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Early Illustrated Books: A History of the Decoration and Illustration of Books in the 15th and 16th Centuries written by Alfred W. Pollard who was an English bibliographer. This book was published in 1927. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.

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Early Illustrated Books

A History of the Decoration and Illustration of Books in the 15th and 16th Centuries


Alfred W. Pollard

Table of Contents













This little book was written nearly a quarter of a century ago in the enthusiasm of a first acquaintance with a fascinating subject, and with an honest endeavour to see for myself as many as possible of the books I set out to describe. If I had tried to rewrite it now I might have made it more interesting to experts, but at the cost of destroying whatever merit it possesses as an introductory sketch. I have therefore been content to correct, as thoroughly as I could, its many small errors (not all of my own making), more especially those due to the ascription of books to impossible dates and printers, which before the publication of Robert Proctor's Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum, in 1898, was very difficult to avoid. In these emendations, and in getting the titles of foreign books into better form, I have had much kind help from Mr. Victor Scholderer of the British Museum. I am grateful also to Mr. E. Gordon Duff for his leave to use again the chapter on English Illustrated Books which he kindly wrote for me for the first edition.

A. W. P.


No point in the history of printing has been more rightly insisted on than that the early printers were compelled to make the very utmost of their new art in order to justify its right to exist. When a generation had passed by, when the scribes trained in the first half of the fifteenth century had died or given up the struggle, when printing-presses had invaded the very monasteries themselves, and clever boys no longer regarded penmanship as a possible profession, then, but not till then, printers could afford to be careless, and speedily began to avail themselves of their new license. In the early days of the art no such license was possible, and the striking similarity in the appearance of the printed books and manuscripts produced contemporaneously in any given city or district, is the best possible proof of the success with which the early printers competed with the most expert of the professional scribes.

All this is trite enough, but we are somewhat less frequently reminded that, after some magnificent experiments by Fust and Schoeffer at Mainz, the earliest printers deliberately elected to do battle at first with the scribes alone, and that in the fifteenth century the scribes were very far, indeed, from being the only persons engaged in the production of books. The subdivision of labour is not by any means a modern invention; on the contrary, it is impossible to read a list of the medieval guilds in any important town without being struck with the minuteness of the sections into which some apparently quite simple callings were split up. Of this subdivision of labour, the complex art of book-production was naturally an instance. For a proof of this, we need go no further than the records of the Guild of St. John the Evangelist at Bruges, in which, according to Mr. Blades's quotation of the extracts made by Van Praet, members of at least fourteen branches of industry connected with the manufacture of books joined together for common objects. In the fifteenth century a book of devotions, commissioned by some wealthy book-lover, such as the Duke of Bedford, might be written by one man, have its rubrics supplied by another, its small initial letters and borders by a third, and then be sent to some famous miniaturist in France or Flanders for final completion. The scribe only supplied the groundwork, all the rest was added by other hands, and it was only with the scribe that the early printers competed.

The restriction of their efforts to competition with the scribe alone, was not accepted by the first little group of printers until after some fairly exhaustive experiments. The interesting trial leaves, preserved in some copies of the 42-line Bible, differ from the rest not only in having their text compressed into two lines less, but also in having the rubrics printed instead of filled in by hand. Printing in two colours still involves much extra labour, and it was easier to supply the rubric by hand than to be at the pains of a second impression, even if this could be effected by the comparatively simple process of stamping. Except, therefore, in the trial leaves, the rubrics of the first Bible are all in manuscript. Peter Schoeffer, however, when he joined with the goldsmith Fust in the production of the magnificent Mainz Psalter of 1457, was not content to rely on the help of illuminators for his rubrics and capitals, or, as the disuse of the word majuscules makes it convenient to call them, initial letters. Accordingly, the Psalter appeared not only with printed rubrics, but with the magnificent B at the head of the first psalm, which has so often been copied, and some two hundred and eighty smaller initials, printed in blue and red.

