Origins are fascinating—how ideas and things actually get started, whether they be words, ideas, the universe, or how a particular letterform or style of script came to be. It is equally fascinating to track down the spark that ignites an idea, the necessity that begets an invention, or simply the first of a kind. Origin stories, besides their intrinsic narrative value, shed light on what follows and help us better grasp why and how we are where we are.
Just as we are shaped by where we come from geographically and socially, the origins of innovations and inventions furnish us with insights into the cultural climate of their founding and their subsequent influence.
My own interest in firsts centers on the origins of typography in Europe, those first decades of the invention and early evolution of the printed book, the incunabula period, from the Latin cunae, or cradle. This period is of special interest because it coincides with the European Renaissance.
After two of the most disastrous centuries in human history, the Renaissance was not only a rebirth of physical populations
after the decimation wrought by the Black Death and subsequent famines, but a cultural rebirth, exemplified in the adoption of the best of classical, Greco-Roman civilization; and, arguably most significantly, a profound reinvention of the book, from hand-written and scarce to printed and ubiquitous.
It is striking just how difficult early printing was. That fact has been attenuated by the romanticization of early printing and the somewhat arbitrary pedestaling of its luminaries—Gutenberg, Jenson and Aldus—by early historians of the book and the late Victorian-era private press movement of William Morris and his acolytes, whose severest misfortune was not an untimely death in the debtors’ jail but ink on one’s fingers. The reality of early printing was altogether harsher and more unrelenting, as was daily life in the fifteenth century, for all but the patricians and the otherwise independently wealthy.
But despite that, this new technology, this revolutionary method of mass-producing books, piqued the enthusiasm of enough curious people that by the end of the century at least 1,000 presses in more than 300 towns and cities had been established and more than 12 million books printed. Even prior to Gutenberg, the production of books was already on the rise, with European manuscript production almost doubling from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century, thus exposing a significant latent demand for books, something those early entrepreneurs must have been acutely aware of. Throughout most of the first half-century of printing, the market for books was burgeoning and unregulated, attracting countless eager entrepreneurs. Erasmus alludes to the unregulated nature of early printing, claiming that it was “easier to become a printer than a baker.” Others also thought printing to be a quick and effortless way to make money. Even in the subsequent century, the Basel printer Thomas Platter claimed, “When I saw Hervagius and the other printers had a good business and with little work made a good profit, I thought, ‘I should like to become a printer.’” It also attracted scribes whose long-term job prospects were not looking so good; however, very few successfully transitioned to print.
A scribe copying commissioned manuscripts was unlikely to possess the business acumen demanded of a speculative and experimental enterprise like printing. Every success story can be set against countless abject failures. Among them was the itinerant printer, Johann Neumeister (c. 1435–c. 1512), who likely had been associated with Gutenberg in Mainz and initially had the good fortune to find patronage in goldsmith Emiliano Orfini. Neumeister established his press in Orfini’s home in Foligno, publishing several works, yet always struggling to keep his head above water and, despite working at a number of presses in at least three countries, spent time in jail for unpaid debts. Although he was the first printer to publish Dante’s Divine Comedy, Neumeister spent the last decade of his life a pauper and died in destitute obscurity.
A great many typographic firsts arose as solutions to technical problems—most commonly, in how to reproduce various facets of the manuscript book typographically. An example is the use of color in print. Throughout the entire Middle Ages color was common in books, with even the most mundane documents employing color, if not for illustration than as rubrication (the use of red ink to highlight or emphasize text). The first known example of color printing in relief is to be found in the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1454–55) in which rubrics on a handful of folia are printed in red in mimicry of scribal practice. Gutenberg abandoned the printing of color and added the rubrics by hand in his royal folio Bible of 1,282 pages. This is undoubtedly evidence that color rubrics, requiring a second, precisely superimposed impression, were simply too impractical and expensive.
Still, rubrication served a practical purpose. For the scribes it was not only decorative, but a means of textual articulation: To highlight incipits (the first few words of a text) and prologues, for underlining key words and phrases, and to highlight new-sentence capitals with red ticks. In time, typographic solutions—for example, italics, all-caps and much later boldface types—substituted for the assorted elements of scribal rubrication.
h as underlining, proved an insurmountable technical challenge for 15th-century printers. Two in Nuremberg Johann Sensenschmidt and Andreas Frisner, tried to print red underlines—rather than have a rubricator add them in by hand after the press run. They failed and printed an apology for it in their first edition of Peter Lombard’s commentaries on the Psalms, printed in 1478.
Despite early attempts, only about one in ten 15th-century books include some form of color printing. (Many more are rubricated by hand.) Technological limitations proved to be important in shaping the early printed book, which became the model of typography for five centuries. One might say that rubrication was recently revived as the colored and underlined web links of the digital page.
Practical and economic considerations led to the virtual abandonment of color, so by the 16th century printed books were largely monochromatic. The absence of color was not, then, an aesthetic or stylistic determination but simply an expedient. Christopher de Hamel, one of the world’s foremost experts on medieval manuscripts, highlights an important contrast when he writes that, “probably the most visible difference between any manuscript of the Middle Ages and later printed books is that the majority of manuscripts are in more than one color.” Not until Jacob Christoff Le Blon developed a trichromatic technique at the beginning of the 18th century—the forerunner of lithography and chromolithography—was there any significant technological advancement in color printing. Another century would pass before it became commercially viable.
During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, many now-common aspects of typographic design were established. For example, the introduction of printed foliation, or “page numbers,” in a book issued from the press of Arnold Ther Hoernen in Cologne, in 1470. Rather than appearing in the lower margin, the page numbers are printed in the recto margins, halfway down the page. Pagination was not broadly adopted until the middle of the 16th century. Indexes begin to appear in printed books from the 1460s, with the earliest example issued from the press of Fust and Schoeffer in Mainz, no later than 1467.
Printed running heads first appeared in 1493, in an edition of Philosophia Pauperum by the learned 13th-century philosopher and theologian, Albertus Magnus, printed at Brescia in northern Italy, by Baptista Farfengus, a priest and doctor of canon law. The first notice of errata appeared in 1478, in a book printed by Gabriele di Pietro at his Venetian press, a feature that appears with increasing regularity from the 1490s. Invariably, such features were not immediately and widely adopted, but in time they came to be fixed as elements of the Western typographic canon.
It is difficult to comprehend a world in which books and typography do not exist. Worse still, and rather more disturbing, is to envisage a world not indifferent to but opposed to books, a denuded dystopian future of the kind that Ray Bradbury describes in his novel, Fahrenheit 451, its protagonist, Guy Montag, tasked with burning books—all books. The Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were fueled by and made permanent by the printed word. Thanks to the book, authors from beyond antiquity to the present day have voices loud enough to reach the entire world now and for generations and millennia to come. Noble souls have risked their lives for them, have been tortured for printing them and burned at the stake alongside them. But the book has survived the puritanical, the despots and the dictators and, whether handwritten, printed, or appearing as millions of pixels on a digital screen, typography and the typographic book have triumphed. It’s only up to us to read them.
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