The Single Vine Leaf, aka the “Aldine Leaf”

I have always been a devotee of the “Aldine leaf”, even long before I knew its exact name or where it actually came from, and I am still delighted spotting it in early modern typography or when it is expertly used in current printed material. As with most delicate things in life, it should be applied with moderation and with consideration of the right time and place. Often just one turns out to be a perfect number, but on occasion two or three may do the trick as well.

Title page (fol. A1r) of a 1527 Strassburg edition featuring one single vine leaf (left), and title page (fol. a1r) of a 1519 Louvain edition with three single vine leaves (right).

Title page (fol. A1r) of a 1527 Strassburg edition featuring one single vine leaf (left), and title page (fol. a1r) of a 1519 Louvain edition with three single vine leaves (right).

As Hendrik Vervliet points out in his latest masterpiece dealing with this typographical phenomenon, the term “Aldine leaf” is a misnomer, since the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius seem to have never use it in his own publications.1 Other names for the fleuron are ivy leaf, hedera, or floral heart. But probably the best name is single vine leaf, the design of which has the property to cause an intellectual glow of happiness akin to the powers of that other fruit borne by the vine. 

Undoubtedly any reader at the Folger is well acquainted with the vine leaf, since it appears in large numbers of hand-press books in our Renaissance collections. The single vine leaf is foremost a feature of sixteenth-century printing, one of the Folger’s strengths. Vervliet’s register amounts to 214 different sixteenth-century single vine leaves, the first two being cut by the talented Erhard Ratdolt in Augsburg as early as 1505.2 Ratdolt inspired many a punchcutter and vine leaves were added to type cases in print shops all over Europe. And it’s stayed with us ever since: the vine leaf is a feature included in most, if not all, digital fonts.

Ratdolt’s vine leaf on Great Primer/A [FLSL 12], first seen in Konrad Peutinger, Romanae vetustatis fragmenta in Augusta Vindelicorum. [Augsburg] 1505. Detail from fol. 3r of VD16 P2079

Ratdolt’s vine leaf on Great Primer/A [FLSL 12], first seen in Konrad Peutinger, Romanae vetustatis fragmenta in Augusta Vindelicorum. [Augsburg] 1505. (fol. 3r)

In the second decade of the sixteenth century, the son of Gutenberg’s associate Peter Schöffer, Peter Schöffer II, designed a pair of vine leaves which would rapidly become a European success. Originally created for Basel editions in 1517, both of Schöffer’s vine leaves appear in the following years in editions published in Cologne (1518), Sélestat (1519), Louvain (1519), Augsburg (1520), and Nuremberg (1521). In 1523 they figure in books printed in Antwerp, Leipzig, Ulm and Zürich, and subsequently they spread all over Europe.3

Peter Schöffer II’s vine leaves on Paragon A and B (with the eyed stem) in a 1519 Louvain edition published by Dirk Martens. Folger BS2485 C5 F5 1519 Cage, detail fol. a1r.

Peter Schöffer II’s vine leaves (Paragon A and B, with the looped stem) in a 1519 Louvain edition published by Dirk Martens (detail fol. a1r).

Vervliet’s survey reproduces each of the 214 vine leaves full-size and provides details about editions in which the fleurons appeared first. This information is followed by lists of other early appearances so that one can map out the geographical dissemination of individual designs.

But how were these embellishments used in different kinds of books? In order to begin to answer that question, I surveyed 722 descriptions in yet another standard work, Wouter Nijhoff and M.E. Kronenberg’s Nederlandsche bibliographie van 1500 tot 1540, commonly cited as “NK”.

The first volume was published in 1923 and was followed by volume 2 in 1940 and a third volume in five parts (1942–1971). In total NK provides detailed bibliographic descriptions of 4,532 editions published in the Low Countries during the first four decades of the sixteenth-century, the period of the so-called post-incunabulas. Both authors traveled the world in order to locate as many new editions as possible. The first two volumes even include 19 copies from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The descriptions are fairly detailed, including typographical information about the fonts used and the presence of fleurons; one can deduce the use of single vine leaves on the title page, and often it records when the fleuron appears elsewhere in the work.

