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I called up twenty three items and spent two happy days in the reading room of Princeton’s Firestone Library.
There are ten separate collections in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. While the reading room serves these collections, a researcher is dealing with 10 catalogs. Princeton makes it easy to search with its integrated catalog, but there are subtleties to the presentation and cataloging. My research before visiting showed that there were books that would be of interest, but I didn’t have a good idea of their holdings as searching a catalog by title is not an efficient way to do research.
For a specific title, I used WordCat, noting what libraries might have it. This is an inefficient way of finding things as WorldCat is not always up to date or accurate. So, I missed a number of books at libraries along the way. I had no illusion that this trip would net a complete survey, but it was frustrating to come back and realize that I passed by institutions that held a book of interest.
When I arrived at Princeton, I took some time with their online catalog to fill out call slips. The newly renovated reading room is well lit, with large windows that give the room a cathedral-like feel. Coming in and sitting down to look at material, there was no doubt that I was in a research library and not some open-plan office complex.
The Graphic Arts 1535 copy of Ugo da Carpi’s Thesauro de scrittori was rebound in recent years. I had seen two copies (1525 and 1535) of this book at the Harry Ransom Center, and again at the Newberry (1535). WorldCat does the Texas or Princeton copies, thus creating another “hidden book” in two different libraries. A.S. Osley’s The variant issues of Ugo da Carpi’s T’hesauro de scrittori published in Quaerendo details the changes made in this early writing manual. That da Carpi borrowed freely from Fanti, Arrighi, and Tagliente is well known, and Osley’s article from 1972 delineates typesetting and plate order changes in the three dates the book was issued: 1525, 1532 and 1535.
His description is so detailed that the Graphic Arts cataloger was able to determine which issue (“Designated as “first issue” of this edition in Osley, …”) they own.
Should you wish to travel down a bibliographic side alley, read his Quarendo article, and try to keep in mind which issues you’ve seen at any given institution. It’s a bit much to keep straight in one’s head.
da Carpi wasn’t the only book on my list, so I moved on to Albrecht Dürer’s geometry book with a section on constructed capitals. Princeton’s copy of Albertus Durerus Nurembergensis pictor huius … is in good shape, sewn on split thongs, laced onto pasteboards. The covering material has been lost, but the book is still intact. This copy was owned by Stanley Morison, whose research and opinions dominate the field of writing manuals, type design, and history of printing.
Dürer first published his book in 1525 at a time when writing manuals were just beginning to be published. Italian writing masters teach scribes how to write with a quill pen. Ugo da Carpi’s book is mostly a compendium of instruction by other writing masters while Dürer’s book includes geometric Roman capitals that would be used for inscriptional purposes. There are constructed gothic and rotunda minuscules in da Carpi’s work, but no capitals. The instructions that Dürer gives on how to make the Roman capitals is not strictly a writing manual, but it involves instructions on how to construct these forms using a compass and a square. Dürer’s instructions are familiar today in the book Of the Just Shaping of Letters.
Leaving Winterthur before 5:00, I went to eat a late lunch heading North. I didn’t know where I was staying that night. I had anticipated staying at a friend’s place, but misunderstood the location of his home. My plan was to get to Princeton in the morning and I wanted to be close enough to get there at opening time.
I belong to an online motorcycle forum and have a number of imaginary internet friends, some of whom I’ve met in person. One such, is my friend Bill Morris. He lives in Central New Jersey and travels about 30 minutes to work by motorcycle as often as he can. He was serving as Executive Officer of the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Lawrenceville, NJ. I called him and asked if I could stay with he and his family for about 3 nights and I’d be arriving in 2 hours at the most as I was no more than 75 miles south. Ever the moto-gentleman, he said yes and gave me directions to come to the post and hang out till he was headed home. It took me 3.5 hours to get there!
I was leaving Delaware around 4:30 and knew that I’d hit commuter traffic. East Coast roads can be a little confusing as the signage isn’t always that large or very well placed. Turnpikes are unforgiving if you miss an entrance or exit and correcting a mistake can take you out of the way. This happened to me a couple of times on my trek north so it took much longer than I expected. Bill was patient and waited till I arrived.
We told a few stories and then he pointed me back south and we retraced my last 25 miles. Bill likes to go fast – really fast. He promised to keep his bike from flying, but I don’t think he was much under escape velocity the whole time. At that time of night, the roads are fairly empty and it felt like we were on a private racecourse. I never once tried to catch or pass him, I just tried to keep his tail light in sight! That invigorating ride was a tonic after the frustrating experience of eastern road navigation.
