Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
A reasonable assumption would be that the oldest materials in the New-York Historical Society Library relate to Colonial North America or New York. However, in terms of the book collection, the oldest item actually predates the first North American colonies by over a hundred years. Amongst the rare book collection at N-YHS sits a 1492 imprint of three works by Aristotle: De natura animalium libri novem. De partibus animalium libri quattuor. De generatione animalium libri quinque, the oldest book in the collection.
This edition of Aristotle was printed in Venice by Joannes and Gregorius Grigoriis of Forli, brothers who first began printing together in 1482. The Grigoriis brothers specialized in classical texts printed in roman types, as did several other Venetian printers of the period. With the production of numerous classical texts in Latin and Greek, Venetian printers were intricately linked to the renewed interest in classical antiquity characteristic of humanism and the Renaissance, and the city quickly became the most productive center for printing in the 15th century.
While the content of this 1492 Aristotle imprint reveals its connection to the Renaissance, considering the book as a physical object also provides insight into the changing nature of book production in the late 15th century. Prior to Johann Gutenberg’s production of a bible using moveable type in Mainz around 1455, books were predominantly produced by hand. Gutenberg’s new method of casting type allowed books to be printed more quickly and efficiently, thus leading to a greater dissemination of knowledge throughout Western Europe.
Derived from the Latin phrase in cunabulis, meaning “in swaddling clothes,” the term incunabula is utilized to describe books printed before 1501, in the “infancy” of printing. Incunabula provide incredible evidence into the trends and experimentation of these early years of printing. Practices from the manuscript era are often evident, such as the presence of rubrics, which are paragraph marks, initial capitals, and underlining in red ink used for emphasis. These markings, as well as any annotations or marginalia, were added by hand after printing by a rubricator or rubrisher. The fascinating thing about the N-YHS copy of Aristotle is that these rubrics were never added. However, comparing this copy to one in Munich that has been digitized, one can visualize the process of 15th century book production.
In addition to rubricated initial letters, another practice continued from the manuscript era is evident in the N-YHS copy: guide letters. These letters would be printed, very small, in the space left for the painting of initial letters to ensure the correct letter was added. Usually, care was taken when these initial letters were painted to cover the guide letters; however, if the book was never rubricated, as is the case with the N-YHS copy, “the guide letter remains, rather forlornly, in the middle of an empty space” (Carter and Barker, 118).
In addition to rubricated pages, illuminations, in which initial letters, single words, first lines, or opening pages were decorated by hand with gold, silver, and/or colored paint, were also evident in early printed books – another practice carried over from the manuscript era. Below you can see what a page looked like before illumination and a completed illumination on a page of the Munich copy .
You can view more images from the Munich copy here. Through comparing these two copies of Aristotle printed in Venice in 1492, the process of book production in the 15th century can be visually examined. The differences between these copies provide insight into how books were printed and decorated, as well as illustrating the value of each unique copy of a printed work.