Typography—the design of individual printed letter-shapes—makes printed books easier to read, and it can also shape our understanding and experience of the text and the content that an individual book contains. At first, early printed books imitated the layout and typography of scribal manuscripts. As this new medium—print—matured, however, printers, and even authors, learned how to use the affordances, or media-specific qualities, of printed sheets in order to indicate what kind of book they were creating, what kind of audience they were seeking, and even what kind of emotion they wished to evoke. Type design suddenly became one of those affordances, and one of the most influential was the beautiful typeface founded by one of the first printers and booksellers in Europe, Nicholas Jenson.
Pre-pandemic, I went to the Folger Shakespeare Library to look at a rare volume printed in Venice by Jenson in 1478. These early printed books are called incunabula, which means “cradle books,” because printing was in its infancy when these books were created. Technically incunabula or (Anglicized) incunables are “fifteeners,” or books printed in the fifteenth century. Between 1500 and 1540 we call printed books “post-incunables” and after that they are just “early printed books.”
This particular book is an edition of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans translated from Greek into Latin by various well-known Italian humanist scholars.
It’s in two books bound in one huge folio volume. The book is so tightly bound that we had to support it on two foam cradles and use two bean-bag book snakes to prevent the cradles from slipping. The binding is now so dry and delicate that if the book were opened too fully, the spine would crack. This condition posed some challenges for photographing the book.
The book uses typography, layout, and even the form of the colophon (the publication information) to tell its audience that this product, despite being printed on a press rather than lettered by a scribe, is reliable, beautiful, and authoritative. The colophon tells us that the printer has devoted attention to the integrity of the text, the appearance of the page, and that despite its mechanical production, each volume can be traced back to a responsible individual. In modern mass-market books, publication information appears at the front, but in early printed books (and in artists’ books of the present day) it appears at the end. Modern literary fiction, poetry, and fine-press books can have some publication information at the front of the book and a colophon indicating the typeface in a colophon at the end.
Virorum illustrium uitae ex Plutarcho Graeco in Latinum uersae solertiq[ue] cura emendatae foeliciter expliciunt : Per Nicolaum Ienson Gallicum Venetiis Impressae, Mcccclxxviii (1478) die ii Ianuarii.
The colophon says, “The lives of famous men turned into Latin out of Plutarch in Greek, and expertly corrected with care, beautifully presented here printed by Nicholas Jenson in Venice this second day of January 1478.”
Under magnification you can see some of the characteristics of early printing, such as the phenomenon of unevenly inked letters, over-inking in some cases, and the consequence known as printer’s squash, where you see the outline of the letter-form underneath the ink that has squashed out beneath the type. The Latin abbreviations are called “sigla” and are found in hand-copied manuscripts as well as in early printed books. The suffix “que” in Latin is “and,” and it’s abbreviated by adding what I call a little superscript squiggle to the letter “q.” The tilde or line over a vowel indicates an omitted letter “n” or “m.”1
This incunable mixes the novelty of type with aspects of manuscript or scribal culture, such as the sigla on the one hand and gorgeous hand-illumination on the other. Each chapter begins with an illuminated letter containing an image of the famous Greek or Roman personage whose life is described. Here’s Marcus Brutus, slayer of Caesar, who was rumored to have been Caesar’s illegitimate son by Servilia, Caesar’s former lover. His story is translated by Guarino Veronese, one of the best-known Italian Renaissance humanists.
In the image of Caesar, Caesar himself bears the Christian medieval emblems of royalty, the sword or scepter, and the orb, in his hand.
