Glasgow Incunabula Project update (15/7/14)

Three books from the celebrated press of Nicolaus Jenson feature in this batch of incunabula.


Colophon from Antoninus Florentinus: Summa theologica. Pars III (1477)


Gratian (1474)

Originally from France, Nicolaus Jenson worked as a cutter of coinage for the royal mint, and is said then to have studied printing in Mainz. He was subsequently one of the most successful immigrant printers to settle in Venice.  His was the second printing shop to be established in the city (after that of the de Spiras), and his first books appeared in 1470.

Like other early printers, he began by concentrating on producing editions of Latin classical texts and grammars. By 1473, however, an over production of the classics had resulted in a glut and collapse in the Venetian book market. Jenson managed to survive the crisis and stayed in business by forming syndicates with other businesses and by diversifying – moving into the fields of law, theology and medicine. His firm ‘Nicolaus Jenson et Socii’ continued to print books until 1481.

The books here all date from the middle period of his career when he was producing books of the highest quality and craftsmanship. They nicely demonstrate the widening subject coverage of his output; one is a work on theology, one a Bible and one a legal text.

All large and long, the biggest of them all is the Decretum of Gratian – a vast work on canon law. origianlly ritten in the 12th century, it deals with pastoral problems, ecclesiastical discipline, church administration and monastic conduct. It survives in several hundred manuscript copies, many of which are illustrated by miniatures. This is one of the first legal texts that Jenson printed.

Gothic typefaces

Gothic typefaces

Esteemed for his contribution to the development of typography, much of Jenson’s fame lies in the clear roman typeface that he utilized in producing his classical texts. Such roman lettering, however, was associated with the new humanist learning, and Gothic was regarded as the more appropriate typeface for use in printing law books. Jenson used two gothic founts in this book. They are both similar in format but one is smaller than the other; he was thus able to present both the text and gloss together on the same page, similar to the layout of contemporary legal manuscripts.

Unfinished drawing

Unfinished drawing – probably intended for a miniature

Jenson also followed in the tradition of illustrated manuscript Gratians by deliberately leaving spaces for the insertion of miniatures. In our copy, 33 pen-and-ink drawings occupy some of these blanks, illustrating scenes from the examples of canon law described in the text. All uncoloured, they are probably designs for miniatures that were never painted. On the other hand, a scheme of differently sized initials is found throughout, all perfectly coloured and illuminated. We do not know why our illustrations were never completed, but their unfinished state gives us another fascinating glimpse into the complexity of organizing manuscript decoration, involving perhaps a number of different artists or workshops.

If you are interested in finding more books printed by Jenson, follow the links in our printer’s index.

The latest ten books to be added to the project website are:

Categories: Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on jamesgray2 and commented:
    This is a great blog!

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