Creating Grand Gargantua

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. 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.

History of the Book on Flickr.

previous post: Molten glass

next post: Web Fonts