February 03, 2004
Paul Johnson on the early spread of printing

Paul Johnson's vast book called Art: A New History (all 777 pages of it) is a most inconvenient volume. It is very big and heavy and unwieldy, and almost every page seems to contain beautiful illustrations of one sort or another. Also, my copy of it was purchased brand new, which is not my usual practice at all. To me books are cheap and expendable, and meanwhile to be treated without care, preferably purchased second hand for next to nothing. Trying to read this book is like having a priceless first edition on my desk all the time, which it may one day be, I suppose. Yet despite all this, as the posting yesterday (see immediately below) illustrates, I am now dipping into this book, and today I came across an interesting description in it of the early spread of the very printing technology, the modern manifestation of which made this book possible.

At least when reading Paul Johnson's book I don't have to worry about spilling coffee on a Gutenberg Bible. Here's how he describes (on pp. 200-201) the way that was created:

In the years 1446-48, two Mainz goldsmiths, Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, made use of cheap paper to introduce a critical improvement in the way written pages were reproduced. Printing from wooden blocks was an old method. The Romans used it in textiles. It was the means by which the Mongol Empire ran a paper currency. By 1400, on both sides of the Alps, devotional pictures and playing-cards were being mass-produced by this method. What the Mainz team did was to invent moveable type for the letterpress. It had three merits: it could be used repeatedly until worn out. It was cast in metal from a mould and so could be renewed without difficulty. And it made lettering uniform. In 1450, Gutenberg began work on his Bible, the first printed book, known as the Gutenberg, or Forty-Two-Line Bible, from the number of lines on each page. It was completed in 1455 and is a marvel. As Gutenberg, apart from getting the key idea, had to solve a lot of practical problems, such as typefounding and punch-cutting, devices for imposing paper and ink into the process, and the actual printing itself, for which he adapted the screw-press used by vintners, it is amazing that his first product does not look at all rudimentary. Those who handle it are struck by its clarity and quality. It is a triumph of fifteenth-century German craftsmanship at its best. Indeed, it is a work of art, in the true sense: the application of manual and intellectual skills to produce a thing of beauty, as well as use. Gutenberg was an artist, and a very important one in the history of art, for the spread of black-and-white reproductions in books, which could be hand-coloured, did more to internationalise art than any other factor.

Which is of great interest to this blog, because most of the art experienced here tends to be either mass produced in and of itself, by such things as printing presses, or reproduced and served up here by similar means.


But now in this next bit, which follows on immediately from the quote above, Johnson deals with something which has always puzzled and bothered me, but which I have not read about very much, namely the extreme hideousness and illegibility of the so-called Gothic typefaces used especially by those early German printers. To my eye Gothic makes all letters look the same, which is hardly what you want with a typeface, now is it?

Well, it seems that I'm not the first to have been scornful of this extraordinarily ugly piece of design, which is plainly a creature of the pen, yet which was dumped, so to speak, onto the printing press. I suppose Germans in those days were used to it. But happily the Germans, much though we all owe them for inventing printing in the first place, were unable to make their Gothic habit spread, beyond the opening credits of war movies of course, as Paul Johnson relates:

Printing was one of those technical revolutions which developed its own momentum at extraordinary speed. Christian Europe in the fifteenth century was a place where intermediate technology, as we now call it – that is, workshops with skilled craftsmen – was well-established and spreading fast, especially in Germany and Italy. Such workshops were able to take on printing easily, and it thus became Europe's first true industry. The process was aided by two factors: the new demand for cheap classical texts, which were becoming available anyway, and the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into 'modern' languages. Works of reference were also in demand. The first printed encyclopaedia, the Catholicon, appeared in 1460. The next year, the first printed Bible for laymen appeared, quickly followed by the Bible in German, the first printed book in the vernacular. Presses sprang up in several German cities, and by 1470, Nuremberg had established itself as the centre of the international publishing trade, printing books from twenty-four presses and distributing them along trade routes and at trade fairs all over western and central Europe. The old monastic scriptoria worked closely alongside the new presses, continuing to produce the luxury goods that moveable-type printing could not yet supply. Printing aimed at a cheap mass sale. In 1471 the first best-seller appeared, Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, which by 1500 had gone through ninety-nine editions.

Though there was no competition between the technologies (at Augsburg, the printing presses and the old monastic scriptorium were in the same building), there was rivalry between nations. The Italians made energetic and successful efforts to catch up with Germany. Their most successful scriptorium, at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco near Rome, quickly imported two leading German printers to set up presses in their book-producing shop. Italian printers had one advantage. German printers worked with the complex typeface the Italians sneeringly referred to as 'Gothic' and which later became known as Black Letter. Outside Germany, readers found this typeface offputting. The Italians had their own clear version of the Carolingian minuscule. This became known as Roman, and was the type of the future. In 1458, Charles VII of France, impressed by the Gutenberg Bible, sent his leading artist-craftsman, Nicolas Jenson, master of the royal mint at Tours, to Mainz, in order to learn 'the art of printing'. But Jenson, having become an expert printer, refused to return to France. Instead he went to Venice and set up what became the most famous printing press in the world. The fonts of Roman type he cut were exported and imitated all over Europe. From 1490 he had a rival: Aldus Manutius, whose Venice press designed and used a practical Greek type for printing the classics, now available and in huge demand among scholars. He also introduced and made popular, c.1501-20, a slanting type based on the cursive hand used in the papal chancery. The international trade called it Italic, and entire books were printed in it before it slipped into its modern role of use for emphasis and quotation.

Hence, although the Germans made use of the paper revolution to introduce moveable type, the Italians went far to regain the initiative by their artistry and their ability to produce luxury items. By 1500 there were printing firms in sixty German cities, but there were 150 presses in Venice alone. …

So that's how it got called Italic.

Good stuff. I keep having to relearn this lesson. You don't have to read books in the correct order and all the way through. And Johnson's book especially seems to be the kind that will reward casual dipping.

Expect further dips from it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
Category: DesignHistoryTechnology