I Love Typography

Creating Grand Gargantua

By Paul Dijstelberge

MOVABLE TYPE: perhaps nowadays few will know the exact meaning of these two words, but until the middle of the twentieth century a letter was a small piece of lead, and to use it for printing you literally had to move it around, by hand. In the 20th century big machines like the Monotype, equipped with keyboard, were used for typesetting; but until 1900 all type was set by typesetters, by hand. This simple object: a piece of lead with a letter on top, formed the central part of Gutenberg’s invention, back in the middle of the 15th century.

To cast letters Gutenberg and all of the printers and type foundries that followed him used matrices. To make matrices you first had to cut punches, and the punch was the instrument where art and business met. The punches were made of steel — a little softer than today’s steel — that was cut with a sharp steel knife or an engraving tool. But still, to cut a letter on top of a very small piece of steel, and to do so with such precision and consistency required extraordinary skill. Remember the magnifying glass had not yet been invented and even eye glasses were very rare. To create the complete sets of more than a hundred different punches with letters, abbreviations, and other typographical signs that were all of the same size, all of the same design, and all equally pleasing to the eye when viewed en masse — it seems hardly conceivable that people were able to do just that. But they did it, and with results that we use up to this very day. The type designs we call roman are the grandchildren of one of the most beautiful romans ever created — a type created in about 1470 by the Frenchman Nicolaus Jenson, who was then working in Venice.

Roman, type 1, used by Jenson in De Proprietate Sermonis. Venice, 1476.

In the 15th century each printer made (or at least owned) his own type designs. At the end of the century specialist punchcutters started to trade in matrices and later also in type. Type design soon became the job of specialists, and if you look at 15th and early 16th century type you can easily see its development from modest albeit interesting beginnings to it becoming a great art. Many of the great type designs were created before 1550. These designs imitated the most elegant writing of their day, following the letters that were written by great humanists for kings. Scholars like Poggio imitated Carolingian handwriting, mistakenly attributing these manuscripts to antiquity, when in fact they were products of the ninth century.

Carolingian minuscule, 9th century.

Initials and ornaments

Until the 18th century and for brief periods in the 19th and early 20th century, books were often decorated with initials and ornaments. The earliest printed books were decorated by hand, like their written ancestors; but soon printers began to use little woodcuts that could be used year after year in thousands of copies.

Initials by the famous 16th century French printer Estienne, and his two Basle colleagues Froben & Oporinus.

Initials by the famous 16th century French printer Estienne, and his two Basle colleagues Froben & Oporinus.

These initials form a neglected form of art — an undercurrent of popular culture that has been the subject of very little scholarly research, most of it by book historians, practically none by art historians. The website we are creating is a first effort to change this. Many of these initials and ornaments are abstract, but most are figurative: little pictures that furnish unexpected insights into the thinking of our ancestors. They illustrate every human activity, and it is fun to trace the different pictorial traditions of countries and cities and all the changes they went through during those centuries. You will find musical instruments, beautiful women, defecating little angels, knights, and monsters of every kind. A town like Basel was especially rich in beautiful historiated initials — this was the influence of the famous German painter and engraver Hans Holbein (1497–1543) who designed many of them.

Book historians often use these little pieces of wood to identify printers — some of the most famous and subversive books of all ages were printed without the name of the publisher, and the research of this kind of book is a quest without end. But the sheer delight of looking at these beautiful little pieces of art is perhaps the most rewarding aspect.

Grand Gargantua

And so a grand project begins: with John (the editor of this blog), we are building a website to bring these rare treasures to everyone. Grand Gargantua — a history of typography will chart the course of typography from the incunabula. For some time, I have been photographing (in high resolution) books of the Amsterdam Special Collections, and uploading them to Flickr. Grand Gargantua will take this one step further, by organising and tagging these very high-resolution images, in addition to providing some commentary and historical perspective.

Our grand plan for Grand Gargantua is to gather some 50,000 samples in the next five or six years. We hope that you will follow us in our adventures. When we started out we had a small group of specialist book historians in mind as our audience, certainly not designers. But we soon discovered that many designers were interested in our work. For them we are creating an extra collection of examples of early book design. Here we will display pictures of pages and books from the 15th-19th century, sometimes accompanied by commentary. We are touched by this interest in the historical roots of a tradition that today is as alive and vigorous as it was all those centuries ago.

