Good and bad printing

Francesca Galligan, Assistant Librarian, Rare Books, Bodleian Libraries

Each autumn, university students and members of the public embark on their type-setting and printing journeys in the Bodleian’s letterpress printing workshop. To inspire novice printers with the great typographical achievements of the past, we have chosen examples of fine and ambitious printing from the Bodleian’s Rare Books collections.  The selection also includes some ‘bad’ printing, with missing words and upside-down illustrations, also carefully preserved in the library.

An example of ‘good’ printing is an edition of Caesar’s Gallic war printed in 1471 by Nicholas Jenson. The type designed by Jenson, a French printer based in Venice, has been widely admired ever since.   Bodleian Library, Byw. adds. 6

Bodleian Library, Byw. adds. 6

Four centuries after Jenson, type designed for the Doves Press in London in 1899 was based directly on Nicholas Jenson’s work. The Doves Press was a private press producing fine books according to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction to industrialisation and mass-market printing. Bodleian Library, Arch. C c.3

Bodleian Library, Arch. C c.3

The 1481 Florence edition of Dante’s Comedia is in many ways an example of good printing, although it was an ambitious project that was beset by problems. The unfortunate upside-down orientation of this engraving in the Bodleian copy puts this item in the middle, between examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ printing. Bodleian Library, Auct. 2Q 1.11

Bodleian Library, Auct. 2Q 1.11

In the next example, shown below, the editor has evidently demanded that the printers explain why the page on the right contained none of the text of this work, Pastregicus’s On the origins of things (Venice, 1547). The half-page of text explains, in Latin, that there was an error on the part of the printer in dividing up the text before starting to print (‘Calcographi omisit enim dividendo’) and reassures the reader that there is nothing missing (‘operi vero nihil deest’). Bodleian Library, Byw. Q 8.24 Making the text fit the intended number of pages is a skill all printers need to acquire.

Bodleian Library, Byw. Q 8.24

This translation of Aristophanes’ Greek plays into Latin shows an unusually careful correction, a word added in type to the margin. The sentence was meant to read: ‘…the whole of which had previously been Greek,’ with ‘graeca’ to be read where the caret symbol indicates. The book was printed by Angelo Ugoleto in Venice in 1501. Bodleian Library, Byw. J 7.25 Mistakes happen, and corrections can be a sign of care as much as of carelessness.

Bodleian Library, Byw. J 7.25

Below, a sixteenth-century edition of meditational poems on the cross demonstrates creative problem-solving and a real challenge to printers. These shape or puzzle poems were first composed in the 9th century by Rhabanus Maurus and at that time, before the invention of printing with moveable type, they circulated as beautiful and lavish manuscripts, allowing the poems within poems to be easily discerned. Thomas Anshelm decided in 1503 that it would be an excellent thing to reproduce the text in print. Attempting to achieve a similar effect to the manuscripts, he used an unusual combination of metal type and xylographic (wood-carved) letters. The black letters nearest to the images are carved into the woodblock. Bodleian Library, Douce M 114

Bodleian Library, Douce M 114
Bodleian Library, Douce M 114