Essays in librarianship and bibliography/On some colophons of the early printers

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ON SOME COLOPHONS OF THE EARLY PRINTERS[1]


The paper to which I am about to invite attention belongs to the class which Mr. Chancellor Christie has very justly entitled "haphazard papers," lying outside the proper work of the Library Association, and contributing little or nothing to promote it. It is written to recommend a slight literary undertaking which could not possibly find a place in the programme of our body. It can only plead that a certain variety has always been thought conducive to the interest of our gatherings; that it may be well to show that no province of book-lore is altogether too remote for our attention; and that a prolusion on an out-of-the-way subject may have, so to speak, a kind of decorative value; as a sprig of barberries, though nobody wants to eat it, may serve as garnish for a substantial dish. The little enterprise I have to recommend is the publishing, in a small volume, of such colophons, or attestations of the completion of a book by a printer, as belong to the fifteenth century, and possess individual features of interest, not being mere matter-of-fact announcements or repetitions from former productions of the same press.

There are two main sources of interest in the colophon—the biographical and the personal. Taking the former first, it may be remarked that for a long time the colophon supplied the place of the title-page. It would be impossible to give a catalogue of very early title-pages, for very early books had no title-pages. In his charming and beautifully illustrated papers on the "History of the Title-Page," recently published in the Universal Review—which I strongly recommend to your perusal—Mr. Alfred Pollard, of the British Museum, tells us that the first English title-page is assigned to the year 1491. It had come into use sooner on the Continent, but the first example, which still requires to be definitely ascertained, was probably not earlier than 1476, or more than twenty years subsequent to the invention of printing. It was not until 1490 that title-pages became the rule, or until 1493 that the printer's or publisher's name began to be given upon the title. Up to this date, then, even when the book has a title-page, the printer or publisher can only be ascertained from the colophon, and before 1490 you must generally go to the colophon even for the description of the book. The reason is, no doubt, the extent to which the printer was influenced by the example of his predecessor, the copyist. It was more natural for the scribe to record the completion of his labours at the end of his manuscript than to announce their commencement on the first leaf. In expressing his satisfaction and thankfulness on the last page he would naturally mention the name of the book he had been engaged upon, and hence his successor, the printer, inherited the habit of giving all information about a book not stated in a prologue or table of contents, at the end instead of at the beginning—in a colophon rather than on a title-page. The same custom had prevailed in classic times. The ancient title, when inscribed within the covers of the manuscript, was, says Rich, "written at the end instead of the commencement, at least it is so placed in all the Herculanean MSS. which have been unrolled." Sometimes, however, it was written on a separate label affixed to the roll so as to hang down outside: and on the same principle it may be conjectured that when manuscripts came to be bound, much of the inconvenience occasioned by the want of a title was obviated by the title being written on the binding.

It must, nevertheless, seem surprising that so simple and useful a contrivance as a title-page should not have been thought of sooner. In one respect, however, the employment of the colophon for so long a period is not to be regretted. If the title-page is more practical, the colophon is more individual and characteristic. The title-page may tell us something of the character of the author when it is his own wording, but as a rule nothing of the printer beyond the bare facts of his locality and his existence. But into the colophon the early printer has managed to put a great deal of information about himself. He often becomes, or at least hires, a poet. He boasts, and generally not without ground, of his industry and accuracy. He usually records the precise day when his work was completed, and sometimes the exact time spent upon it. He sometimes, as in an instance quoted by Mr. Pollard, brings in a bishop to help his book with a recommendation.

All this is very interesting so far as it helps to make the old printers real to us. We would fain know more of men to whom we are so greatly indebted, and who, we are sure, must have been individually interesting. I will not say that this early age was the heroic age of printing, for the history of the art is fertile in examples of heroism down to this day; and perhaps the greatest man who ever exercised it—Benjamin Franklin—was a modern. But there certainly must have been a romance about the early days of printing not easily reproduced now. Romantic circumstances must have attended the flight of the first printers from the besieged city of Mentz, where the art had been exclusively carried on for so many years.

