Pure Gold

Both the Roman, Pliny (ca. 61–113) and the Greek historian, Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BC), mention gilding; the latter writing that the Egyptians gilded wood and metal. It has been used in decorating ceramics, in art, and at least from the fifth century in the production of illuminated manuscripts, reaching its peak in the especially exquisite illuminated Books of Hours produced from the thirteenth century.

Although the term “illuminated manuscript” is often used to describe all decorated manuscripts, strictly speaking, it refers to those ornamented with gold and silver. The gold reflects light and therefore literally illuminates the page. From the late fifteenth century, printed illustrations (though still most often hand-colored) replace the illuminated manuscript.

First printing in gold


Giovanni Mocenigo, Doge of Venice, from 1478 to 1485, to whom Ratdolt dedicated his first edition of Euclid’s Elements, May 1482.

The German, Erhard Ratdolt was undoubtedly one of the greatest innovators in printing during the fifteenth century. In addition to being the very first to use a title-page and among the very first to print diagrams and in multiple colors, he is also the first to print in gold. In several copies of his edito princeps (first edition) of Euclid’s Elements (Venice, 1482) he printed the dedication to the Doge of Venice, Giovanni Mocenigo, in gold. The book also contains some 400 geometrical diagrams (more about those in a future article).

Zacharias Callierges (ca. 1473–after 1524) began printing in Venice in 1499. By 1515 he had transferred his press to Rome, where surprisingly, he was the first to print in Greek. See Greek Scholars in Venice, D. Geanakoplos, pp. 201–22.

In fact, during the incunabula, he is only one of two printers who experimented with printing with gold; the other being the Cretan printer and calligrapher, Zacharias Callierges, best known for his Greek press. In 1499, he printed a folio edition of a Byzantine Greek dictionary, Etymologicum Magnum Graecum, (ISTC: ie00112000) for Nicolaus Blastus and Anna Notaras; in some copies the headpieces and initals are printed in gold. Whereas the illuminators of medieval manuscripts prepared their liquid gold ink or shell gold by combining flaked gold with gum arabic, it appears that Ratdolt first dusted the paper or vellum with a powdered adhesive and then applied gold leaf to the surface of heated type. That gold leaf rather than a gold ink was used is clearly evident from the specks of gold that, under magnification, are clearly visible across the entire page – remnants from the brushing away of the excess gold leaf. With this process, upon impression, the lightly heated type melts the adhesive, with the gold leaf clinging to the page, whereupon the excess is dusted off. This is incredibly tricky. Overheat the type and one risks scorching the vellum or paper; under-heat it, and the gold will fail to adhere to the page.

Euclid’s Elements, printed on May 25, 1482 in Venice, by Erhard Ratdolt. The dedication, printed in gold, is the first extant example of printing with gold. Image courtesy of Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek.

Ratdolt again printed in gold on his return to Augsburg, in the preface of an edition of Johannes de Thwrocz’s Chronica Hungarorum (1488; ISTC: it00361000), though this time with gold ink rather than gold leaf. He used gold a third and last time in the colophon of Conrad Peutinger’s Romanae vetustatis fragmenta (1505; USTC: 691414).

Book of Hours, illuminated manuscript on vellum. Southern Netherlands (Ghent or Bruges), ca. 1500. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s
Tradition has it that Johannes Numeister was a disciple of Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz. He later moved to Foligno in Italy, returned to Germany to print Torquemada’s Meditations (1479), and later headed to France, printing in Albi and Lyon.

Gold does appear in printed books prior to Ratdolt’s edition of Euclid. The first page of a Dante’s Divine Comedy printed by Johann Neumeister at Foligno in 1472 (ISTC: id00022000) is, in some copies, richly decorated with a colorful border on a gold background, and gold capitals. But these letters are gilded, not printed with gold. The underlying forms are printed, then over-painted with gold pigment. An even earlier example of gold is to be found in a book put out by Fust and Schoeffer (1465), where, in some copies, the headings are written in gold (chrysography).

These days, with the easy availability of good gold inks (most a mixture of copper and zinc), printing in gold – even letterpress printing – is considerably easier; but just as alluring.

Contemporary printing in gold, 500 years on: Letterpress print, Forever Blond, in gold by Susanna Dulkinys & Erik Spiekermann of galerie p98a. Image © galerie p98a

The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques.
A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. – Christopher De Hamel.
Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475-1540 – Freyda Spira & Gregory Jecmen.
Printing with gold in the fifteenth century, Victor Carter, Lotte Hellinga, et al., The British Library Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring 1983), pp. 1–13.