Description of entry no. 866 in vol. 1 of Nijhoff-Kronenberg, featuring the use of single vine leaves on both the title page (fol. “1a”) and elsewhere in the work (fol. “58b”).

Entry no. 866 in vol. 1 of Nijhoff-Kronenberg, featuring the use of single vine leaves on both the title page (fol. “1a”) and elsewhere in the work (fol. “58b”).

All 722 descriptions I surveyed originate from Flemish printing centers, namely in Alost, Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Louvain. And although this sample only covers some 16% of the total post-incunabula production in the Low Countries, it is large enough to give a tentative idea of the general trends for the use of single vine leaves in the period 1501–1540.

Single vine leaves appearing in Dutch-language and Latin-language editions published in Flanders in the period 1501–1540. Source NK, based on 722 descriptions in volume 1. Graph: Goran Proot.

Single vine leaves appearing in Dutch-language and Latin-language editions published in Flanders in the period 1501–1540. Source NK, based on 722 descriptions in volume 1. Graph: Goran Proot.

The graph confirms the tendencies described by Vervliet. There is a swift increase of the use of the decorative fleuron from the first decade onward. In the third decade, as much as fifty percent of the Latin-language editions published in Flanders feature it on the title page (green lines on the graph). That share seems to fall back in the period 1531–1540, but it is not clear whether that is a result of the size of the sample or not.4 The same trend is visible in Dutch-language editions: over time, there is a clear increase of the use of single vine leaves, but over all, a significantly smaller share of the NK descriptions indicate the use of single vine leaves. At present, we do not know how this trend develops further on in time—it may very well be that the share of Dutch-language books embellished with single vine leaves increases in later years.

The dotted lines represent the appearance of single vine leaves elsewhere in the books described by Wouter Nijhoff and M.E. Kronenberg. Although the data on which I base this survey depend very much on the accuracy of their descriptions (which do not cover the use of typographic features throughout the books), it is safe to state that if single vine leaves appear on title pages, they usually show up elsewhere in the works as well.

It is fascinating to see that the introduction of a new typographic element is adopted by Latin-language books first and followed with a delay of about 20 years in Dutch-language editions. This is a phenomenon that is also discernible for other typographic elements, most obviously in the adaptation of roman type. But as I argue elsewhere, there clearly was more at stake for the transition to happen for text type.5 Latin books completely switched in less than 40 years from black letter to roman type before 1540, but the same process required more than a century for Dutch-language books in the same region. At this moment, it is unclear whether the different speed in Latin and Dutch books is caused by language only. It certainly is related to readers’ expectations, which are often so difficult to grasp, and cultural norms in general, which are even more vague. I wonder to what extent differences in text genre played a role, and which other factors may turn up. I am very curious to hear your thoughts on this. To be continued!

  1. Hendrik D.L. Vervliet, Vine Leaf Ornaments in Renaissance Typography. A Survey. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press/Houten: Hess & De Graaf Publishers 2012, here p. 11. []
  2. Vervliet, Vine Leaf Ornaments, nos. 1 and 2, both dating from 1505. []
  3. For an overview, see Vervliet, Vine Leaf Ornaments, nos. 7 and 8. For Louvain, Vervliet only mentions a 1530 Clenardus edition published by Rutger Rescius, but the Folger holds a 1519 edition printed by Dirk Martens showing Schöffer’s vine leaf on Paragon/A, see BS2485 C5 F5 1519 Cage. For a description of that edition, see STCV 12916069 and bibliographic references listed there. []
  4. The sample is not randomly selected: I started in volume one and processed entries no. 1 through 1,300. To what extend this may influence the results is not clear. []
  5. Goran Proot, “De opmars van de romein: het gebruik van romein en gotisch in Nederlandstalig drukwerk uit de zuidelijke Lage Landen, 1541-1700”, in Jaarboek voor Nederlandse boekgeschiedenis 19v (2012), 66-85. []

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.

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