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A capital idea

Maggie Patton
Decorated initials — artworks in themselves — have a long history.
Antiphonal: Common of the Saints - Image 5

Imagine it is 1328. Morning light filters through the window of a scriptorium. Italian miniaturist Neri da Rimini is illuminating a big Gothic initial at the beginning of a lesson within a large choir book. Perhaps he is burnishing the gold leaf, freshly applied in the dewy morning air, with a special tool made by mounting a dog’s tooth on a small wooden handle. Almost 700 years later, the gold on this historiated letter, which depicts Christ blessing a group of saints, still sparkles and glows on the page of the Rimini Antiphonal, one of the Library’s great treasures.

Magnificent painted letters illuminated with gold, glorifying a sacred text or portraying significant biblical scenes, mark the high point in a long history of decorating initials, a practice that has been around for over a thousand years.

Just like the ‘dropped cap’ used in modern printing, decorated initials have a practical purpose. They are visual markers for a new chapter or the start of a new paragraph, drawing the reader’s attention to an important part of the text. From that practical beginning, many styles and techniques have developed in the production, use and decoration of capital letters within a page of text.

Before the era of the printed book, initials could be simply ‘rubricated’, a term that comes from the Latin rubrīcāre and means ‘to color red’. Using coloured ink, a scribe could highlight a letter as they copied the text onto the page. Alternatively, in a two-step process, the scribe would copy out the text but leave a space for the letter to be drawn or painted later by a skilled illuminator who would add ornate flourishes, floral motifs and golden highlights. Sometimes, in a type of decoration called a historiated initial, this artist would create a scene reflecting the subject or story.

When printing with moveable type was first introduced in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, the design of printed books imitated that of hand-written manuscripts. This made them familiar to readers and scholars not accustomed to books that were now being produced in greater numbers than had ever been possible. Nevertheless, a space was left for the decorated initial, a small guide letter often added by the printer to act as a reminder to the illustrator employed to later insert a decorated initial by hand.

However, the time and expense involved in supplying hand-drawn and coloured initials for multiple copies led to the development of woodcut initials that could be printed along with the text. The printed initial could later be washed with colour if required. Techniques were also developed to print in more than one colour; one of the earliest examples is the Mainz Psalter, printed in 1457 by Fust and Schoeffer, which includes initials printed in red and blue.

From the sixteenth century, decorated woodcut initials were routinely printed with the text. While many woodcuts were designed to relate directly to the text, others had common features — flowers, geometric patterns and human figures. Letters were recycled through different publications, often bearing no relation to the content of the book.

Later in the seventeenth century, engraved metal initials were introduced. But over the next two hundred years ornate initials were rare; bold capitals or coloured type were often used to add emphasis to the beginning of a chapter or paragraph.

In the late-nineteenth century, however, responding to the mass production of books and a desire to revive traditional crafts, the decorated initial made a comeback. The key purpose of the private press movement was to design fine work and print beautiful volumes. One of the best-known private presses was the Kelmscott Press in Oxfordshire, founded by William Morris in 1893. New typefaces, ornaments and decorated initials — traditional and modern — were produced by artists and designers to complement the subject and layout of the text.

The role and design of the decorated initial or dropped cap continues to evolve with digital design and printing. Whatever their format, decorated initials improve readability while adding sparkle and pizzazz to the page.


Maggie Patton is Manager of Research and Discovery

This story appears in Openbook spring 2022. 

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