When we see how largely these German emigrants settled in Italy and France, and had almost a monopoly of Spain, we perceive that they must have been men of great enterprise. How did they overcome the difficulties that must have beset them as settlers in foreign countries? Is it not a fair conjecture that the difficulty of language was partly overcome by their being men of liberal education, and speaking Latin? Still they would have workmen to direct; did they bring journeymen of their own country with them, or instruct foreigners? The interest attaching to this question tempts me to a brief digression into a subject not properly comprised in my essay; the colophon, so far as I am aware, throwing no light upon it. It seems probable that foreign printers were attended in their migrations by bodies of journeymen; for in the privilege granted by the Venetian Senate in 1469 to Joannes de Spira, the first Venetian printer, he is said to have come to live in Venice with his wife, his children, and his entire familia. The familia, then, is expressly distinguished from his wife and children; besides which the word never means in the classical writers, nor, so far as I can discover, in the mediæval either, family in our sense of kindred, but only in that of household: and as he is not likely to have brought domestic servants with him, must be understood to denote here the troop of workmen of whom he was the head; who had evidently also immigrated with him. We are also told that a priest, Clemente Patavino, probably the first Italian who ever exercised the art of printing, taught himself by his own ingenuity, without having ever seen any one at work. From this we may infer that the presses were jealously guarded, and that the workmen were not Italians, or Clemente could not have been the first Italian to learn the craft. His first book was printed in 1471, several years after the introduction of printing into Italy.

Other interesting questions respecting the early printers remain which we should much like to have answered. Did they try to keep their art and mystery secret? Were they their own type-founders? Were their types cast near the scene of their labours, or transported from great distances? How did they set about obtaining the favour of the great men who patronised them? Was their discovery universally welcomed by the learned? or did some consider that books were low, and manuscripts alone worthy the attention of a self-respecting collector? Were they stunned by the objurgations of angry copyists? or endangered by any supposed connection with the black art? Were they in general their own editors and proof-correctors? and what were their relations with the scholars who aided them with annotations, or wrote dedications for their books? At a considerably later period we obtain most satisfactory insight into the economy of a great printing establishment from the memoirs of the house of Plantin, at Antwerp. For these early times, except for such information as may be derived from the accidental discovery of contracts and similar documents, we must depend upon hints gleaned from the books themselves, which are usually found in their colophons.

Neither my time nor yours would admit of my entering into the matter very deeply at present, but I have selected a few instances, entirely from books printed at Rome and Venice, which may serve to indicate what illumination colophons may occasionally contribute to the obscurity of early typography, and sometimes to that of the manners and ideas of the times. And here I may remark incidentally, that the history of early printing is highly creditable to the age which fostered the art, and to those who exercised it, without, one may almost say, producing a single frivolous book for fifty years. An account of it mainly from the point of view of its contact with human life—the books which the early printers thought worth reproducing, the success of these, as attested by the comparative frequency of their republication, the proportion in which studies and professions, arts and trades, respectively benefited by the new discovery, would make a fascinating story in the hands of a writer of insight and sympathy. We have materials enough; it is now required to make the dry bones live.

In a colophon it will naturally be expected that among the sentiments more frequently finding expression, should be the printer's joy in his art, and assertion of its claims to admiration. Udalricus Gallus, of Rome, boasts that he can print more matter in a day than a copyist can transcribe in a year: "Imprimit ille die quantum non scribitur anno." The same printer tells the geese that saved the Capitol that they may keep their quills for the future, as the cock (Gallus) has cut them out. Joannes de Spira, the first printer established at Venice, declares that his first attempt has so far surpassed the work of the scribes that the reader need set no bounds to his anticipations; just as an electric light company might advertise "Gas entirely superseded." He celebrates his type as more legible than manuscript:

"Namque vir ingenio mirandus et arte Joannes
   Exscribi docuit clarius ære libros."

Now the word docuit (taught] is not really appropriate to one who merely exercised an art he had learned from others. The question might be raised whether the reference is not to the inventor of printing, Joannes Gutenberg, and whether in this book of 1469 we have not the earliest testimony to his invention of printing. If so, this is indeed a precious colophon; but I suppose it must be admitted to be more likely that Spira was thinking of himself, or that his poet was not over-discriminating in his praise of his employer. The point, however, is worth considering. Spira's brother, Vindelinus, enunciates the excellent maxim that the renown of a printer is rather to be estimated by the beauty than by the number of his productions:

"Nee vero tantum quia multa volumina, quantum
   Qui perpulchra simul optimaque exhibeat."

Nothing, indeed, is more characteristic of the early printers than the stress they laid upon accuracy. From another colophon we learn that an edition of Sallust at that early period consisted of five hundred copies. In another the same printer declares that he will deign to sell nothing that is not perfectly correct. In another he talks of having carefully expurgated his author, as if he had been printing Juvenal or Martial, but as the author is a divine the remark can only refer to the correctness of the text. John of Cologne goes further still, and asserts that his book is absolutely immaculate:

"Emptor, habes careant omni qui crimine libri,
Quos securus emas, procul et quibus exulat error."

Occasionally the corrector's name is mentioned. A remarkable instance of this is where Vindelinus de Spira prints an Italian book, the "Divine Comedy," the language of which he probably would not understand, when Christoval Berardi, of Pesaro, is especially named as the corrector in an Italian sonnet probably composed by himself. In an instance of an arithmetical work the printer, Erhard Ratdolt, distinctly claims the merit of the correctness of the press as his personal merit, and we learn from other sources that he was a good mathematician.

