A catchy Italian design

In 1629 Agostino Mascardi’s Italian story about the conspiracy of Count Giovanni Luigi de Fieschi was published—according to a statement on the engraved title page only suggesting an imprint—in an unspecified Antwerp printing shop. Because of that, the edition is entered into the Short Title Catalogue Flanders, but in reality it is probably not a Flemish imprint at all. In this blog post, I will not go into detail about the printing history of this text, which appeared in the same year as well in Milan and Venice, but I will limit myself to a discussion of the layout elements suggesting a non-Flemish origin.

Engraved title page (fol. +1 recto) of the so-called Antwerp edition (Folger 197208)

Engraved title page (fol. +1 recto) of the so-called Antwerp edition (Folger 197208)

There are both subjective elements and objective reasons to support this theory. Let’s begin with the former. Engraved title pages are not particularly rare for Flanders, let alone for Antwerp. In the 1620s, the date of our publication, this phenomenon was on the rise. In the period 1601–1610, 44 Antwerp editions had an engraved title page; a decade later 78 editions did; and in the period 1621–1630 123 works did. In the two decades bracketing Peter Paul Rubens’s 1640 death, the quantity of engraved title page in Antwerp reaches its culmination point, with 135 occurrences in 1631–1640 and 139 in the period 1641–1650. (I mention Rubens’s name on purpose, because he was one of the great artists working with Christopher Plantin’s successors, who strongly promoted this feature for their works and who turned the use of engraved title pages in a true success.1 ) In the second half of the seventeenth century, the numbers of engraved title pages begin to drop: from 105 Antwerp editions in 1651–1660, 100 in the next decade, to 66 in the period 1671–1670, a level that stayed consistent for the rest of the century.

Detail of uneven lettering on the engraved title page

Detail of uneven lettering on the engraved title page

While the presence of an engraved title page is not cause for doubting the stated imprint, what is striking is the quality of the lettering, which appears not to be done by a very skilled craftsman. There seems to be more variation than usual, both in the shape of letters and in their mutual spacing. Of course, this is a subjective opinion of a non-art historian, and not all engraved title pages preceding books printed in Antwerp are skilfully executed, but this particular example seems to be strange, especially given the time in which publishers pay much attention to this feature.

There are other, more formal elements adding objective weight to my doubt: the signature of the prelims, the signing practice throughout the book, the structure of the final gathering, and, last but not least, the placement of catchwords and page numbers.

La congiura del conte Giovanni Luigi de Fieschi is printed as a quarto book. The prelims consist of eight pages or four leaves, constituting a first gathering signed with a cross, represented as “+” in STCV collation statements. In itself, this is not unusual: about 2% of all collations of Flemish books have as a first gathering a preliminary gathering signed with a plus or a cross.2

Signature on fol. +2 recto (Folger 197208)

Signature on fol. +2 recto (Folger 197208)

In popularity, this specific signature used as the first one in prelims is only surpassed by the asterisk (“*”), which appears as the first sign in about 10% of all collations in the database!3 In this particular case, the specific design of the cross seems to me quite unusual and rare for an Antwerp imprint. I cannot recall having seen it before in a Flemish book, or at least, certainly not very often.4 The most frequent shape encountered in Flemish books is the one of an obolus in its plainest form: “†”, or of a plain cross, as shown in the two examples below.

 On the left, an obulus used to sign the first gathering of the prelims in an Antwerp edition from 1644 (STCV 12858641). On the right, an example of a plain cross used to sign the first gathering, as it appears in an Antwerp edition of 1639 (STCV 12917123)

On the left, an obulus used to sign the first gathering of the prelims in an Antwerp edition from 1644 (STCV 12858641). On the right, an example of a plain cross used to sign the first gathering, as it appears in an Antwerp edition of 1639 (STCV 12917123)

Perhaps more convincing is the signing practice throughout the entire book. Quarto editions published in Flanders usually show signatures on the rectos of the first, second, and third leaves of a gathering, with the fourth leaf usually unsigned. Although this practice was not yet established in early 16th-century books, and is eroding in the second half of the 18th-century, it was fairly common and stable in 17th-century books printed in Flanders. In this book, however, only the first two leaves of a gathering are signed.5

While the book proper consists of gathering counting four leaves (A-M4), the last gathering has six leaves (N6). This, too, is not very frequent in Flemish books. In quartos, about 38% of the final gatherings count four leaves, 28% have two leaves, and only about 4% consist of six leaves. The STCV database contains about 150 quarto editions with a final gathering showing the latter feature.6

Page 3 (fol. A2 recto) in the book proper clearly showing a recessed catchword in the direction line and a recessed page number at the top of the page. (Folger 197208).

