Nicolas Jenson: c. 1420 – 1480

Artist Robert Thom’s depiction of Nicolas Jenson at his engraving bench

Artist Robert Thom’s depiction of Nicolas Jenson at his engraving bench

The term incunabula (Latin for “cradle”) is used to denote the earliest period of printing from its birth in 1450 up to January 1, 1501. The books, pamphlets and broadsides printed with the movable metal type method associated with Gutenberg during these first fifty years are also commonly called incunabulum.

It is estimated that 35,000 editions were printed throughout Europe—over two-thirds from Germany and Italy—during the second half of the fifteenth century. Remarkably, nearly 80% of these volumes still exist today, most of which are held in large public collections such as the Bavarian State Library in Munich, the Vatican Library in Vatican City and the British Library in London.

The Lenox copy of the Gutenberg Bible on display at the New York Public Library. It was the first complete set brought to the US in 1847.

The Lenox copy of the Gutenberg Bible on display at the New York Public Library. It was the first complete set brought to the US in 1847.

The most famous incunabulum, of course, is the 42-line bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany in the 1450s of which there are 48 copies remaining. Since they were printed in two volumes, many of these copies are incomplete. James Lenox brought the first complete set of the Gutenberg Bible to the US in 1847 after he bought it for $2,500; it now sits on display at the New York Public Library. The last sale of a complete Gutenberg Bible took place in 1978 and went for $2.2 million; it is estimated that one would sell for $25-$35 million today.

The British Library maintains an international electronic bibliographic database of extant incunabulum. Called the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC), the database was begun in 1980 and currently contains 27,460 records. The ISTC is an extraordinary merger of modern and Renaissance information technology. That anyone can peruse these records—many of which have links to high-resolution images of 500-year old incunabulum—is a testament to both the lasting achievement of print and the significance of its electronic descendent, the World Wide Web.

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Next to Gutenberg himself, Nicolas Jenson is recognized as the most important figure of the incunabula. Despite limited records of his life—his last will and testament, a few book introductions written by others and some document fragments—the legacy of Nicholas Jenson survives through his printed works.

According to Martin Lowry, the printing scholar and author of “Nicholas Jenson and Rise of Venetian Publishing in Renaissance Europe,” the first official biography of Jenson was written in the late 1700s and amounted to “a two-volume potpourri of erudition and fantasy.” While arguing that Nicolas Jenson has become something of a printing cult-figure, Lowry does conclude that Jenson’s “place at the very beginning of the typographic age gives him a special importance.”

It is known that Nicolas Jenson was born in Sommevoire, France, a town about 150 miles southeast of Paris. However, after reviewing Lowry’s research, it is difficult to simply repeat here the many other “facts” that are frequently given of Jenson’s early life: his date of birth, his employment experience and the origin of his metal working skills, the means by which he became familiar with the printing methods of Gutenberg and his route from France to Italy. The things that are repeated in many accounts of Jenson’s life are derived from murky historical anecdotes that are contradicted by other important facts.

An engraving depicting an early Venetian printing shop

An engraving depicting an early Venetian printing shop

Jenson is known to have begun printing in Venice in the late 1460s or early 1470s. Prior to his arrival in Venice, it appears that he spent some time in Vicenza, a mainland town about 30 miles to the west, where he developed his printing skills. Jenson’s arrival in Venice, the first non-German printer in recorded history, coincided with the establishment of several important printing firms in the Italian island city. The most notable of these was the enterprise of John and Wendelin of Speyer who arrived in Venice from Germany in 1468 and were granted a five year monopoly on printing by the city authorities.

Nicolas Jenson’s printer’s mark

Nicolas Jenson’s printer’s mark

The Venetian patrician class of scholar-statesmen considered the arrival of printing a major cultural development. It meant that the works of classical humanist teachings could be reproduced at rates that were inconceivable with the handwritten process of the scribes. The ruling elites encouraged the development of print and by the end of the century there were 150 firms operating in the highly competitive Venetian printing market.

Alongside of print’s cultural impact, there was a considerable business opportunity to be exploited. It was to this side of the incunabula that Jenson devoted most of his efforts. During the ten years that he was a printer in Venice, more than anyone else, Jenson brought investment into the printing industry. His businesses were very successful and he made a considerable fortune before his death in 1480.

However, the most important—and universally recognized—contribution of Nicolas Jenson to the development of printing was his design of an early roman typeface. Prior to Jenson, the style of print typography followed the blackletter example set by Gutenberg, i.e. heavy gothic forms that emulated the dominant pen and ink script of the monks of fifteenth century Germany.

The first page of Eusebius’ "Preparation for the Gospel" printed by Nicolas Jenson in 1470. It is thought to be the first appearance of a roman typeface.

The first page of Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel printed by Nicolas Jenson in 1470. It is thought to be the first appearance of a roman typeface.

Such were Nicolas Jenson’s metal working skills that he cut a groundbreaking roman type in 1470. Roman type is distinct from blackletter in that it emulates the square capital letters used in ancient Rome combined with the Carolingian minuscule (lowercase) used during the Holy Roman Empire. The first book to appear with Jenson’s new design was an edition of Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel originally written in 313 A.D.

The word roman, without a capital R, has come to denote Italian typefaces used during the Renaissance as well as later fonts derived from them such as Times Roman, for example. Although Jenson’s design was quite different in appearance from Gutenberg’s blackletter, it was also modeled on the scribal manuscript style that was popular in fifteenth century Italy.

A comparison of blackletter script (upper left) with Gutenberg’s blackletter type (lower left) and roman/Carolingian script (upper right) with Jenson’s roman type (lower right)

A comparison of blackletter script (upper left) with Gutenberg’s blackletter type (lower left) and roman/Carolingian script (upper right) with Jenson’s roman type (lower right)

It is a remarkable phenomenon of printing history that the essential forms of Jenson’s roman typeface designed more than 500 years ago are those that we continue to use most often and recognize today as the best and most readable typography. Of course, the characters in the alphabet of the Latin languages are those associated with Jenson’s contribution. But it should also be noted that Jenson designed and cut a Greek alphabet of a similar style.

Throughout the subsequent history of printing, many have noted the beauty and balance of Jenson’s roman type design. In particular, William Morris and the arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth century focused upon Jenson’s creative genius. According to Lowry, Morris’ romantic affinity for medievalism led to an unjustified elevation of the contribution of Nicolas Jenson alongside those of Johannes Gutenberg and Aldus Manutius.

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A search of the British Library’s ISTC for the term “Jenson” results in 113 hits. Many of the items in the database contain links to images of the pages printed by Nicolas Jenson himself on a Gutenberg-style printing press in Venice in the 1470s. A review of these entries shows that—despite language challenges—Jenson’s books appear very similar to those found today in our libraries and book stores. While some of them are adorned with ornate case bound covers and others include hand-illuminated art alongside the printed text, the essential elements of the book are very familiar to any modern reader.

Historians have strictly defined the incunabula as the first fifty years of the printing revolution beginning with Gutenberg. The incunabulum produced by the pioneers of print—including Nicolas Jenson—were devoted to a recreation of scribes’ handwriting such that the reading audience could understand and relate to the new media form.

The questions that arise naturally are: should we consider the early years of the digital revolution to be our modern “incunabula” in which the previous media generation is being replicated in electronic form? Or is the digital age leading to a new media that represents a departure from the forms that were developed and enriched during the Renaissance?

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