After 8 or so years of reading about Bill, his service and motorcycle adventures, it was nice to meet him and his family in person. His daughters get up quite early for school and they went to bed soon after I arrived. Bill and I caught up until well after midnight. Following a person online is an odd way of acquiring friends. Do they represent themselves or a facade of the person they want you to see? Will they be as tall as they look on screen? It’s a bit of a risk meeting someone you respect online. I’ve found that the people that I connect with online have, for the most part, been even better than what I imagined. Bill is one of those guys. And it was nice to see him in his work and home environments.
Morning came sooner than I wanted, but I did get a good night’s sleep. Now for a ride up 295 in morning rush hour traffic – without getting shunted in the wrong direction. I navigated most of that well, except I had to stop and check myself getting off of 95 at 206. I got out my phone and checked the map, saw that I was on track and kept riding up the used-to-be rural road. Like many outlying urban areas, farmland gives way to estates and generously spaced-out housing developments or gated communities. More traffic than the roads were designed for, so the traffic is often congested throughout the day.
As I rode into Princeton, I had to check the phone map a couple more times but finally get myself situated and get the bike parked close to campus even though I’ll have to move it in a little while. Why don’t I have a GPS, or at least a paper map? I used to be assiduous about having local maps as I travelled across the country. They were in my tank bag, so all I had to do was study them prior to that leg of the ride and then check my progress with a quick look down. I was resistant to GPS devices when they started to be used in the early 2000’s as I felt that they don’t promote being engaged in mentally acquiring the route I’m traveling. Just follow the screen and the little man on the motorcycle, and you’ll get there without thinking. Now I’m not opposed, but I didn’t see the need to buy one on the trip.
It was a bit of an ordeal, however I made it to the campus fairly early and was ready to get to work at the Firestone Library. I was psyched by the chance to see their writing manuals and other, non-book instructional aids. I’m a sucker for 3D objects, and they had a number of them to review!
My time in Washington, D.C. had come to a close. After breakfast with my nephew Josh, I got on the road north. Well, almost North. I had a little fun with the toll roads in Maryland, getting onto one that required a toll reader that I didn’t have. There’s a ticket I didn’t plan on.
Mid September along the Atlantic coast can be beautiful. I had experienced rain a week before while riding up from Richmond, but my ride this morning was fresh and crisp. Just a little cool – the summer’s heat having lost it’s intensity for the moment. I was still used to 95 – 100º weather, so the coolness of mid 70º air was welcome. Riding through Maryland along Chesapeake Bay and Delaware on I 95 is not necessarily a breath-taking ride, but it was pleasant on this particular day. My destination, Winterthur, DE is only 100 miles from my buddy, Mike’s house, so this would be a short ride compared to my previous traveling legs.
Most people think of Winterthur as a decorative arts museum. That’s because it is “the premier museum of American decorative arts.” Writing manuals are not necessarily decorative arts, but they do fit naturally into Winterthur’s collecting scheme because engravers, weavers, coach builders, and other craftspeople were called upon to include lettering in their decorative efforts. An engraver needs a sample alphabet on which to base the engraving. Monograms in bespoke items required a lettering guide for the artisan to follow and writing manuals often contained various lettering styles as guides.
After the invention of printing from moveable type, writing was still the primary means of recording unique or limited copies of master documents. However more opportunities for letters to be decorative arose with the freedom gained by mechanical reproduction of texts. This decorative trend can be seen in the earliest writing manuals. Writing masters were providing models for these craftspeople from the start. By the colonial period, copperplate engraved writing manuals illustrated a multitude of exemplars targeted to non-scribal purposes.
Winterthur’s collection of writing manuals focuses on the 19th century American manuals, many of which were produced by the relatively new process of lithography. However, some were produced in the 18th Century and hail from Europe.
One such, Calligraphia regia konigliche Schreib Feder shows an illustration of quills cut at different angles for different hands. In one, there is a quill with two tips, showing how one quill nib is slipped over the other quill and rotated to create a double or outline letterform. I’ve seen illustration of a two-line letterform but didn’t know how this was accomplished. This illustration is the first that I’ve seen to show a simple, effective method for making a split line letterform in one stroke.
Decorative lace-like letters were all the rage in the 18th century, and they were quite ornate. Engravers may have used these as models for working silver or gold with an inscription.
In this manuscript model book, there were many alphabets of various types, and single letters filling one page each.
And this colorfully whimsical page was a delight.
The more ornate and decorative nature of these writing manuals shows a progression of the uses of writing manuals and clearly shows off letters as things worth looking at just for their beauty.
By the 19th century, there is a broadening of focus as to audience as demonstrated by this book. Now even Ladies should know how to write well as Miss Caroline Dashwood. She probably used a steel pen rather than a quill.