This work is made possible by the Amsterdam Special Collections who generously permit access to the material, The A D & L foundation and the Huizinga Institute who generously supplied the camera, a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Paul Dijstelberge (1956) was a restaurant cook for 14 years and an expert bibliographer for 17 years. He completed his PhD on the use of initials and ornaments in the 17th century, and currently works as an Associate Professor to Professor Dr Lisa Kuitert (History of the Book) at the University of Amsterdam; and as a curator at the Special Collections. He publishes in the field of the history of the book and also writes short stories that have been published in several literary magazines. He lives in Leiden with his wife and two daughters.

Photo credit: Bodoni punches (in the header) courtesy of Friends of the Palatina Library and the Bodoni Museum. Flickr.

A big thank you to Kari Pätilä, Grand Gargantua’s web developer.

History of the Book on Flickr.


  1. Nice primer Paul! This article is really getting me excited for the launch of Grand Gargantua. I have enjoyed some of your Flickr sets over the last several months and I am sure that this new home and organizational structure will improve accessibility and understanding of the collection.

    Good luck to all of you getting it launched!


  2. Robbie

    Even though I remember these things from school it’s nice to always be reminded where type has come from and how far its come.

    Thanks for the great article!

  3. I love you guys! Like you, I enjoy getting into the collections of old libraries, examining books and other artifacts, but one thing is usually missing—pictures. Some great libraries will not allow cameras into their rare books collections, if they do allow cameras they still ban tripods and the lighting stinks. It’s so good of you to share the experience of staring it Jenson’s letters through a loupe!

  4. Wow! This is exactly what I have been waiting for! I cannot wait for this!

  5. Oooooo… Thank you for your work. I have a big old Chandler and Price press in my garage and scads of movable type. The photo at the top of your website had me hook line and sinker, so you didn’t even need to post photos of those beautiful books. Keep on rockin’ in the free world.

  6. Rachel

    Very Nice Article..keep it up..

  7. Megan

    This is a great article - wonderful information about the history.
    I am really excited for the Grand Gargantua!

  8. No way! Really exciting stuff. Looking forward to seeing these.

  9. Really looking forward to see this!

  10. sitanshu shukla

    really looking forward to ‘Grand Gargantua’

    all the very best…

    situ :)

  11. I’m looking forward to your project’s website!

  12. Movable type made for immediate changes not only in letter forms, but in page layout as well. Although it’s true that many of these changes too have been neglected, there exists a core of art historians who do research books, and some increasing attention to the period of change from manuscript to incunable. Not too long ago I wrote in the eye blog about changes wrought in the layout of a fifteenth-century book as it was transformed from manuscript to print. I argue that these early innovations were valued by printers and book buyers even then. The blog derives from art-historical thesis research in the Houghton Library, Harvard University Libraries (see also Imitation as Innovation: the Imitatio Christi, 1450-1550, Harvard University Libraries: 2009).

  13. This is such a wonderful, exciting gift. I too love examining old books — it truly sends shivers down my spine too — but like James said, it’s always sad to take away bad photos, or none at all. It looks like Grand Gargantua will bring us all a very big step closer to these treasures. Really, really looking forward.

  14. In my article above I stated that printed initials and ornaments have been neglected by art-historians.
    Lay-out is something different. The change from manuscript to printed book is an interesting field of research were bookhistorians meet with arthistorians who study manuscripts.

    In the Netherlands it has been an object of study since the late 20th century. Dr Goran Proot from the Antwerp university had brought this study up to a new level by creating a database that covers all aspects of lay-out, thus making it possible to follow changes in typographical design over very long periods.

    Personally I do not think that the early printers were making a conscious effort to free themselves from the manuscript. Early printing was quite primitive and the first 40 years of so were in fact spend on reconquering the sophisticated design of the late manuscripts!

