When consulting a book with plates (that is, inserted leaves printed separately from the text), it is best not to assume that they have been placed in the same location in all copies of the same edition nor that their location in the book reflects the one intended by the author or the publisher.
In our copy of Hiob Ludolf’s book on the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez,1 for example, the portrait of the Ethiopian abbot Gregory was inserted between leaves E1 and E2 (or pages 34-35):
while in the Bavarian State Library copy, it is located before leaf A, after the preliminary leaves including the author’s preface.
In this case, we know that the binder of the Folger copy did not follow the instructions provided by the printer, which mention explicitly where this portrait is to be inserted, i.e. after the author’s preface.
It is possible that the binder of this copy may not have read either Latin or German and may not have understood these printed instructions; but a more likely explanation is that an early owner of the book thought that a better place for Gregory’s portrait was near the section of the book giving an account of the abbot’s life.
In general binding instructions printed or engraved on plates were in a language understood by the binder, often in the language of the country where most copies of the book were to be sold and bound. In the first English edition of Nicolas Flamel’s book, for example, the instructions to the binder on the folded plate are in English while the caption for the arch is the same as in the French edition.2
In many books, the only plate to be inserted was the author’s portrait. Its conventional place was then the beginning of the book either before, facing, or after the title page.
Likewise a frontispiece was usually inserted before the title page, facing it, or placed afterward.
When the order and location of the plates mattered to follow the argument made in the text, at least a plate and/or a page number were printed or engraved on the leaf to be inserted. Sometimes more detailed information about the location of the plate in relation to the relevant text in the book was included. This was often the case of plates in scientific books and instructional manuals. The descriptive text accompanying these images could then serve both as binding and reading guides.
In the Paris edition of Jean Errard’s treatise on military architecture from 1604, the engravings were printed on the same sheets as the text to which they were a useful visual complement.3
By contrast, the engravings in the Frankfurt editions of this book from 1604 and 1617 were printed on separate sheets from the text and their order and placement vary from one extant copy to another. Their location reflects the various binding options presented in the advice to readers “either to insert the images within the text or to have them bound separately or at the end of the book as one wishes”.
The fact that the printer felt the need to write such a note, though, is an indication that at least some customers expected instructions on where to insert their plates.
Printing images with text, like in the Paris edition of Errard’s treatise, avoided having to select their location or to ‘misbind’ them in a book; but printing intaglio images with text could be difficult and time consuming. In Giovanni Battista Ferrari’s florilegium4 the intaglio prints look like they were printed on separate sheets from the text when in fact they were not and many of them include a page number as well as a gathering number. Sheets with text and images then would have been folded and put in gathering order like in any book containing just text.
In summary, it is best to keep in mind that the location of plates may vary from one copy of a book to another and that these variants may have happened for many different reasons (although I haven’t brought it up here, plates could also change of location when a book was rebound… but that’s an entirely different post!).