Forme, Furniture, and Pi: The Hand Press

Enea Silvio Piccolomini travelled the length and breadth of Europe during the first half of the 1400s. He was born in Corsignano, and journeyed to Genoa, Basel, Strasbourg, crossed the Alps, Siena, Florence, Bohemia, and England over his sixty-odd years on earth. He even undertook a secret mission, which remains shrouded in mystery to this day, to Scotland for Cardinal Albergati (he appears to have found Scotland too cold for his tastes).

His many travels found him in Germany on 12 March 1455, writing a letter back to Cardinal Juan de Carvajal, his then employer. In Frankfurt, he had seen an absolutely stunning thing: a man who was promoting his work by showing quires of a number of books of the Bible. The lettering of this edition, Piccolomini explained to Carvajal, was so neat that “your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses”. Though Caravajal’s reaction remains unknown, Piccolomini’s letter marks the beginning of a new era in Western Europe. The man he met in Frankfurt was Johannes Gutenberg, and over the century to come his invention revolutionised Western Europe.

1(Gutenberg, 16th century engraving)

Gutenberg, like Piccolomini, grew up in a world of manuscripts; before the press, books were copied out by scribes either in monastic or secular scriptoria. The books of this time, the manuscript tomes, though not all designed for wealthy patrons, formed the building blocks of a restrictive knowledge community. The scribes working away in the scriptoria across Europe belonged to a tradition that had a unique degree of control over the texts being copied out – manuscripts travelled from monastery to monastery and library to library, but these journeys were made by request, and so no new ground was covered: this was a closed circuit of readers.

With the increased popularity of universities, learning gradually became less exclusive and to supply this new market of scholars manuscript production followed suit. When Piccolomini met Gutenberg, manuscript tomes were produced by lay scribes for the majority, and this increase in demand doubtless fuelled an increased production rate in scriptoria, making manuscript volumes more generally available.

2(The Venerable Bede, merrily writing away some eight hundred years before the press)

This paved the way for the press. As the appetite for writing grew, a new method of production promised to be a lucrative endeavour, and the German goldsmith Piccolomini met in Frankfurt had a good idea. Unfortunately, Gutenberg did not have the business acumen to match his idea, and his partner, Fust, took him to court over an accusation of mismanaging their funds. The inventor of moveable type died in obscurity, but his bright idea had enormous impact across Western Europe.

With the printing press came more books, more readers, and more authors. But as the world of the scribes had been exclusive, so too was that of the press, in its own manner: while printed books could be bought by anyone with the money to spare, the processes that brought these new tomes about, the intricate operations of the printing shop, remained a world apart. When Heminges and Condell commissioned Blount and the Jaggards to print a volume of plays, they knew, we suppose, which type, size, and format they wanted – the bold and imposing folio, regardless of the mixed reviews Ben Jonson’s endeavour had received.

But their knowledge of how the book actually came about is open to questioning, much as we now are perfectly happy in the knowledge that our desktop printer works, without possessing any real understanding of how the writing moves from our pc screens to the paper page. The hand press, as anyone who has a chance to see one in action can testify, is a being of creaking wood, tight ropes, and precision, and every ell subservient to the printer. If the manuscripts, carefully and slowly written to life by the scribes, came from a world of hushed scriptorium mystery, the early printed books – incunabula – sprang to life from a no less mysterious, but far noisier, locale: the printing shop.

This month’s exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library centres on the often hidden world of the printing house. The items on display, the stories they tell, the people that handled them, the intellectual earthquake they brought about, and their role in creating the world of words we now inhabit, open a window into that hidden realm of forme, furniture, and pi.

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