Beacon Street Diary blog

Letters That Tell a Story

Some of my favorite bits of typography--which is a thing you get to have opinions on once you’ve spent enough time with the books--are historiated initials. These are the large capital letters that can be found at the beginnings of chapters or other sections of text with an illustrated scene either surrounding or inside of it. These initials are referred to in a variety of ways which can make research more difficult. You may see references to historiated capitals, or floriated capitals/initials (which are letters decorated with drawings of flowers and other botanical imagery, rather than a scene) or illustrated or decorated initials/capitals (which refer to any kind of decoration).


  When printed books first appeared in Europe in the 15th century, they looked very much like the manuscripts that were already in circulation from the physical layout of the pages and the book itself to the style and subject matter of decorations. Historiated initials are a continuation of the same artistic tradition as the illuminated initials found in medieval manuscripts. A tremendous amount of variety in subject matter ranging from the serious to the whimsical can be found in these initials, often referencing common medieval subjects. Scenes from the BIble and classical mythology are very common as are depictions of animals and historical figures. You can see a galloping centaur, a sassy dragon, and a man reading to a dog pictured here. You’ll also often find “putti” or artistic depictions of chubby male children common in Renaissance art at various tasks.


The design of historiated letters was its own artform. It’s typical to see differences in style based on region and time period and use these as further clues when learning about how a book was made. Printers typically worked with a limited set of capitals, so this means you’ll often see the same images repeated in a single work and that the images depicted in the letters generally were unrelated to the subject matter of the book they were printed in. There are a few notable exceptions to this like, for example Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica. This early medical textbook first published in 1543 features historiated initials designed specifically for its text. Most of them depict putti performing the medical works being described in the text: handling body parts, dissecting animals, and reading from their own medical textbook.


This example puts me in mind of one the mysteries from the Congregational Library’s collection. If you’ve been on a visit or for a tour, I have almost certainly pulled this out to show you:Theophylacti Bulgariae Archiepiscopi Tomus Primus by Joanne Oecolampadio (1524). A very religious book that features multiple historiated letters of a scatalogical nature. This could mean nothing--these sorts of images were very common in the medieval manuscript tradition and other art and this could simply be a coincidence, but I think it has to mean something when your printer uses these so liberally in your very religious book. The printer was Andreas Cratander, known for  printing Protestant works. Once research avenues open back up again, I’m hoping to look into some of his other work to get an answer for myself.