Opening Ornamental Initials

During the last couple of months at the Folger, we have come across a number of exceptional ornamental initials in Flemish imprints, as we are processing these systematically together with two interns.1 These initials can be fascinating to study. For example, look at the beginning of the first book of Lodovico Melzo’s Regole militari [...] sopra il governo e servitio della cavalleria, published in Antwerp by Joachim Trognesius in 1611:2 (Click on any image in this post to enlarge it.)

Beginning of Melzo’s military treaty on the cavalry (sig. A1r)

Beginning of Melzo’s military treaty on the cavalry (sig. A1r)

The initial depicts a dramatic confrontation on the battlefield between a cavalry unit and an infantry regiment armed with spears:

Engraved initial depicting a battle scene (sig. A1r detail)

Engraved initial depicting a battle scene (sig. A1r detail)

Interestingly, the headpiece at the top of the opening page seems to be specially produced for this work, as it represents a vivid—no pun intended—clash at a battlefield between infantrymen and soldiers on horseback. Other pages in this excellent book are also adorned with custom-made illustrated initials and headpieces, such as the beginning of the dedication to Archduke Albert VII of Austria, who with his wife Isabella, was sovereign of the Hapsburg Netherlands between 1598 and 1621:

Dedication for Archduke Albert VII of Austria (sig. *3r)

Dedication for Archduke Albert VII of Austria (sig. *3r)

In two other military books we find comparable examples of ornamental decoration referring to the content of the work. The dedication to King Philip IV of Spain in Herman Hugo’s De militia equestri antiqua et nova (1630) features a delicately ornamental capital ‘T’  in which two rearing horses are presented:3

Dedication in Hugo’s De militia eqvestri antiqva et nova (sig. *2r)

Dedication in Hugo’s De militia eqvestri antiqva et nova (sig. *2r)

Detail showing the ornamental initial T (sig. *2r)

Detail showing the ornamental initial T (sig. *2r)

Further embellishments of this kind are left behind in the body of the actual book. Not so in Diego Ufano’s Tratado dela artilleria, which was published in Brussels around 1613.4 This treatise opens with an appropriate dedication to Archduke Albert, which is topped with a headpiece in the form of an engraving depicting Albert’s successful siege of Hulst in 1596, a small but strategically important city at the border of the crucial river Scheld connecting Antwerp with the sea.5

Dedication to Archduke Albert, with a custom-made engraving as headpiece (sig. a1r)

Dedication to Archduke Albert, with a custom-made engraving as headpiece (sig. a1r)

And the ornamental woodcut initial at the beginning of the copy of the privilege is a modest tribute to the archduke, whose coat of arms is represented in the counter of the ‘P’.

The ornamental initial ‘P’ with a representation of the coats of arms of Archduke Albert in its eye. (sig. a4r)

The ornamental initial ‘P’ with a representation of the coats of arms of Archduke Albert. (sig. a4r)

The further example is connected with Albert’s wife, Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia. After the death of her husband in 1621, she decided to enter the third order of St Francis. A year after Isabella’s death, the historiographer Jean Puget de la Serre published a book in remembrance of her funeral.6 Although it is a beautiful book including a number of well-executed engravings, it is not as lavishly illustrated as the work that commemorates her husband’s funeral.7 But a special engraving was produced for this work. For the first letter of the actual text of the book, Time is depicted with his attributes of scythe and hourglass, standing next to a clock face on which the pointers form the capital letter ‘I’. The headpiece was also custom-made for this special edition; whereas one usually finds a woodcut at the top of the opening page, here a copperplate engraving has been cut depicting death’s heads and bones.

Opening page of the Mavsolée, figuring a custom-made headpiece and capital initial, both engravings. (sig. A1r)

Opening page of the Mavsolée, figuring a custom-made headpiece and capital initial, both engravings. (sig. A1r)

Detail of the opening page depicting Chronos.

Detail of the opening page depicting Time.