Having made it to Winterthur mid-day I only had about 3 hours to look at books and I decided that I’ll have to come back for a longer is it.
I made a few discoveries about Palatino editions at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I had taken a look at 3 copies of Libro di M. Giouanbattista Palatino at the Newberry printed by Blado. My interest was piqued enough to take a look at the Folger’s copies of Compendio del gran volume. I wrote about the 1566 printing of that title in the last post.
The 1588 copy of this book would appear to be the same, except the typesetting would be different. But as I looked at the 1588 book, I discovered an anomaly that took a minute to figure out. Near the end of the book text was handwritten in the style of the typeface and pasted over a printed text. But only on a couple of pages. It isn’t uncommon to find that a scribe had been employed to make a facsimile of a missing text. However, it is a feat to accomplish copying the type closely because the pen and the graver make two distinctly different kinds of letters. The scribe’s skill is apparent here.
The second thing that is striking is that this book was “made up” meaning it was constructed from various editions of the title sometime after publication in 1588. Taking the time in the late 16th or 17th C. to make up a copy tells of the importance of a Palatino to collectors dating to that era. It also suggests that making up a book from non-historic sources wasn’t looked on too poorly during the previous 3 to 4 centuries.
Making sense of these variations kept me occupied for a few hours and honed my skill at looking for and detecting variations in production, assembly, binding and repair. Early printed books are very much individual objects. Sometimes the variations in production are easy to spot when viewed side by side. The institution may have a second, third or fourth copy of the same title and edition and the books will look almost unrecognizable as the same title because of changes, use and storage in the intervening years.
After a 2 month hiatus, I am back to recording progress on my trip. Coming back and re-establishing myself was more challenging than I imagined – in fact the trip itself was more challenging than I thought it would be. My apologies for leaving you hanging!
Getting into a special collection library can be daunting. University libraries have their system, public libraries have somewhat easier methods and private libraries can be the most restrictive. But things are changing in the library world and the vetting process has become a little less stringent.
The Folger Shakespeare Library requires letters from two individuals with .edu or .org email addresses. Generally that means an academic institution or non-profit research library. I was fortunate to acquire letters from one of each and the librarians said some nice things about me and my project.
I was excited that I was granted entry as a reader. I’ve visited the Folger’s conservation lab a number of times, but going in as a researcher is different than visiting a colleague.
It was raining lightly on Saturday, September 11, 2015 when I rode to the library. My hosts live in Silver Spring, MD about 9 miles from the library, a 45 minute commute during the week. On a Saturday, it’s faster as there is less traffic on the roads.
If I was going to be a riding reader, I should ride to the library at least once while in the nation’s capital. I arrived somewhat damp in my riding gear. The guard didn’t believe that I had permission to enter. After requesting my identification, she told me to stand in the lobby while she checked the reader services desk. I dripped water on the stone floor as I awaited my fate. Would I be allowed into this august library or be thrown out as motorcycle trash? The guard didn’t appear to like a damp biker being allowed into the library. I guess not everybody in the library world has come to embrace motorcyclists?
Requests for items are made prior to arrival so the staff has time to page them, I’d made my request on Friday. Saturday, the hours are curtailed, so it makes sense to do this. Requesting vault or restricted items, they are pulled only during the week.
At the desk, I asked for my books and a young woman in jeans (librarians don’t wear jeans, do they?) brought them to me. She asked why I had requested the particular books I had. Briefly (yeah, right!) I told her about Motoscribendi and my research. She listened attentively and then introduced herself as Heather Wolfe, the curator of manuscripts at the Folger. We stood there for half an hour talking about writing manuals, different calligraphic hands, quill cutting and the world of rare books and the chance to look at old books and manuscripts. It was like meeting an old friend and catching up. Heather’s knowledge and enthusiasm are what makes this kind of work exciting. Meeting with an inquisitive, engaged paleographer happy to talk with me about these things gave me an even greater sense of being a part of something worth pursuing.
Heather teaches paleography classes on the Secretary hand at the library. Even though many manuscripts at the library are in English, they are all but indecipherable without some training. The library has around 60,000 manuscripts many of which are written in a Secretary hand. Heather and her colleagues have been working on a project to teach paleography and get people involved in transcribing documents from the collection. Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) has just launched Shakespeare’s World to use crowdsourcing technology to allow interested individuals to be a part of reading and transcribing these manuscripts.
We talked about quill-cutting, parchment-making and other scribal traditions and how exciting it is to look at these materials and discover things about production and use.