Page 3 (fol. A2 recto) in the book proper clearly showing a recessed catchword in the direction line and a recessed page number at the top of the page. (Folger 197208).

Whereas the previous characteristic is perhaps not decisive, the last one I would like to comment certainly is. If one carefully looks at the position of catchwords and page numbers, it is obvious that they do not align with the right hand side of the text area. Instead, they are recessed, presumably by one em-space of em-quad.7 This indentation disturbs the right edge of the type area and affects the perfect rectangular shape of the printed page.8 This feature is never found in books printed in Flanders. Since I began my survey of the layout and design in 2009, I have never encountered this practice in any Flemish book.

The recessed catchword and page number, however, is a typical feature of Italian books. Since I have noticed it, I have been asking bibliographers, collectors, and curators when it shows for the first time, but most colleagues say they had never noticed it before to begin with. Richard A. Sayce, who looked at hundreds of Italian books for his survey of compositorial practices does not include this characteristic in his overview, nor does he mention it when discussing page numbers. Although I have not studied the mise-en-page of Italian books in detail, they do often show this feature, and in a limited number of cases, I have seen it in French books as well, but not very frequently. To my knowledge, it is not typical of books originating from Germany, Switzerland, England, or the Low Countries.

This feature, in combination with the signing practice in the prelims, the Italian subject and language of the book, and, in this particular case, its provenance, makes perfectly sense. To paraphrase a Dutch bibliographer who studied false Dutch imprints, this book is definitely not printed in Antwerp.9 The publisher had reasons to use a false imprint, and this probably explains the absence of a (false) printer’s name in the imprint, and the absence of approbations and privileges—two formal elements which were mandatory for books at that time.

In my mind, the recessed catchword and page number is a typical Italian expression of a refined eye for detail and playfulness. It is just a little detail, but one that can tell you a whole lot of the origin of a false imprint. Once you know, you will never forget.

  1. See Karen L. Bowen and Dirk Imhof, Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-century Europe. Cambridge/New York 2008. []
  2. The STCV does not distinguish between different sorts of plusses and crosses used for signing: most variants are represented by the plus-sign in the collations, see the online manual p. 114. []
  3. On the third place comes the paragraph mark (“§”), appearing as the first sign in collations in almost 150 editions. Other signs, such as the dot (“.”), the question mark (“?”), or the so-called pied-de-mouche, (rendered as “q”), are much more infrequently found as signatures for prelims. []
  4. For this survey, I looked again at the signatures of the prelims signed with “+” of about 80 editions, images of which are available in the STCV database. []
  5. In his pioneering survey discussing compositorial practices, R. Sayce notes for Antwerp “number of leaves signed half plus one,” cf. R.A. Sayce, Compositorial practices and the Localization of Printed Books 1530–1800. A Reprint with Addenda and Corrigenda, Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society 1979, p. 43. In the beginning of the 16th century, Antwerp printers often only signed half of the number of leaves of a gathering, cf. G. Proot “Designing the Word of God: Layout and Typography of Flemish 16th-Century Folio Bibles Published in the Vernacular,” in De Gulden Passer, 90 (2012), 143-179, here: 160, table 5. []
  6. To collect this data, I surveyed only the last three letters of the collations recorded in the database, which causes bias because a considerable number of collations do not finish with the number of leaves of the final gathering. But even with this in mind, the overall trend is clear. For quartos final gatherings in 4 are normal, final gatherings in 2 come second, and final gatherings in 6 are fairly rare. This is also the case for final gatherings in 8 and other structures. []
  7. About the importance of em-spaces in layout, see Claire Bolton, “The influence of type and spacing on the design of the printed page,” in Jaarboek voor Nederlandse boekgeschiedenis 19 (2012), pp. 51–64; see also Margaret M. Smith, “Le black aldine and the paragraph mark,” in William J. Jones et al. (eds) “Vir ingenio mirandus”. Studies presented to John L. Flood, Göppingen 2003, vol. 2, pp. 537–557. []
  8. About the evolution of the rectangular shape of text areas, see Frans A. Janssen, Goud en koper in de boekenwereld, Amsterdam 2008, esp. the section titled “De rechthoek in de typografie”, pp. 33–55. []
  9. Erik Geleijns, “Niet gedrukt in Den Haag. Achttiende-eeuwse boeken met een vals Haags impressum,” in Jaarboek voor Nederlandse boekgeschiedenis 15 (2008), pp. 109–124. []

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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