? We know that these letterforms existed prior to gothic script, then reappear in thirteenth-century paintings. However, what remains to be answered is precisely where and when these unusual and distinct letterforms originated.

Thanks to Dr. Erik Kwakkel for his generous & invaluable assistance. Be sure to check out his wonderful Tumblr dedicated to medieval manuscripts.

And thanks to Jonathan Perez, who after reading my piece on Zainer’s fonts, happened to visit Musée des Beaux Arts de Limoges, where he spotted and photographed the image in the header: a French painting of Saint Léonard, dated 1509.

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Unusual fifteenth-century fonts: part 2

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The First Printers’ Mark

The very first printers’ mark or printers’ device dates back almost to the very beginning of Western typography. In Mainz, Fust and Schoeffer, employed a printers’ mark in a Bible that they published in 1462. There is an earlier example in their Mainz Psalter of 1457, though many now believe that it was perhaps stamped […]

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The First Printers’ Mark

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Notes on the first Books Printed in Italy

In my recent article on The First Book Printed in Italy, I introduce the first books printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz in the Subiaco monastery complex in the Sabine hills to the west of Rome from 1465. On Twitter, in a great deal more than 140 characters, I received this enthusiastic barrage of Tweets: I […]

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Notes on the first Books Printed in Italy

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