When I went to sit down to look at the books, she apologized for taking me from my work, but the truth was that speaking with her is my work. Getting to look at books and learning more about these writing manuals is important, but I wanted to meet the scholars, librarians and staff that are charged with caring for these books.
After lunch, I came back and continued looking at the books I’d called up. Palatino’s writing manuals have been well researched by Stanley Morison and others, but I think there’s more to learn by looking at these books. A digital copy will only represent one iteration. Each time I open a writing manual, I am excited to see how it has lived and been used.
This interplay of book and reader shows the challenge of learning to master a particular hand. Sometimes the student is not very skilled, and sometimes they are better. And often, the progression is obvious through the book’s progression.
You see in the above image a woodblock that was cut in 1565 being used in the 1566 edition of the Compendio del Gran Volume. This block was cut a year before the printing of this book. It was the norm for woodblocks to be stored and reused in subsequent books. Typesetting for the later editions was newly done yet the woodblock is older. This copy then, has three distinct time element in this one page:
1566: Typeset signature mark at lower right “Ciij”
1667: Manuscript practice, dated to a century later
And on the verso of the leaf marked “Ciij” is another block cut a year later in 1566 with the same 17th century scribe’s annotation of Palatino’s full name.
There’s more to discuss about the Folger’s Palatino collection, and I’ll continue that in my next post.
I’m breaking the mostly-chronological nature of the story to report that I’ve made it back to Oakland, CA. I returned last Thursday and am getting re-acclimated to being off the road and returning to a daily routine.
As I rode through the mountains and into Death Valley, temperatures rose, but the day was so chilly that I had to stop in Furnace Creek for warmth and food. The previous couple of days were a bit challenging. I’d left Sedona, AZ on Monday, the 9th after having lunch with a couple I know from Oakland. It was bright and chilly, and I wanted to make it down from the San Francisco Peaks mountain range before it got too late in the day. I managed to do that and rode until around 7:00 with a few stops to warm up. My gloves were no longer waterproof or wind proof and I was wearing cloth gloves as liners to keep me somewhat warmer.
Around 7:00 I stopped at the Tecopa school district building to check my map and see how far I still had to travel. It could have been around the next bend, or 10 miles away, I didn’t know. The building has street lights so I felt safe stopping in the parking lot to check my phone.
As I started off, the bike died. And when I tried to restart it, the battery went completely dead and I was left without power of any kind. Because this had happened three previous times on the trip, I was familiar with the symptoms and possible cure. I pulled all my gear off to get under the seat and to the battery. I checked the wires to the main fuse block and the fuse itself. All was in order, so I then checked the battery. It was hot to the touch. Not warm or neutral as it should be, but hot. This meant that the battery was fried from too much voltage returning to it after the alternator created electricity.
The Honda Hurricane has a regulator/rectifier that manages input and output of power through the system. I knew now that I’d have to find a new battery and the bike was not going anywhere that night. My chill was not so great as to be worrisome, but I was weary and mildly concerned as to my location in regards to the Tecopa motel I was scheduled to stay at. Still in my riding gear, I started down the dark road in hopes of finding the motel close by. After walking into the dark, I retraced my steps. I had to have faith in my mantra: “I wonder what nice people I’ll meet today.”
No car had come by in 10 minutes and I didn’t know how long it might be for the next one. I was tired and didn’t think it wise to leave the light. If someone was going to pick me up, it would be better to stand under the street light and be visible.
I said I’d start walking if a car didn’t come by in 20 minutes. Around 17 minutes into it, two cars passed me traveling in the opposite direction. I waved my cap slowly like a train signalman to get their attention. They pulled into the parking lot and were happy to take me to the motel. Brad drove his wife and friend back home just around the corner. His friend was in the second car and didn’t know the area in the dark.
When Brad picked me up we had a nice discussion and got along so I asked if he hired out as a taxi. He said he’d take me the 30 miles to O’Reilly’s and get a replacement battery the next day. True to his word, we met up in the morning and the four of us wandered northeast to Parhump, NV to replace the burned up battery.
I was happy that the new battery fit and worked properly, so I relaxed a little and sat in the hot tubs supplied as part of the motel fee. My neck hurt quite a bit from crouching down behind the windshield so I splurged and got a massage after a hot tub soak. This made me much more relaxed.
After a slow night of relaxation and further dips, I got up at 4:00 a.m. for a final soak. I wrote some and organized myself for the penultimate day’s ride through Death Valley. I wrote a few postcards and headed to the Post Office at 8:00 a.m. to send them on their way on Wednesday, Veteran’s Day.