Another class of colophon sets forth the deserts of the author instead of those of the printer, and it is noteworthy that these, when in verse, are generally expressed in a more elegant style. It is to be regretted that the verses written for Sweynheym and Pannartz, the fathers of the art in Italy, were generally so bad; yet there is something to be learned from them. We discover that, they thought it necessary to apologise for their uncouth German names (Aspera ridebis Teutonica nomina forsan); and that a Roman patrician named Maximus—a man to be ever honoured for his public spirit—had given them and their press house-room in his palace. We learn from other colophons that an edition of Sallust consisting of four hundred copies, and that two editions of Cicero's Epistles to his friends, were carried through the press in four months. The comparative cheapness of typography is also a frequent matter of congratulation. It is said to have brought Virgil within the reach of all scholars, and to have enabled every man to be his own lawyer; but the printer seldom tells us what the price of the volume was. We observe that the trade of the book-producer has not yet become differentiated into the two great classes of printers and publishers. While, as before remarked, there is every reason to conclude that the early printers were persons of liberal education, we do not, so far as I am aware, find evidence of this mechanical craft being exercised by men of gentle blood. I have, however, already mentioned the priestly printer, Clemente Patavino, and a colophon reveals that the printers of one book were two priests. One rather wonders what became meanwhile of their religious duties. I suppose that a priest would not in general have been allowed to follow a secular calling, at least openly, but in this instance of printing there is no attempt at concealment. A circumstance honourable in its way to the craft to which we owe our existence, and suggesting that the ecclesiastical authorities of the fifteenth century thought of printers as our friend Mr. Dewey rightly tells we ought to think of librarians.

Enough, perhaps, has been said to warrant the suggestion of a little book of colophons, bringing together what must now be laboriously hunted up from Panzer, Hain, and similar authorities. Its principal aim should be to collect whatever might illustrate the feelings with which the ancient printers regarded themselves and their art in the fifteenth century; but every colophon should also be given which throws a light on contemporary history and public feeling on any subject. I should, for instance, include that in which the peaceful character of Paul II.'s pontificate is recognised by the epithet "placatissimum," and any that conveyed a compliment to a king, doge, or any leading personage of the time. Such a little volume, tastefully executed, something after the pattern of Monsieur Müntz's delightful little book in the Vatican Library under Platina, would, I believe, be a favourite companion with many an amateur of ancient typography.

In conclusion, I may say a few words respecting what we are endeavouring to do at the British Museum for the illustration of early printing. Of the little exhibition of title-pages and colophons displayed at the Association's visit to the Museum yesterday, since you have all seen it, I need only say that the credit of collecting and arranging it is entirely due to Mr. Pollard, whose essay on the subject I have already recommended to your perusal. A more permanent collection is contemplated, which I believe will be of substantial benefit to the study of ancient printing. When the requisite funds are procured, as it is hoped will shortly be the case, it is intended to provide additional glazed presses in the library, with the view of bringing together examples of every description of type used by a printer of incunabula, that is, of books produced during the fifteenth century. Mr. Aldrich, a gentleman deeply versed in typographic lore, to whom the selection of these examples will be entrusted, will arrange them as far as possible in the alphabetical order of the towns where the art of printing was exercised, keeping the works of each printer together. This collection, though not shown to the public, will always be accessible to experts. Its value to them is obvious, and we hope it will also be of material service in disclosing the numerous deficiencies of the Museum in representative specimens of early type, and prompting efforts to make them good. There is no idea of assembling together all the incunabula in the Museum, which would be impracticable for many reasons, but only representative examples of the various types. The foundation, however, of a general catalogue of incunabula has been laid in a manner which I have previously stated to the American Library Association, namely, by printing copies of the catalogue on one side only. When the catalogue is finished we shall, by merely cutting out the entries of any particular description of books, obtain a classed catalogue of the entire subject, among others, of our incunabula; this list can be placed in the reading-room for general reference, and, if sufficient encouragement is forthcoming, be reprinted and published as a distinct catalogue, revised with the careful attention to minutiæ which would be out of place in a general working catalogue like that of the entire library, but which may well be expected in a speciality. The standard of accuracy has risen, and bibliographers are dissatisfied with what many deemed excessive nicety when the Museum rules were framed. It is improbable that I shall have any concern with this catalogue of the future: if I had, I would ask the Trustees' leave to dedicate it to the memory of the man to whom we are chiefly indebted for this particular development of scientific cataloguing—Henry Bradshaw.

  1. Read at the Annual Meeting of the Library Association, London, October 1889.