The Manufacture of Early Printed Books in Europe

Liber aggregationis, leaf A1r (1496)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The invention of the printing press changed history. With the production of the first Bible between 1453 and 1456 using movable-type printing technology, Johann Gutenberg started a revolution and helped the diffusion of culture. The first books produced using the printing press are called Incunabula. This virtual exhibition will describe some aspects of the process of manufacture of those early printed books in Europe.

Rappresentazione di Santa Caterina di Alessandria, leaf a1r (1500)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The invention of the printing press

The Fifteenth century has seen many cultural and technical changes. Scholars have observed that the invention of the printing press was perceived as a minor event, compared to major turns like, for example, the Lutheran Reformation. Nonetheless, print permeated immediately all fields of everyday life, bringing culture to a broader audience.

Fiore di virtù, leaf a1r (1477)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Continuity and innovation

The transition from handwritten to printed books contains elements of continuity and innovation. On the one hand, the early printed books tried to imitate the manuscripts; on the other hand, the use of movable-types sped up the production dramatically. Even if typographers are to be considered pioneers in the book trading, their printings still reproduced shape and style of the manuscripts, as they created types with similar format and layout and used parchment.

Egloga d'ingratitudine, leaf [Pi]1r (1498)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The diffusion of printed books in Europe

In the second half of the Fifteenth century, there were in Europe more than five hundred workshops for printing. More than one third of the incunabula (i.e. the books printed in the second half of the Fourteenth century) were printed in Italy. It has been estimated that between 1455 and 1500, ca. 40.000 editions were printed, while in the Fifteenth century the number grew up to 500.000. As a comparison, today, 500.000 editions are printed in a single year. The book trade grew to the point of becoming an autonomous branch of commerce. The price of books had dropped dramatically, at first thanks to the production of paper, that had replaced the more expensive parchment, and then with the expansion of print.

Decameron, leaf [*]5r (1492) by Giovanni BoccaccioFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The diffusion of print in Italy

During the Fifteenth century there were workshops in 75 different Italian cities. The main centres were Rome, Florence, Neaples, Milan, and, above any other, Venice.It is in Venice that Giovanni e Vindelino da Spira (Johann e Wendelin von Speyer), who had learned the printing process in Mainz, introduced the first press. Many factors favoured the diffusion of printed books in Italy: on the one hand the cultural context, influenced by humanists who promoted the rediscovery and circulation of classical works; on the other hand, geographic factors, such as the abundance of streams, used for the production of paper.

Nouo teatro di machine et edificii…, page 42 (1607) by Vittorio ZoncaFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


Tradition says that, in 105 A. D., realizing that the use of silk as a writing surface was a waste of resources, the chinese officer Ts’ai Lun informed the emperor that a cheaper solution existed: a support could be produced beating down rags, shreds of bark and old fishernets to a pulp, then laid down on sieves and dried. This technology was long used in China until, six hundred years later, the Arabs learned the procedure from some Chinese artisans they had taken prisoners, and brought it back through the Silk Road to the Middle East, in Samarkand (Ninth century), and eventually to Europe.

Nouo teatro di machine et edificii…, page [94] (1607) by Vittorio ZoncaFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The presence of paper products in Sicily is testified from the second half of the Eight century. The first documented presence of a paper mill is dated 1151, and it was located in Xàtiva, Spain. In 1276 the first Italian paper mill was established in Fabriano. The paper mill of Fabriano reached a large audience fairly quickly, large use of paper was made for school notes and accounting books.

Vitae et sententiae philosophorum, leaf A2r (1494)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The movable-type printing technology

While paper was invented in China, Europe invented the movable-type printing technology. In 1439, the German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg started working on a project to replace the copying out by hand of manuscripts. Gutenberg had the idea of casting single types and then combining them in words, lines and columns on a surface, composing a matrix for a whole page to be printed.

Nouo teatro di machine et edificii…, page 64 (1607) by Vittorio ZoncaFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The press was a well known machine in the Fifteenth century. It was to be seen in many households, it was used to press the linen, or in some regions to press the grapes for wine production: Gutenberg himself worked with a customized wine press from Rhineland. A printing press was a wooden structure with two movable parts: the movable undertable, where matrix and paper were laid and then moved under the press and the types were inked; the platen, where the page was pressed onto the inked types. The early presses were hand operated.

Biblia vulgarizata, leaf dd2r (1471)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The first printed book

Being handwritten, every single manuscript was an unicum. Gutenberg managed to produce many copies of the same page, putting the arranged types under a press. After experimenting for ten years, with the help of the copyist Peter Schöffer and the financial support of the rich goldsmith Johannes Fust, Gutenberg assembled between 1452 and 1455 the matrices for the first book to be printed, the Holy Bible. The text was in Latin, arranged in 42 lines per page and in two volumes. 180 copies were made, 40 of which on parchment. 4000 types were used: letters, numbers, abbreviations and punctuation. After this one, the first complete version of the Holy Bible in a modern language was to be published in Venice in 1471, in an Italian translation made by Niccolò Manerbi.

