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Early Printed Leaves From the First Years of the Printing Press

Leaves from Early Printed Works

Johan Gutenberg’s printing press, which began operation sometime in the 1450’s, was a revolutionary invention that kickstarted major changes in western civilization. Books from the early years of printing between 1450 and 1500 are called incunabula (from the Latin for cradle), and share many qualities with their manuscript counterparts. For instance, printers left room for the initials (or drop caps) to be hand drawn at the start of each paragraph, and the fonts they created mimicked the handwriting and abbreviations of scribes. Many incunabula also received rubrication and other hand-coloring similar to their manuscript predecessors.

Printing presses were established throughout Europe during this period of experimentation and innovation. At the behest of monarchs and bishops, skilled tradesmen traveled from all over Europe to the German States to learn the new craft, which was initially kept secret. As printing spread from Germany, a few cities became powerhouses of the early printing trade, among them Venice, Lyon, and Paris. These printers crafted new typefaces, began printing in vernacular languages, and slowly moved away from scribal manuscript traditions. As printing flourished, books and written materials became much more commonplace and lost their status as a luxury item, which contributed to the slow and steady rise of literacy.

In later centuries, printed leaves from incunabula became highly sought after as a collector’s item. Today, however, researchers may use early printed leaves to analyze printers' methods and type, or as evidence showing which authors and works were deemed important enough to print first. No matter what these leaves are collected or used for, their pleasing aesthetic qualities have been preserved and digitized for all to research and enjoy.

This collection of leaves from the early days of printing includes some of the earliest famous printers. Examples of the works of Nicholas Jenson, Anton Koberger, Peter Schöffer, Aldus Manutius, and many other lesser known printers are extant. The collection spans well beyond incunabla, with works dating to the late 1700’s. This exhibit shows only a handful of the approximately 700 leaves in the collection which have yet to be digitized.