  15. Nancy

    Thank you for this gift for those of us who love type and for those students who haven’t realized they will! I look forward to the blogs.

  16. Paul & John, please let me know what format you want images in and where I can send them. Massey College and the Robertson Davies Library where I work have is all about the history of printing and the history of the book. We have fabulous examples of this. I also have a great collection of shots from the Carey Collection that David Pankow was kind enough to let me photograph.
    I would love to contribute to this inestimable resource.

  17. We welcome all cooperation and in fact hope that all interested people will help us with tagging the pictures.

    How we take pictures: through a frame that is exactly 40x60mm in high resolution. This is enlarged to 160x240mm with a resolution of 300 for the screen. Downloaded they can be resized and given a resolution of 1200. This will result in a print that is almost exactly the size of the original. We use a Canon eos 5D to do this.

    Anyone who whishes to contribute can contact me at p.dijstelberge@uva.nl

  18. Grand Gargantua is going to be an absolute labour of love, no doubt, and I cannot wait to see the results.

    I will watch on in earnest.

  19. Paul, thanks for the comment re my claim above. With changes in the layout of early printed materials it’s always difficult to parse ‘invention’ from ‘necessity’ from ‘intention’ – can we really ever reconstruct these things? Hard to say whether printers were trying to free themselves from the manuscript: but it’s worth taking a look at colophons, where the printer had the chance to say something for himself (advertising too!). Whereas manuscripts tended to say things like ‘Name, Date, Thanks be to God and please pray for the scribe’ (I’m sure you know these well: for instance ‘Spreket eyn Paternoster vor alle cristene sele vnde deme schriuer mede to bathe’ from a book in Wolfenbüttel), printed books sometimes have colophons like the one in the manuscript to which I was referring, which reads: ‘By Gunther Zainer from Reutlingen, by the generation [genitu[m]] of a press with copper letters’. An excuse for primitive typography, or pride in a new invention and a new look?

  20. As far as I know (from the colophons in this mode I have seen) early printers prided themselves on using the new invention.
    But apart from the speed with which printed books were produced (and thus the far lower prices) there was in fact little to recommend them: compared to the best manuscripts they were quite primitive. And printers (at least some of them, like Ratdolt) were constantly at work to make printed books if not as beautiful, then at least as sophisticated (i.e. on the same subject) as the best manuscripts. Compare them to e-books that suffer from the same sort of problems (and are expensive too apart from being ugly and a pain in the ass to use).
    To create printed books that were as good as the manuscripts took half a century. Event then Montefeltro would certainly have thrown them out of his library.

  21. Thanks for this article - it just shows how much time, work and skill went into creating books. I love the intricate designs for the initials.

  22. Ebooks might be clunky, but check out ipad periodical apps! They might be ugly, but they love to show off their zoomiest features. I think innovation and conservatism don’t have to be mutually exclusive in the case of changes of media – both tendencies exist and usually cater to different audiences. In the case of early printed materials, printing introduced an entirely new audience altogether, so it becomes a bit like comparing apples to oranges. There’s a funny dynamic that develops where printers are encouraging wood engravers, a rising bourgeois is buying oil paintings like crazy, and the poor MSS illuminators are pretty quickly left without very many customers. The of course illumination becomes a sort of moribund minor art in imitation of painting – although with so many brilliant examples still. On the other hand you begin to see artists like Dürer so brilliantly playing and experimenting with the idea and theory of printing and of replication (see Joseph Koerner’s work for some earlier examples), and even making woodcuts when they could be painting. Just to say that this idea of primitive early printed matter ‘catching up’ to MSS seems somewhat oversimplified. You have new audiences, new media, a new economic situation, all changing at a stupendous pace for this time – everything in flux, and lots of people reinterpreting and renegotiating their connections to the past and to each other. What lessons can we learn for our situation today?

  23. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the specimens are annotated. Good luck!

    BTW: I’ve posted a short announcement about this project on the Fine Press Book Association blog:


  24. In time, when GrandGargantua is up and working - everybody who wants to cooperate with tagging, will be invited to do so. The scope of this project: 50.000 in five years but at least 250.000 on the long term will make that sort of cooperation necessary.

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