Novelle Porrettane, leaf A1r (1483) by Giovanni Sabadino degli ArientiFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


Medieval historical sources inform us on the composition of ink used for the manuscripts, but we do not know much about the ink formula of the early era of printed books. Presumably the ink was prepared from the typographers themselves and contained a composition of oleoresin and turpentine. This lack of information is probably due to the interest of the typographers in keeping  their professional knowledge secret. The composition of the ink used for the first incunabula was the result of a long research as typographers aimed to reproduce the elegance and readability of manuscripts.

Trattato di San Giovanni Laterano, leaf a1r (1499) by Giuliano DatiFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The publisher

During the first two centuries after the invention of the printing press, publisher, typographer and bookseller could be the same person. The publisher promoted the production and distribution of literary, artistic, scientific and musical works: this profile does not necessarily include typography or bookselling. In Italy, the figure of Aldo Manuzio emerges: cooperating with the erudites of his time he was able to produce works that joined technical ability, commercial flair, and high cultural level. Sometimes the authors themselves paid to have their works printed.

Disputata in quatuor libros Magistri Sententiarum, leaf [1]r (1518) by Guillen RubioFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The typographer

The typographers covered at first many different functions, later, to speed up the working process and improve the quality of the product, the tasks were divided into three figures: two printing press operators worked on the press, one hammering the types in the forms and inking their surfaces, a second operator fastened the paper leaf on a frame and pressed it onto the types.It was the compositor’s task to arrange all movable-types as to reproduce the whole page to be printed.

Regola della vita spirituale, leaf [I]r (1477) by Cherubino da SpoletoFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The corrector

In each workshop there was a corrector, too. The task of a corrector was to select the books to be printed, compare manuscript and printed text, compose forewords and dedications. Often one could find in the workshops the greatest humanists of the time: well known, for example, is the cooperation between Aldo Manuzio and Erasmus, who resided in Venice in 1507 and 1508.

Formulario di epistole, leaf a2r (1487) by Cristoforo LandinoFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


Like manuscripts, incunabula did not have a frontispiece, they opened with the text. In some cases the first words of the text, containing the name of the author and the title of the work, were printed with red ink to highlight them.

De ludo scachorum, leaf a1r (1493) by Iacopo da CessoleFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Sometimes incunabula had name of the author and title of the work printed on a separate page before the text, called the half-title. The half-title was in some cases decorated with an illustration or enriched with a few verses. The half-title became a standard in the Fifteenth century and eventually became the frontispice.
The frontispiece carries the information on author, title and publication, can be adorned with a xylographic frame or illustrations.

Fiore di virtù, leaf k3v (1477)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


The information regarding the typography and the place and date of the printing, when available, can be found in the colophon, a small area at the end of the text. Sometimes short notes were added, addressing the beauty of the work, apologizing to the reader for its poor quality, thanking the gods for the accomplishment of the job. Sometimes colophons were even written in verses.

Sonetti, leaf a2r (1490) by BurchielloFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


The most important part of the book are its pages: in the early times of the printing technology, the quality and size of the sheet defined the size of the book and its form, and mostly its content, too. The sheets could be folded one or more times: when folded once, one obtains folio, relatively big books, used for erudite works, dictionaries and treatises. The quarto is the size of the books, when the sheets are folded twice; they were used to print popular literature and chivalric romance. The octavo had the sheets folded three times: this format was used to print pamphlets, booklets, devotional books, song books and classic literature. A further format is the sextodecimo, the liturgical booklets of the Fourteenth century, and some Latin and Italian classical works, like Cicerone or Dante, are printed using this size.

Silvano, leaf 6f3v (1492) by Tommaso Dal Gambaro SclariciFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


The unit of a book is the quire, the result of a single group of folded sheets. Ancient books were made of sheets folded once and sewn together along the folding line. Sometimes a paper or parchment stripe was glued to reinforce the fold and give a stronger texture to the book. The typical Italian quire was made out of four sheets (quaternion, eight leaves) or five sheets (quinion, ten leaves). In France the typical quire was made out of six sheets (senion, twelve leaves). 

Eneida vulgare, leaf i4r (1491)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Sequence of the leaves

In the early times of printed books, pages were not numbered. To arrange the leaves in the correct sequence, typographers followed the same method used for the manuscripts: every quire was marked with a letter, and a number referred to the position of the leaves in the quire. To facilitate the job of bookbinders, a ‘catchword’ was printed, the last word of the last page of a quire was repeated as the first word of the following page, printed at the beginning of the following quire. To make sure the book was complete, a register could be found on the closing page of the book, which listed all letters with the number of leaves for each quire. 