The examples shown above are rather unusual. When texts began to be produced with moveable type around the middle of the fifteenth century, printers based their layout schemes on the manuscript model. The earliest printed books had no title pages and would often begin right away with the text itself.8 As in manuscripts, the first initial was often rendered in color and in a larger size than the rest of the text. Because of the complexity of this process, this was often done by hand by artists and rubricators.9 Traditionally, rubricators would fill in the blanks printers had intentionally left for this purpose at the beginning of new sections. The blanks would be larger at the beginning of a new text or book and more modest at the beginning of chapters and paragraphs. The compositor would enter a guide letter to ascertain that the craftsman would fill in the correct initial. For several reasons, not all copies would receive rubrication. Some owners did not want to spend the money on it, or they preferred to do it themselves, as may be supposed when one comes across a copy where the rubrication suddenly stops in the middle of a section.

In important manuscript books, first initials were “historiated”—the initial would depict a little scene referring to the content of the book or its context. In the majority of printed books, however, the initial capital at the beginning of the book proper rarely includes this kind of miniature story, although they are often embellished other ways, with by flora and fauna or more abstract ornamental patterns. To illustrate how initial capitals changed over time, I include here two images of pages (as jpgs) which give an overview of capital initials in one of the most successful bestsellers in the Western hemisphere, the Imitatio Christi by Thomas à Kempis. For the purpose of this blog post I selected 23 editions in the vernacular of this book published by Flemish printing shops between 1500 and 1815. The text itself remains more or less stable over time, and so are the language and region of publication, allowing a diachronic comparison. Can you find the most important moments of transition? (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Picture 11 Thomas a Kempis by Goran Proot-1

Picture 12 Thomas a Kempis by Goran Proot-2

  1. Bettie Payne and Amanda Daxon were trained to make physical descriptions of these imprints in October 2012 and they have been making collations of, up to now, about 500 items. My sincere thanks to both of them, for both their invaluable help and joy in carrying out this project together with me. []
  2. See the Short Title Catalogue Flanders, henceforth: STCV 6626406. []
  3. See STCV 6607570. []
  4. See STCV 12916845. Jean Peeters-Fontainas dates this work as 1612: ‘La date gravée 161z [sic] a été lue 1612, 1613 et même 1617. Or la B.N. [= Biblioteca Nacional] de Madrid possède deux exemplaires; le premier (R 3006) porte la date 161z; pour le second (R 4828), le cuivre du frontispice a été retravaillé à la date, dont on a fait 1612. On peut donc en conclure que 161z doit se lire 1612.’ See: J. Peeters-Fontainas, Bibliographie des impressions espagnoles des Pays-Bas méridionaux. Nieuwkoop 1965, 2 vols, vol. 2, no. 1328, pp. 681-682. The ‘Carta del avthor’ for the duke of Bucquoy (1571–1621; see fol. a3r-v) is dated 10 May 1611, his dedication to Don Luis de Velasco (1559–1625; fol. a4v-b1v) is dated 4 October 1611. Don Luis Velasco’s answer (fol. b2r-v) bears the date 30 January 1612. The ‘copia del privilegio’ (fol. a4r) refers to 10 September 1611. The Folger copy clearly has 1613 on the title page. []
  5. The engraving mentions the date 1597, but it is not clear to which event it refers. []
  6. See STCV 6599912. []
  7. The Folger has also a copy of that work; see STCV 6848945. []
  8. See Margareth M. Smith, The title-page. Its early development 1460–1510. London/New Castle 2000. []
  9. In the first decades of book production, printers like Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer in Mainz experimented with printed, ornamental initials in two colours. See e.g., ISTC ip01036000 (1457) or ISTC id00403000 (1459). With thanks to Daniel DeSimone, Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at Library of Congress, who delivered this information in a lecture entitled “Printing in Color: A Lesson in Technique,” Library of Congress, 7 March 2013. []

Author: Goran Proot

GORAN PROOT is Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Rare Books at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He is currently surveying layout and typography in early modern books.

2 Comments

  1. I love this series of images Goran Proot put together of ornamental initials in one text from 1505 to 1821. http://t.co/z7ETaKtmjv

  2. Ornamental initials in early printed texts. Illustrations of 300 years of changes – http://t.co/D1llhPWsl7 via @FolgerResearch

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