Schoeffer's initial letters appear again in two editions of the Canon of the Mass attributed to 1458, in the Psalter of 1459, in the Rationale of Durandus of the same year, and in a Donatus printed in the type of the 1462 Bible. As Mr. Duff has pointed out, in some sheets of this Bible itself the red initial letters are printed and the outline of the blue ones impressed in blank for the guidance of the illuminator in filling them in. Thereafter Schoeffer seems to have kept his initials for special occasions, as in the 35-line Donatus issued c. 1468, perhaps when he was starting business for himself, and in the antiquarian reprints of the Psalter in and after 1490. Doubtless he was sorry when he could no longer print in the colophon of a book that it was 'venustate capitalium decoratus, rubricationibusque sufficienter distinctus,' but while illuminators were still plentiful, handwork was probably the least expensive process of decoration. It is noteworthy, also, that Mr. Duff's discovery as regards the 1462 Bible brings us down to the beginning of those troublous three years in the history of Mainz, during which Fust and Schoeffer only printed 'Bulls and other such ephemeral publications.' When they resumed the printing of important works in 1465 with the Decretals of Boniface VIII. and the De Officiis of Cicero, Schoeffer was content to leave decoration to the illuminator. The firm's expenses were thus diminished, and purchasers were able to economise in the amount of decoration bestowed upon the copy they were buying. It is noteworthy, indeed, that even in 1459, when he was habitually using his printed initial letters, Schoeffer did not refuse customers this liberty, for while one of the copies of the Rationale Durandi at the Bibliothèque Nationale has the initials printed, in the others they are illuminated by hand.

Very little attention has as yet been devoted to the study of the illumination and rubrication of printed books, and much patient investigation will be needed before we can attain any real knowledge of the relation of the illuminators to the early printers. Professor Middleton, in his work on Illuminated Manuscripts, had something to say on the subject, but the pretty little picture he drew of a scene in Gutenberg's (?) shop seems to have been rather hastily arrived at. 'The workshop,' he wrote, 'of an early printer included not only compositors and printers, but also cutters and founders of type, illuminators of borders and initials, and skilful binders, who could cover books with various qualities and kinds of binding. A purchaser in Gutenberg's shop, for example, of his magnificent Bible in loose sheets, would then have been asked what style of illumination he was prepared to pay for, and then what kind of binding, and how many brass bosses and clasps he wished to have.' What evidence there is on the subject hardly favours the theory which Professor Middleton thus boldly stated as a fact. The names we know in connection with the decoration of the 42-line Bible are those of Heinrich Cremer, vicar of the Church of St. Stephen at Mainz, who rubricated, illuminated, and bound the paper copy now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, and Johann Fogel, a well-known binder of the time, whose stamps are found on no fewer than three of the extant copies of this Bible. We have no reason to believe that either Cremer or Fogel was employed in the printer's shop, so that as regards the particular book which he instances, it is hard to see on what ground Professor Middleton built his assertion.

As regards Schoeffer's practice after 1462, the evidence certainly points to the majority of his books having been rubricated before they left his hands, but the variety of the styles in the copies I have seen, especially in those on vellum, forbids my believing that they were all illuminated in a single workshop. A copy in the British Museum of his 1471 edition of the Constitutions of Pope Clement V. presents us with an instance, rather uncommon in a printed book, though not infrequently found in manuscripts, of an elaborate border and miniatures, sketched out in pencil and prepared for gilding, but never completed. The book could hardly have been sold in this condition, and would not have been returned so from any illuminator's workshop. We must conjecture that it was sold unilluminated to some monastery, where its decoration was begun by one of the monks, but put aside for some cause, and never finished.

The utmost on this subject that we can say at present is that as a printer would depend for the sale of his books in the first place on the inhabitants of the town in which he printed, and as these would be most likely to employ an illuminator from the same place, the predominant style of decoration in any book is likely to be that of the district in which it was printed, and if we find the same style predominant in a number of books this may give us a clue to connect them altogether, or to distinguish them from some other group. In this way, for instance, it is possible that some light may be thrown on the question whether the 36-line Bible was finished at Bamberg or at Mainz. Certainly the clumsy, heavy initials in the British Museum copy are very unlike those which occur in Mainz books, and if this style were found to predominate in other copies we should have an important piece of new evidence on a much debated question. But our knowledge that Schoeffer had an agency for the sale of his books as far off from the place of their printing as Paris, the Italian character of the illuminations added to some of his books, and the occurrence of a note in a book printed in Italy that the purchaser could not wait to have it illuminated there, but entrusted it to a German artist on his return home, may suffice to warn us against any rash conclusion in the present very meagre state of our knowledge.

