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Rare Books Chronicle the Evolution of the Printed Word


Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, 1454–1455

Library exhibition showcases some of the greatest early books printed in Europe

In the last 20 years we have had unprecedented access to the use of digital typography. Fonts like Baskerville, Garamond, and Gill Sans are options on most computers, but the average user gives little thought to the fact that these typefaces have important historical legacies dating back to the earliest days of printing. 

The Stanford University Libraries rare books collection contains examples of early printing that provided the inspiration and foundation for the typography that has become an integral part of both desktop publishing and traditional publishing today. 

A two-part exhibition of materials, Monuments of Printing, by Curator of Rare Books John Mustain, ranges across five hundred years, shedding light on the evolution of typography and printing that forever transformed the way people communicate. Featuring three predominant typeface styles, roman, gothic, and italic, the exhibit explores the roots of and influences on letterforms, printing, and book design through the works of some of the great European printers. The comprehensive array of historical artifacts in Stanford’s collections allowed Mustain to demonstrate significant developments in printing by example. 

Not every monument of printing is in the exhibit,” Mustain says, “but everything in the exhibit is a monument.” There are numerous stories to tell in the history of printing: how the process of printing with movable type began, for example, how countries developed different styles of printing, and how different sorts of texts (religious, classical, legal) were typically printed in a specific typeface. With so much to cover it was decided to divide the exhibit into two installments. 

The forty plus items in “From Gutenberg Through the Renaissance” will be on display through November 27, 2011. From December 5, 2011 to March 18, 2012, part two, “From Caslon through the Book Arts Revival,” will continue with an examination of works from the 18th through 20th centuries.

Free and open to the public, the display cases are on view in the Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda on the second floor of the Bing Wing of Green Library. A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible is the earliest printed item in the first installment, which chronicles the remarkable 250-year period that began with the invention of movable type by the German printer Johannes Gutenberg.  The most modern item in the first part of the exhibition is a history of the reign of Louis XIV, printed in a meticulously proportioned typeface commissioned by the king himself (and felt by some historians to be the first ‘modern’ typeface) that would influence in some degree the great typographers of the eighteenth century. 

The period between the 1800s and the mid-20th century saw impressive advances in printing technologies and style.  Examples of color printing, engraved books, and the fine press movement will be on display in the second installment of Monuments of Printing. Highlights include John Sturt’s Book of Common Prayer (1717), Oliver Byrne’s The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (1847), and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, printed by the Grabhorn Press in San Francisco in 1930. Visitors will also be able to see texts printed with original typefaces designed by familiar names such as Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, and Gill.


The Advent of Italic


In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Italian printer and humanist Aldus Manutius was committed to preserving in print classical literature. Aldus produced many fine volumes in folio but also sought to expand his market by printing books of smaller size, lowering the cost of production by reducing the amount of paper needed per volume, paper being the single largest part of the cost of a book in the Renaissance.

Like other early type designers, Aldus captured the styles of contemporary handwriting in metal type. A sloped form of manuscript writing had been developed to fit more letters on a page, and this style of writing provided Aldus with an inspiration: He developed the compact typeface that modern readers have come to know as italic. With his new, narrow font he was able to print more words per page, further reducing costs.

A craftsman with strong aesthetic opinions, Aldus never developed an italic uppercase letter that satisfied him, and so in the works he printed, such as Dante’s Commedia, capital letters are printed in roman type. The edition of the Commedia on display in Monuments of Printing is the first book to feature the celebrated dolphin and anchor vignette that Aldus adopted as his personal trademark. Printers in the Renaissance often created their own unique symbols, to be printed on title-pages, symbols that came to be known as printers’ devices. These devices are still used by contemporary publishing houses.

A New Era of Scholarship

The invention of movable type was an opportunity to render handwritten works into print. Scholarship and editing continued in the era of printing as it had in the manuscript era: Several manuscripts of each text were carefully examined, the most accurate established as the “best” text and printed. 

One such example, and a gem in Stanford’s collection, is the Complutensian Polyglot Bible. The first great polyglot Bible, the Complutensian polyglot is considered to be the most famous Spanish book of the sixteenth century. Cardinal Ximenez, who hoped to revive the scholarly study of scripture, funded production of the book and recruited eminent scholars of the day for the job. Roman was the earliest used type in Spain, and is the predominant type of the text.

