Incunabula: Books from the birth of the printed word
Incunabula, a Latin word that means “in the cradle,” describes books created during the infancy of European printing, an era that spans the years 1455 to 1501.
These early books evolved from East Asian and Middle Eastern textile block prints as alternatives to costly hand-copied, scrolled manuscripts. Though this printing technique reached Europe in the early 1300s, woodcuts, as they became known, entered general use only where paper was available.
The first type of incunabula are block books – sets of sheets pasted back-to-back – developed from single-leaf devotional and playing card images. They were copied in reverse on wooden blocks, which were then inked, covered with sheets of dampened paper, and hand-rubbed with heavy leather balls. Their resulting impressions were uneven, and with repeated printings, their clarity and crispness deteriorated. Though this early type of incunabula was undated and did not include printer emblems, paper analysis has traced most examples to southern Germany and the Netherlands.
Typographic books, the second type of incunabula, were created using individual units of cast-metal, moveable, reusable type. Unlike woodcut printing, this technique produced quick, durable, uniform results. It also inspired the development of various typefaces.
The quality of Johannes Gutenberg’s Latin Bible from 1454, the first printed book in the West, did not just establish the superiority of moveable type. According to the Library of Congress site Incunabula, “Gutenberg’s most significant contribution to the history of printing consists of making metal punches, moulds, and matrices by which type could be accurately cast in large quantities. Freeing letters, number, and punctuation from the single woodcut meant that pages could be assembled and reassembled quickly.”
Many collectors seek portions of incunabula. A single leaf from the Gutenberg Bible – featuring decorative red and blue initials, headlines, chapter numbers, and capitals, and bound with A. Edward Newton’s essay A Noble Fragment, Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible 1450-1455 in luxurious black morocco leather – is a treasure.
Printers soon realized that combining metal type with ornamental woodcut lettering and illustrations on a single incunabula page increased its commercial value. As printing presses arose in cities such as Mainz, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Florence, and Venice, many graced their natural history, religious, and allegorical texts with carved woodcut images.
Orthographia, a monumental study of ancient Greek and Latin compiled by Johannes Tortellius between 1449 and 1495, is one example of illustrated text. So is the famed Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, which, in addition to boasting one of the largest print runs of its time, inspired several large-scale pirated editions. This ambitious work depicts the saga of human history, from the Creation through the Last Judgement, with more than 1,800 illustrations from more than 600 woodcuts.
In addition to portraying Biblical characters, popes, rulers, and European cityscapes, it features two of the earliest known printed (though imaginary) birds-eye views of Jerusalem, depicting Solomon’s Temple. According to Rehav Rubin, Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University, Jerusalem and author of Jerusalem in Maps and Views, both resemble the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built centuries later. Through the years, charming incunabula images such as these have been reproduced repeatedly to popular acclaim.
Many music-themed incunabula, discussing topics such as plainsong, mathematical aspects of theory, and rules of notation, were illustrated with carved block prints. Liturgical graduals (which we would know as hymnals) and antiphonals (which we would call chants) were needed in great numbers because they were performed during Mass. These publications required specialized graphics – staffs of continuous lines marked by symbols at varied heights, making them a challenge to produce. Initially, individual pages were block-printed entirely, or their text was type-printed, leaving space for hand-written melodies. Later, liturgical printers provided pages pre-impressed with evenly spaced staffs in traditional red ink, in the manner of medieval musical manuscripts. After black variously-shaped notes were impressed in place, a second impression added music texts, or vice-versa.
Some collectors seek incunabula by language, illustrations, country, city, edition, printer, or provenance. Others seek incunabula featuring specific subject matter, like science, mathematics, literature or religion. And still others value incunabula for their own sake, the sake of history. What unites them is a passion for the printed word in its earliest form, before people truly understood its formidable power to shape and change the world.