Apart from the question as to where they were executed, the illuminations in books printed in Germany are not, as a rule, very interesting. Germany was not the home of fine manuscripts during the fifteenth century, and her printed books depend for their beauty on the rich effect of their gothic types, their good paper and handsome margins, rather than on the accessories added by hand. The attempts of the more ambitious miniaturists to depict, within the limits of an initial, St. Jerome translating the Bible or David playing on the harp, are, for the most part, clumsy and ill-drawn. On the other hand, fairly good scroll-work of flowers and birds is not uncommon. As a rule it surrounds the whole page of text, but in some cases an excellent effect is produced by the stem of the design being brought up between the two columns of a large page, branching out at either end so as to cover the upper and lower margins, those at the sides being left bare. It may be mentioned that much good scroll-work is found on paper copies, the vellum used in early German books being usually coarse and brown, and sometimes showing the imperfections of the skin by holes as large as a filbert, so that it was employed apparently, chiefly for its greater resistance to wear and tear, rather than as a luxurious refinement, as was the case in Italy and France. An extreme instance of the superiority of a paper copy to one on vellum may be found by comparing the coarsely-rubricated 42-line Bible in the Grenville Collection at the British Museum with the very prettily illuminated copy of the same book in the King's Library. The Grenville copy is on vellum, the King's on paper; but my own preference has always been for the latter. Even in Germany, however, good vellum books were sometimes produced, for the printers endeavoured to match the skins fairly uniformly throughout a volume, and a book-lover of taste would not be slow to pick out the best copy. The finest German vellum book with which I am acquainted is the Lamoignon copy of the 1462 Bible, now in the British Museum. This was specially illuminated for a certain Conradus Dolea, whose name and initials are introduced into the lower border on the first page of the second volume. The scroll-work is excellent, and the majority of the large initials are wisely restricted to simple decorative designs. Only in a few cases, as at the beginning of the Psalms, where David is as usual playing his harp, is the general good taste which marks the volume disturbed by clumsy figure-work.

In turning from the illuminations of the first German books to those printed by Jenson and Vindelinus de Spira at Venice we are confronted with an interesting discovery, first noted by the Vicomte Delaborde in his delightful book La Gravure en Italie avant Marc-Antoine (p. 252), carried a little further in the Bibliographie des Livres à figures Venitiens, written by the Prince d'Essling when he was Duc de Rivoli, then greatly extended by the researches of Dr. Paul Kristeller, some of the results of which, when as yet unpublished, he kindly communicated to me, and finally summed up in the Prince d'Essling's magnificent work, Les Livres à figures Venitiens. In a considerable number—the list given me by Dr. Kristeller enumerated about forty—of the works published by Jenson and Vindelinus, from 1469 to 1473, the work of the illuminator has been facilitated in some copies by the whole or a portion of his design having been first stamped for him from a block. The evidence of this stamping is partly in the dent made in the paper or vellum, partly in the numerous little breaks in the lines where the block has not retained the ink; but I was myself lucky enough to find in the Grenville copy of the Virgil printed at Venice by Bartholomaeus de Cremona in 1472, an uncoloured example of this stamped work, which was reproduced in Bibliographica, and subsequently by the Prince d'Essling. A copy of the Pliny of 1469 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, illuminated by means of this device, has an upper and inner border of the familiar white elliptical interlacements on a gold and green ground. In the centre of the lower border is a shield supported by two children, and at the feet of each child is a rabbit. The outer border shows two cornucopias on a green and gold ground. The upper and inner borders are repeated again in the Livy and Virgil of 1470, in the Valerius Maximus of 1471, and in the Rhetorica of George of Trebizond of 1472. In this last book it is joined with another border, first found in the De Officiis of Cicero of the same year. All these books proceeded from the press of Johannes and Vindelinus de Spira. A quite distinct set of borders are found in Jenson's edition of Cicero's Epistolae ad Familiares of 1471; but in an article in the Archivio Storico delle Arti Dr. Kristeller showed that the lower border of the Pliny of 1469, described above, occurs again in a copy of the De Evangelica Praeparatione, printed by Jenson in 1470. The apparent distinction of the blocks used in the books of the two firms is thus broken down, and in face of the rarity of the copies thus decorated in comparison with those illuminated by hand, or which have come down to us with their blank spaces still unfilled, it seems impossible to maintain that either the preliminary engraving or the illumination was done in the printer's workshop. We should rather regard the engraving as a labour-saving device employed by some master illuminator to whom private purchasers sent the books they had purchased from the De Spiras or Jenson for decoration. No instance has as yet been found of a book printed after 1473 being illuminated in this way.[1]

Apart from the special interest of these particular borders, the illumination in early Italian books is almost uniformly graceful and beautiful. Interlacements, oftenest of white upon blue, sometimes of gold upon green, are the form of ornament most commonly met with. Still prettier than these are the floral borders, tapering off into little stars of gold. Elaborate architectural designs are also found, but these, as a rule, are much less pleasing. In the majority of the borders of all three classes a shield, of the graceful Italian shape, is usually introduced, sometimes left blank, sometimes filled in with the arms of the owner. More often than not this shield is enclosed in a circle of green bay leaves. The initial letters are, as a rule, purely decorative, the designs harmonising with the borders. In some instances they consist simply of a large letter in red or blue, without any surrounding scroll-work. We must also note that in some copies of books from the presses of the German printers at Rome we find large initial letters in red and blue, distinctly German in their design, the work, possibly, of the printers themselves.

