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This was the time, soon after the introduction of printing, when the title page became one of the most important design elements of a book.
It hadn’t been a feature of the manuscript books that came before the invention of the printing press. Produced in smaller numbers, manuscripts were often commissioned by individuals or religious institutions, collated and bound to order.
In the early years of printing, a book would be sold unbound. The buyer would then choose their preferred binding: either a simple calf or vellum cover, or an ornate bespoke design that reflected the collector’s wealth. Printed pages often waited for some time before they were bound.
Initially, a blank page was added to the front of the book to protect the pages that followed. Then, in about the 1460s a short ‘phrase’, like a label, was added to identify the content. This label was expanded over the next 200 years, becoming a form of advertisement as well as identification.
A title-page has been aptly said to resemble the entrance of a building, the fashion and workmanship of which are the indexes to the style of the interior.
— Anonymous, The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Volume 1, 1821
The design of the title page developed alongside the skill of the printer and the ambition of the publisher. The earliest examples had a simple border and woodcut illustration. They often showed a scholar or teacher at their desk, either alone or surrounded by students.
Borders became more and more intricate, embellished with figures, flowers, animals, urns and cherubs. Designs would be copied because not every printer had their own skilled engravers.
Elements of Renaissance architecture often appeared on title pages — the text surrounded by an ornate framework of columns, arches, plinths and headpieces. The design functioned as a doorway or entrance into the text.
As the title page was a perfect place for promotion, many printers incorporated their ‘device’ or mark into the design. The dolphin wrapped around an anchor of the Aldine Press appeared on title pages from as early as 1501, reflecting the press’s motto festine lente (hasten slowly).