A page of the Book of Genesis illustrates the polyglot’s text being printed in five divisions: Hebrew in the outside column; the Latin Vulgate, in roman type, set in the middle; a new Latin translation of the Septuagint (the Old Testament in Greek), set in gothic, with the Greek text itself printed beneath, in the inside column. The Aramaic paraphrase (known as the Targum) is printed in Hebrew characters at the bottom of the page, next to a Latin translation. Hebrew and Chaldee roots are seen in the margins.

Exhibition designer Becky Fischbach, who has worked in printing herself, marveled at the difficulty of setting such a complex page in tiny type. There was “no delete button back then” she commented. One mistake and the printer would have to reset the entire line or even paragraph by hand, moving one piece of lead type at a time.

Printing Comes Full Circle with the Arts and Crafts Movement

Three hundred years after moveable type was invented the mechanized mass-production of books prompted nostalgic sentiments in English author William Morris. In addition to penning his own works, Morris translated ancient and medieval texts, which he felt should be reproduced using the printing technology of the fifteenth century. Morris’ dedication to traditional printing methods led him to found the Kelmscott Press, near London, in 1891, where he produced limited edition books on handmade paper.

With white pigskin binding, copious illustrations, type set by hand, and printed on handmade paper, Morris’ The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, printed at the Kelmscott Press in 1896 is a masterpiece of book design. On display in December when “Caslon through the Book Arts Revival,” part two of Monuments of Printing opens, this celebrated edition clearly illustrates why Morris is credited with developing the Arts and Crafts style that turned into international movement in support of craftsmanship.

Like proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement, supporters of the Book Arts Revival of the early twentieth century valued handicrafts over machine-made products.  Printed on vellum with striking black-and-white illustrated initials by Eric Gill in 1931, The Four Gospels is a striking example of one of the greatest successes of one of the finest presses of the movement, The Golden Cockerel Press.

Bringing the Classroom to the Books

There’s no substitute for hands-on learning. All of the items on display in Monuments of Printing were culled from Stanford’s Special Collections, and every quarter, through class assignments, dozens of students interact with many of the same artifacts.

Since 1994 English professor Stephen Orgel has been weaning students from their reliance on “the virtual evidence produced by their computers,” in his course “The History of the Book.” With rare manuscripts available in visits to Special Collections, graduate and undergraduate students experience first-hand why the digitized copies don’t tell the whole story.

Scanned in black and white, digital reproductions make it difficult to distinguish between a dust speck and a punctuation mark. Nor can you identify watermarks or forgeries. Orgel’s students also discover that size matters. On a computer screen texts all display at the same size, leaving out a vital part of the experience for the reader.

To emphasize the point, Orgel cites two examples, one very large and the other quite small. “The difference between reading Marvell’s Poems in the large folio format in which it was first issued in 1681 and Herbert’s The Temple in its 1633 pocket-sized octavo edition is manifest only through the experience of the physical book.”

History professor Caroline Winterer regularly brings her American history students to Special Collections to work with antiquarian books. In Winterer’s experience, most of the students have never thought of early books as being part of "American" history. But she says that actually seeing the antique books sparks all kinds of discussions.  A few of the recurring questions have to do with how American colonists got access to books and how ideas from these early books shaped the thinking of American revolutionaries.

Winterer muses that students even ponder odd typographical questions. “It makes early American history much more alive and quirky for them, which is good,” she adds. Becky Fischbach noted that lately both students and other library visitors seem to have a renewed interest in the physical experience of the book, perhaps in reaction to their constant exposure to digital information.

English professor Jennifer Summit, whose book Memory’s Library, explores the origins of the modern library, remarked that an exhibit like Monuments of Printing is particularly valuable in our age of speedy and seemingly transparent communications. “It's especially important to confront the artifacts of an age in which communication was a painstaking craft. They can remind us that communication takes time and care.” Summit added that these relics of our past also “teach us to appreciate the discipline of giving our attention fully to the words of another.”

Visit the Library Galleries

Exhibit cases are illuminated Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. The gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open; hours vary with the academic schedule.

For Library hours, call 650-723-0931.

NOTE: first-time visitors must register at the south entrance portal to Green Library’s East Wing to gain access to the exhibition in the Bing (west) Wing. For a map of campus and transportation information, go to

A catalogue of the exhibition is planned for release in the spring of 2012.