Germany and Italy are the only two countries in which illumination plays an important part in the decoration of early books. In England, where the Wars of the Roses had checked the development of a very promising native school of illuminators, the use of colour in printed books is almost unknown. The early issues from Caxton's press, before he began to employ printed initials, are either left with their blanks unfilled, or rubricated in the plainest possible manner. In France, the scholastic objects of the press at the Sorbonne, and the few resources of the printers who succeeded it during the next seven or eight years, at first forbade any serious competition with the splendid manuscripts which were then being produced. In Holland and Spain woodcut initials, which practically gave the death-blow to illumination as a necessary adjunct of a book, were introduced almost simultaneously with the use of type.

So far we have considered illumination merely as a means of completing in a not immoderately expensive manner the blanks left by the earliest printers. We may devote a few pages to glancing at the subsequent application of the art to the decoration of special copies intended for presentation to a patron, or commissioned by a wealthy book-lover. The preparation of such copies was practically confined to France and Italy. A copy on vellum of the Great Bible of 1540, presented to Henry VIII. by his 'loving, faithfull and obedient subject and daylye oratour, Anthony Marler of London, Haberdassher,' has the elaborate woodcut title-page carefully painted over by hand, but this is almost the only English book of which I can think in which colour was thus employed. In Germany its use was only too common, but for popular, not for artistic work, for at least two out of every three early German books with woodcut illustrations have the cuts garishly painted over in the rudest possible manner, to the great defacement of the outlines, which we would far rather see unobscured. It is tempting, indeed, to believe that in many cases this deplorable addition must have been the work of the 'domestic' artist; it is certainly rare to find an instance in which it in any way improves the underlying cut.

In France and Italy, on the other hand, the early printers were confronted by many wealthy book-lovers, accustomed to manuscripts adorned with every possible magnificence, and in a few instances they found it worth while to cater for their tastes. For this purpose they employed the most delicate vellum (very unlike the coarse material used by the Germans for its strength) decorating the margins with elaborate borders, and sometimes prefixing a coloured frontispiece. In France this practice was begun by Guillaume Fichet and Jean Heynlyn, the managers of the press at the Sorbonne. Several magnificent copies of early Sorbonne books—so sober in their ordinary dress—are still extant, to which Fichet has prefixed a large miniature representing himself in his clerical garb presenting a copy of the book to the Pope, to our own Edward IV., to Cardinal Bessarion, or to other patrons. In some cases he also prefixed a specially printed letter of dedication, thereby rendering the copy absolutely unique. Some twenty years later this practice of preparing special copies for wealthy patrons was resumed by Antoine Vérard, whose enterprise has bequeathed to the Bibliothèque Nationale a whole row of books thus specially decorated for Charles VIII., and to the British Museum a no less splendid set commissioned by Henry VII. Nor were Vérard's patrons only found among kings, for a record still exists of four books thus ornamented by him for Charles d'Angoulême, at a total cost of over two hundred livres, equivalent to rather more than the same number of pounds sterling of our present money.

Vérard's methods of preparing these magnificent volumes were neither very artistic nor very honest. The miniatures are thickly painted, so that an underlying woodcut, on quite a different subject, was sometimes utilised to furnish the artist with an idea for the grouping of the figures. Thus a cut from Ovid's Metamorphoses, representing Saturn devouring his children and a very unpleasing figure of Venus rising from the sea, was converted into a Holy Family by painting out the Venus and reducing Saturn's cannibal embrace to an affectionate fondling. This process of alteration and painting out was also employed by Vérard to conceal the fact that these splendid copies were often not of his own publication, but commissioned by him from other publishers. Thus Henry VII.'s copy of L'Examen de Conscience has the colophon, in which it is stated to have been printed for Pierre Regnault of Rouen, rather carelessly erased, and in Charles VIII.'s copy of the Compost et Kalendrier des Bergers (1493)[2] Guiot Marchant's device has been concealed by painting over it the royal arms, while the colophon in which his name appears has been partly erased, partly covered over by a painted copy of Vérard's well-known device. Vérard's borders, also, are as a rule heavy, consisting chiefly of flowers and arabesques arranged in clumsy squares or lozenges. Altogether these princely volumes are perhaps rather magnificent than in good taste.

