Glasgow Incunabula Project update (7/5/14)

It is always interesting to come across a less than perfectly finished incunable as a reminder that printing in the 15th century was a new technology and that mistakes could creep in. The quality of craftmanship evident in most incunabula is so high that it is sometimes easy to forget about the time consuming and laborious nature of early printing. Coming across occasional errors also, somehow, makes the early printers (some of whom I am now almost regarding as personal friends) more human and alive. We can all of us, after all, have a bad day at the office …

Error in imposition

Error in imposition (Sp Coll Hunterian Bx.2.5)

So our first highlighted book from this batch includes a delightfully obvious error in imposition – that is, a mistake has been made in arranging the type for printing, here resulting in pages appearing out of order. In our copy, folio 238v is not only printed upside down, but also contains the text for a totally incorrect page – leaf 229r. The book (a commentary on part of the New Testament) was printed in 1476 in Augsburg. Although the printer does not actually attach his name to the work in the colophon, we know that the work was produced by Johann Wiener. He is one of the many printers who worked for only a short time and very little seems to be known about him – his entire output of books amounts to only twelve items. He is undoubtedly one of the “crowd of transient and financially embarrassed phantoms” that populated the precarious business of early printing (as Scholderer has romantically put it)*.

A heading mistake follows

A heading mistake follows (Sp Coll Hunterian By.1.6)

Our second example (a work by Petrus de Abano on medicine) contains a far less obvious mistake, but our attention is actually drawn to it by the printer. An incorrect  heading has been provided for the forty-second ‘differentia’ on folio 88r, wrongly numbering it as 64 (‘LXIII’); the mistake is highlighted by a note at the foot of the preceding page (folio 87v) insisting that differentia 42 follows, quoting the beginning of its text as confirmation: SEQuITVR DIFFERENTIA XLII. Que incipit Quod caro sit organum tactus.

This book was the work of two printers –  Johannes Vurster and Thomas Septemcastrensis – who teamed up to produce this edition for the Carmelite Ludovicus de Cremona in Mantua in 1472. Examination of where this error has occurred gives us an insight into how this book was printed. The erroneous heading is found  at the beginning of the first page of quire [k], while the mistake is noted on the last page of quire [i]. This indicates that quire [k] must already have been been printed off when quire [i] was set up. As the BM catalogue therefore concludes, quire [k] “no doubt marks the beginning of the section assigned to the second of several presses working on the book”. So this is actually a good example of the pitfalls of printing material out of sequence using several different presses. Early printing is rife with many short lived partnerships, enterprises and mergers as different printers moved around and sought success by consolidating forces, for however brief a period. For example, we know that Vurster was involved with printing only four books in Mantua and next moved on to Bologna and then Modena, while his erstwhile one book only partner  Septemcastrensis is known to have printed only one other book in Mantua (with a different printer) before also relocating to Modena.

Unfinished decoration

Unfinished decoration (Sp Coll Hunterian By.1.6)

This same book also has a nice example of unfinished decoration. The immense task of completing hundreds of copies of books scribally has already been discussed in a previous blog. In this case, two major initials have been supplied in ink but the surrounding planned white-vine stem style decoration has not been completed and is represented only by preliminary pen-and-ink outline drawings.

Historiated initial by the Pliny Master

Historiated initial by the Pliny Master (Sp Coll Hunterian By.1.6)

And since we have moved on to decoration, I cannot finish this blog without mentioning our very finely executed copy of the works of Petrarch (Padua:  Bartholomaeus de Valdezoccho and Martinus de Septem Arboribus, 6 Nov. 1472) which – try as I might – I cannot actually find anything wrong with.

As well as a stylish opening page decorated with a pen-and-ink architectural border, it includes eight historiated initials supplied in pen-and-ink and heightened with wash. The decoration is attributed to the London Pliny Master – so named after the Jenson Pliny of 1472 (held in the British Library). He was principal associate of the equally descriptively named artist, the ‘Master of the Putti’, who was active in Venice between 1469 and 1473. The Pliny Master has been identified as working on a number of volumes, and this book shows his work at the outset of his career.

* Scholderer, Victor: ‘Printing at Venice to the end of 1481’ The Library, vol. V (1924)  p. 147

The latest ten books described on the project website are:


Categories: Special Collections

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