The illuminator interprets Caesar almost as a Christian martyr, as if in the tradition of the Ovide moralisé, the French allegorical hermeneutic that imagined classical texts and traditions as precursors to Christian ones. Plutarch’s account cannily lends itself to a reading of either a heroic Caesar betrayed by his closest allies in a fateful, high drama, or a weak man beset by a disorganized rout of venal politicians in an assault upon the rule of law. Here’s the account of Caesar’s assassination in Latin:
Bruti vero complices partim post eius sella constiteruit p[ro]tim ei obviam percessere: u tuna cum Metello Cymbro per frater exule supplicant intercederent. Sicque magnis eum obsecrationibus ad sellam usque sunt confectati. Cum vero sedens rogantes submovisset: hi violentius imminebant. Quod graviter ferente Caesare: Metellus comprehensam utraque manu togam deuxit ex collo: id enim aggrediendi signum erat: Primus Cascas iuxta collum ense percussir: verum tn neque grave admodum neque laetale vulnus erat. Virum n.n [enim] ut par erat ingentis audatiae caepta perturbaverant. Tum saucius Caesar sese convertens ubi gladium eius apprehendit apprehensumque enuit latine simul inclamavit: Scelerate Casca quid agis: Ille autem ubi percussit frater graeco sermone vocans. Fer inquit frater auxilium. Exorto tumulteos qui aderant rerum ignari consternatio facti partier et horror oppressit: ita ut neque fugam capescere neque opem afferre: neque voces emitter prorsus auderent. Ex his autem qui ad necem instructi venerant: cum adversi nudis circunstarent ensibus ita ut quocumque intuerent vulnera ocurrerent: ferrumque per vultum atque oculos agitaretur inter omnium manu sut fera versabatur. Eius enim caedis initium unicuique degustandum erat. Quo circa Brutus eum in inguine uno confodit vulnere. Tradunt quidam illum caeteris quidem repugnantem huc atque illuc corpus magno cum clamore ferentem ut Brutum nudo mucrone conspexit: contracta veste caput obduxisse. Tum sive casu sive obtrudentibus homicidis ad quanpiam se basim demisit: in qua Pompei statua fuerate: quam occisi cruor magna ex parte respersit adeo ut praeside.
Below is the gist in English, which I translated with help from the Loeb translation by Bernadotte Perrin, coded and corrected by Bill Thayer at the University of Chicago’s LacusCurtius Project, and with frequent recourse to the Latin-English Dictionary at Tufts University’s Perseus Hopper.
Brutus and some of his accomplices assembled themselves behind Caesar’s chair and made as if to meet him, as if they were going to intercede with Metellus Cimber, who was pleading in favor of his brother, who had been exiled. In this way they arranged it so that they surrounded Caesar’s chair, and continued pleading with him when he was seated: the latter pushed them away and became angry, and stern: Metellus grabbed the latter’s toga with both hands and pulled it off his neck, for that was the agreed-upon signal: First Casca was to strike him on the neck with his dagger. Really it was neither a serious nor a lucky wound. In fact Casca was equally confused by having thought up such a huge and audaciously-conceived action. Then the wounded Caesar himself turned to the sword and grabbed it, and once he had grasped it, both men cried out simultaneously, the hurt one in Latin, “You’ve acted wickedly, Casca!” The latter, however, called out in Greek to his brother, “Brother, get help!” Those who didn’t know about the plot were filled with horror and concern; thus they dared neither take flight nor bring help nor even raise their voices against it. But of those who had been told about the plot, with bare daggers they surrounded him in this way and confronted him and killed him with wounds: they aimed their weapons at his face and eyes so that he was struck by the hands of everyone: everyone was compelled to participate in this cutting. Therefore Brutus gave him a wound in the groin. Some people say that he was pushed from side to side and that he cried out when he caught sight of the sharp point of Brutus’ blade: he is said to have pulled his garment over his head. Then, whether by chance or whether propelled by his murderers, he fell down on the pedestal of the statue of Pompey, with huge amounts of gore everywhere, as if Pompey presided over a revenge on his enemy.
It’s vivid, gruesome, and exciting reading, even today, with its mingled motifs of brotherhood and betrayal. We have defined, although conflicting, actions by multiple characters, ready-made “blocking” or actors’ movements, and dialogue, all laid out as if already on a stage with a few key properties and costumes (togas, daggers, a chair). It’s unsurprising that Shakespeare, who is known to have read Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives, adapted this scene in his own manner.
But perhaps the most exciting aspects of this book are the handwritten notes written on the blank pages at the end of each volume by someone taking the pseudonym “Calixtus Forcrandus.”
These notes include accounts of the fall of Granada in 1492 and an account of a famous outbreak of plague in Bourg-en-Bresse in France in 1505. In this photograph you can make out “ferdinandus rex et yelizabet Regina” (“Elizabeth” and “Isabella” are two different forms of the same name), i.e. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the date 1492, the word “granata” i.e. Granada, and the word “opulentissima,” or most magnificent.
In this way the book not only collected and shone light upon the major events of the ancient world but became a living witness to great historical events in its own.
- The Elements of Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Palaeography, by Adriano Cappelli, translated by David Heimann and Richard Kay (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Printing Service, 1982; repr. online at the University of Kansas scholarly repository, section 3.
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