The custom of illuminating the cuts in vellum books was not practised only by Vérard. Almost all the French publishers of Books of Hours resorted to it—at first, while the illumination was carefully done, with very splendid effect, afterwards to the utter ruin of the beautiful designs which the colour concealed. Under Francis I. illumination seems to have revived, for we hear of a vellum copy of the De Philologia of Budæus, printed by Ascensius (1532), having its first page of text enclosed in a rich border in which appear the arms of the dukes of Orleans and Angoulême to whom it was dedicated. In another work by Budæus (himself a book-lover as well as a scholar), the De Transitu Hellenismi, printed by Robert Estienne in 1535, the portrait and arms of Francis I. are enclosed in another richly illuminated border, and the King's arms are painted in other books printed about this time. In a vellum copy of a French Bible printed by Jean de Tournes at Lyons in 1557, there are over three hundred miniatures, and borders to every page. Even by the middle of the seventeenth century the use of illumination had not quite died out in France, though it adds nothing to the beauty of the tasteless works then issued from the French presses. One of the latest instances in which I have encountered it is in a copy presented to Louis XIV. of La Lyre du Jeune Apollon, ou la Muse naissante du Petit de Beauchasteau (Paris, 1657); in this the half-title is surrounded by a wreath of gold, and surmounted by a lyre, the title is picked out in red, blue, and gold, and the headpieces and tailpieces throughout the volume are daubed over with colour. By the expenditure of a vast amount of pains, a dull book is thus rendered both pretentious and offensive.

In Italy, the difference between ordinary copies of early books and specially prepared ones, is bridged over by so many intermediate stages of decoration that we are obliged to confine our attention to one or two famous examples of sumptuous books. The Italian version of Pliny, made by Cristoforo Landino and printed by Jenson in 1476, exists in such a form as one of the Douce books (No. 310) in the Bodleian Library. This copy has superb borders at the beginning of each book, and is variously supposed to have been prepared for Ferdinand II., King of Naples, and for a member of the Strozzi family of Florence, the arms of both being frequently introduced into the decoration. Still more superb are the three vellum copies of Giovanni Simoneta's Historia delle cose facte dallo invictissimo Duca Francesco Sforza, translated (like the Pliny) by Cristoforo Landino, and printed by Antonio Zarotto at Milan in 1490. These copies were prepared for members of the Sforza family, portraits of whom are introduced in the borders. The decoration is florid, but superb of its kind, and provoked Dibdin to record his admiration of the copy now in the Grenville Library as 'one of the loveliest of membranaceous jewels' it had ever been his fortune to meet with. For many years in a case devoted to specimens of illuminated printed books in the King's Library the British Museum used to exhibit vellum copies of the Aldine Martial of 1501, and Catullus of 1502, and side by side with them, printed respectively just twelve years later, and also on vellum, an Aulus Gellius and Plautus presented by Giunta, the Florentine rival of Aldus, to the younger Lorenzo de' Medici.

The use of illumination in printed books was a natural and pleasing survival of the glories of the illuminated manuscript. Its discontinuance was in part a sign of health as testifying to the increased resources of the printing press; in part a symptom of the carelessness as to the form of books which by the end of the seventeenth century had become well-nigh universal throughout Europe. So long as a few rich amateurs cared for copies of their favourite authors printed on vellum, and decorated by the hands of skilful artists, a high standard of excellence was set up which influenced the whole of the book-trade, and for this reason the revival of the use of vellum in our own day may perhaps be welcomed. It may be noted that the especially Italian custom of introducing the arms of the owner into the majority of illuminated designs left its trace in the blank shields which so frequently form the centre of the printed borders in Italian books from 1490 to 1520. Theoretically these shields were intended to be filled in with the owner's arms in colour, but they are more often found blank. Two examples of their use are here shown, one from the upper border of the Calendar, printed at Venice in 1476 (the first book with an ornamental title-page), the other from the lower border of the first page of text of the Trabisonda Istoriata, printed also at Venice in 1494. We may note also that the parallel custom of inserting the arms of the patron to whom a book was dedicated was carried on in Spain in a long series of title-pages, in which the arms of the patron form the principal feature.

From the Calendar of 1476.


From La Trabisonda Historiata of 1494.

In England, also, a patron's coat was sometimes printed as one of the decorations of a book. Thus on the third leaf of the first edition of the Golden Legend there is a large woodcut of a horse galloping past a tree, the device of the Earl of Arundel, the patron to whom Caxton owed his yearly fee of a buck in summer and a doe in winter. So, too, in the Morton Missal, printed by Pynson in 1500, the Morton arms occupy a full page at the beginning of the book. Under Elizabeth and James I.