Litanie del rito Ambrosiano, leaf a1r (1494)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


The books printed between 1450 and 1480 looked a lot like medieval manuscripts. The typographers tried to copy the style and shape of the letters used by the amanuenses. The Gothic script was used for theology and liturgical books, the Bastarda script was used for law texts, and the Rotunda script for the classics.

Disegno di lettere romane maiuscole, leaf [a]2r (1480)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

The Roman type

The Gothic script was typical for the books printed in Germany, and was known in Italy, too. Nonetheless, the influence of the Humanism brought to the invention of a Roman type, also called Latin script, preferred for its elegance and simplicity.

Guerrin Meschino, leaf [a]1r (1477) by Andrea da BarberinoFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Hand decorated pages

The incunabula were often decorated by miniaturists, who embellished the pages with painted initials or margins, following the taste and the style of the manuscripts. Hand decoration was going to be replaced by printed decorations.

Canzone per andare in maschera fatte da più persone, leaf a1r (1497)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Printed decoration

Woodcut is a printing technique that was used to print whole books before the movable-types were invented. The art of carving on wood to produce matrices is also called xylography, from the combination of the Greek words xilo (wood) and grapho (writing). A block of wood was carved with the needed decoration, texts and images, and then inked and pressed upon a leaf. It was not very practical to use the woodcut technique to produce whole pages or books, this method was therefore soon abandoned. Still, woodcut became a precious tool when movable-type printing was adopted, and was used to print illustrations, decorate pages’ margins and letters.

Aesopus moralisatus, leaf [a]3r (1485)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


The technique of woodcut was used not only for illustrations, but also for initials. In manuscripts often the initial letter of a chapter or paragraph was decorated with small scenes, human figures, animals or floral decoration. Alongside these figurated and historiated initials, usually the first letter of the first line of a text was bigger than the others, but the decoration was not so rich. 

Vocabolarius, leaf a4r (1477)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Printed guide letters

In the first printed books, initials and drop caps were still handwritten and decorated by miniaturists. The illumination was made after the books were printed. Sometimes the typographer would put a small letter in the middle of a space left blank for the initial to indicate to the miniaturist which letter was to be drawn.

Legenda aurea, leaf a 2r (1494) by Iacopo da VarazzeFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Printed initials

Quite soon xylography replaces handwriting and small wooden blocks were made to print the initials. 

Delle meravigliose cose del mondo, leaf a1r (1496) by Marco PoloFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Printer's marks

The printer's marks are another significant part of the design of incunabula. They were first printed in the colophon and then in the half-title, and were meant to identify the workshop of the printer. In the first few centuries of book printing they became an important trademark and they could be simple monograms with the initials of the printer's or publisher's name, resemble a vignette, sometimes with a motto, or a coat of arms.

Psalterio di sancto Hieronymo, cover (1476)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura


As paper and printing expanded in Europe, books changed in their exterior aspect too. The increasing levels of literacy were accompanied by a growing demand for books. Binders had to sacrifice the artistic quality of their product to focus on quantity. Luxurious bindings with leather on wood, using blind or gold tooling, and closing hooks were still in production, but smaller books, using cardboard supports and parchment covers became more common. Such materials made it easier for binders to attach papers to covers, and helped make books lighter and easier to carry for readers.

La vendetta di Cristo, leaf [Pi]1r (1485)Fondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Preservation and valorisation

The preservation of these manufactured books includes prevention and protection. If books are already damaged, restoration could be needed too. Books have to be protected from light, humidity, dust and insects. At the same time, preservation means also valorisation of the contents and form of such historical documents. Librarians spread information and knowledge cataloguing these works, while curators need to be aware of the methods of their production and the processes of aging of their materials in order to preserve them at their best.

Fioretti, bookspine (1484) by Francesco d’AssisiFondazione BEIC - Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura

Many libraries organise exhibitions to promote their rarest collections, but the highest impact on research and access to such collections can be obtained with digitizations. Internet access can eliminate geographical, economical, political and cultural barriers: digital libraries make it possible to explore entire collections of rare books which would otherwise remain hidden and unknown. International standards have been established to acquire and preserve the digitizations, and this simplifies the process of cooperation, exchange and reuse of text and digital images.

Credits: Story

Exhibition developed by the BEIC Digital Library team.
Coordination: Ambra Carboni
Text: Lisa Longhi
Arrangement: Marcella Medici
Translation: Federico Leva, Mara Persello
The images chosen to illustrate this exhibit are taken from the BEIC Digital Library Catalogue

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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