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Incunabula by Isabelle Scappazzoni


Historical overview

The first books printed by typographic process are called incunabula, from 1450-14511 to 1500 or 1501 according to the sources, name coming from the Latin word "incunabula" which means "cradle" (of movable type printing). The forms of books evolved slowly and it is rather around the 1530s that books finally emancipated themselves from the medieval forms inherited from manuscripts.

Incunabula was used for the first time in the field of printed books by Becrnhard Von Mallinckrodt (1591-1664), dean of the cathedral chapter in Münster, in a document published in 1640 in Cologne. This was in the context of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the invention of the printing press. He demonstrated the legitimacy of Mainz's candidacy and the role of Fust. By using the term incunabula, he permanently fixed the chronological scope of the object "ante annum secularem 1500". It was used in 1688 in a catalogue of the first printed works published in Amsterdam by Beughem: "Incunabula typographiæ".


In the early days of printing, the open book does not immediately reveal its geographical origin. Indeed, the title page develops slowly and does not really impose itself until the end of the 15th century.

The first page of text only begins on the back of a blank page. The text begins with the Latin word incipit (here begins) followed by the title and sometimes the author and ends with the explicit (here ends). This may be followed by the colophon, a Greek word meaning 'completion', which states the author's name and title, and gives the bibliographical address: place, printer, date.

Another identifying element also appears at the end of the text; it is the printer's mark, which is used to identify the production.

This mark is engraved on wood, printed and often becomes a decorative and advertising element.

Sometimes it is accompanied by a motto. If the bookseller is different from the printer, then the bookseller's mark will be on the title page and the printer's on the colophon.

Gradually, these elements will move to the front of the book, on the first page left blank.

At first it is just the title, one or two lines, which then sometimes become a real table of contents.

If one of these elements is missing, an incunabulum can be defined by the study of its typographical characters, which thus allows, in most cases, to identify the workshop from which it originated.

Presentation of an incunabulum

The binding

Initially, the appearance of printed books differs little from that of the manuscripts that serve as models. They are gothic bindings on wood, beech or oak, depending on their provenance.

The main characteristic of a gothic binding is that the supporting strap of the seam enters the aisle over the bevelled edges of the outer face of the aisle (rather than through a passage cut into the edge of the aisle). Of the few hundred original Gothic bindings that have survived, our knowledge of them is often limited to their style of decoration of the boards. This was the main interest of scholars and book historians until 1890, when a German master bookbinder Paul Adam wrote a monograph on the history of bookbindings including the techniques2. And as we will see later, until the years 2003, the databases concerning incunabula and printed books are mainly concerned with the covering and decoration of books.

Although there were some incunabula printed on parchment, most were on paper. The printing process usually formed ripples in the middle of the leaves. The endpapers could be made of parchment or paper with different sewing possibilities to the text block.

The sewing is done on hemp twine or double skin thong, split and twisted (usually white skin tanned with alum). The number of stitching sinews increases while the format decreases compared to manuscript bindings. The spine may be reinforced with cloth or parchment in a single strip straddling the spine or in a large staggered strip running back to the inner boards.

The headbands retain their main function of reinforcing the seam and attaching to the aisles. For Italian and French bindings, they are embroidered with brightly coloured silk threads on a leather or string core before or after the cover. For German structures, they are often made of braided leather after covering.

In the 15th century, a technical change took place in Gothic bindings: the wooden boards were bevelled from the outside inwards, with different characteristics depending on the geographical origin of the bindings. The same applies to the passage of the straps through the aisles. The aisles are also becoming thinner than in the 14th century. But they are beginning to be supplanted by laminated sheets of paper, then by cardboard3.

Leather remained the main material for coverings, although there were also a few bindings in cloth (linen, hemp or silk). Vegetable-tanned calfskin, alum-tanned pigskin or turned sheepskin are the most common, as well as parchment.

The leather is glued to the spine in contrast to medieval bindings. Several ways of filling the corners on the inner ais are possible as determined by J.A. Szirmai in his "Archaeology of medieval bookbinding".

The bindings can be full bindings or half bindings, i.e. the covering stops at one third of the aisles.

We find different decoration techniques on Gothic bindings. Hot stamping is the most common technique, but the iconography of the irons, plates and castors and the styles evolve.

The most demanding of these techniques, leather-chiselling, is mainly found in the Germanic countries, although there are a few examples in northern Italy, Austria and Bohemia. The motifs are created by incising the previously moistened leather with a knife or punch. Finally, gold stamping appeared in Italy in the middle of the 15th century, and then in the rest of Europe.

Bonds or ties still existed in the 15th century. There were two types: the first, consisting of long straps, was widely used on Romanesque bindings and remained in use until the end of the 15th century; the second used staples and counter-staples.

This consists of clipping a "hook" into a plate pierced in the middle and nailed to the other plate4. There remain the protections used on heavy ecclesiastical works such as bouillons, cornices, umbilicals...5

They evolve in their form and in their decorative aspect. On prints with a small format binding, the clasps are often replaced by fabric or leather ties.

The text

The text is generally quite dense, arranged in two columns or long lines, to make it easier to read, especially in large formats.

There may or may not be a title page, with a table, placed at the head or tail of the volume. Following the medieval tradition, the text is sometimes printed in large type in the centre of the page and inserted in the annotations of a smaller typeface.

The individual books and chapters are often numbered, but at the head a space is left vacant for the illuminator to make the initial and decoration.

Sometimes the small lettering printed in this blank space is used to guide the illuminator.

The characters

The incunabula originally borrowed the gothic lettering used by copyists, preserving the numerous abbreviations and ligatures of letters in handwriting. There are three types of gothic letters:

  • - The "form" letter usually reserved for bibles, large imposing characters called textura.
  • - The "sum" letter, used for scholastic theological works or legal editions, is a rounder, gothic typeface also called rotunda.
  • - The "bastard" letter, a kind of cursive used for texts in the vernacular and common Latin.

The Roman typeface, on the other hand, originated in Italy. The humanists, in particular Petrarch, brought the caroline script back into fashion in order to copy the texts of classical antiquity, to which it seems closer.

IllustrationIllumination remains the primary illustration of the incunabulum. The rubrics, the painted letters, often with alternating red and blue, are common elements.

In order to keep the typographic art as close as possible to the art of the copyist, the incunabulum sometimes has hand-drawn rules in the margin.

Then the printer takes care of the illustration.

Woodcutting or engraving predominates.

This relatively simple technique, which uses a relief process like typography, allows the text and the image to be printed at the same time.

1. The Avignon archives preserve a document stating that Procopius Waldvogel, a goldsmith, taught the "ars scribendi artificialiter" ("art of writing artificially") around 1444-1446, using a metallic material.

2. Paul Adam (1848-1931), co-founder of the journal Archiv für Buchbinderei

5. This description of the Gothic bookbinding is largely taken from the work of J.A. Szirmai.

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