Death Valley is beautiful and when it’s chilly rather than boiling hot, it’s a refreshing (if cold) experience. I was set to meet a buddy at Big Pine, CA at noon. I made it to Lone Pine, some 40 miles south, around 12:15. We connected and rather than travel north, I was able to rest and warm up while he ate and headed south. The roads were icy on Hwy 50 and that meant all passes across the Sierra were icy. The only thing to do was travel south to cut across Hwy 178 past Lake Isabella. Those canyons are quite beautiful, but cold on this wintery day. We managed to hit the last canyon after the sun was low enough to be hidden by the mountains. But it wasn’t yet dark, so the temperature hadn’t plunged to freezing yet.
We gassed up and headed north on Hwy 99 out of Bakersfield and rode for almost another hour before stopping for Mexican food. The meal was welcome and put a little heat in us, so that we could continue on to Elk Grove where Rob lives. We made it there by 10:30. I’d started at 8:00 that morning and was thoroughly exhausted by the 660 mile ride that day.
Thursday I got up and had a great breakfast, then rolled into my shop in Oakland around 1:00 p.m. 98 days from when i left.
There are still many more stories to tell about the books and people I met along the way. And now that I’m back, I can organize my thoughts and continue the narrative.
The trip was quite successful and has energized me with both research questions and artistic ideas. I will be going back out on the road in the Spring next year to go to libraries I didn’t visit this trip. Weather dictated that I miss Boston and Rochester, so they’ll be a particular focus on my next trip and I got sick in NYC and had to cancel trips to Philadelphia area libraries.
Because I found many more things to look at than time allowed, I’ll be revising a number of libraries from the first visit. Therefore, Motoscribendi will continue.
I’ll be doing research on how to prepare and present the database. I’ve learned a few things that should help make it a more open and useful tool than I first envisioned. That work will continue and I welcome input as to how best to do it.
The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection at the Library of Congress is one of the finest collections of illustrated books in the US. Calligraphy, both in the form of manuscript as well as printed writing manuals, is well represented in the collection. The Rare Book & Special Collections department has other collections that fill in gaps in the printed writing manual subject area. Acquisitions are made to expand their holdings, and I was allowed to review a number of books that have come into the collection but haven’t been cataloged yet.
I was eager to find hidden books in the uncatalogued book truck. Looking at material that hasn’t been pored over is a thrill because I might find an item that hasn’t been researched yet, or has some other importance that awaits discovery. This time, I was rewarded with discovering a new-found friend, Joseph Seavy. I pulled a little blue pamphlet off of the truck, placing a flag to mark its location and knew immediately that I was the first to see this as a related item to the Newberry copy.
The fact that I was looking at another copy, knowing that there may be only one other place that it existed was exciting. The Massachusetts Historical Society’s copy had been microfilmed, but the only images they took were of the cover and inside wrappers. No images of the text pages were available.
I anticipated seeing the watermarked letters, and hoped there would be writing over them to show how people used these instruction books.
You can see the letters in this copy are well-written. And they are of the same style as the letters in the Newberry copy. I turned the page and subsequent pages, and all were filled with a fairly accomplished hand written on both sides of the laid paper.
This is what the Newberry copy looks like:
In both books, the letterforms are the same, the scribal version shows the influence of the pressure of the pointed pen. I’ve asked for a light sheet (a paper thin light source) and lay it behind the one of the manuscript pages but cannot detect a watermark. And the book is laid paper, not wove as is the Newberry copy. So, there’s at least one copy of the book without watermark and LC’s copy doesn’t have a volume number either.
Now I want to know more because this mystery is intriguing. I know of no other copybook where the instruction is produced by watermark. The title and instructions are printed in Boston, 1814 and the price is somewhat inexpensive with a current value around $2.25. That would not be outrageous for a parent to buy a copy of an instruction manual for a child. If all four volumes were purchased it would be around $9.00 today.
How many copies of this series survive? I go back to Worldcat and fight the digital/book blindspot and try to narrow down where an actual book is rather than the mircorform or its digital equivalent. The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA has Vol. 2 & 4. And I’ll be headed there in a few weeks, so I’ve gotten lucky because I’ll be seeing 2 more examples from this series.
I am convinced that there is no watermark letterform present in this pamphlet owned by George W. Fenns. He may have been the scribe that filled this book front to back with competent practice lettering. A quick search fails to find him.
The hunt is on. I want to know more about this book. And I want to know where/how one unnumbered volume has laid paper instead of the watermarked paper. I’ve got more questions than answers – and that is exhilarating.
I found my way to the Library of Congress from Chicago after a few adventures on the road, but I’m going to leave those stories for another post.
The Rare Books & Manuscripts division is in the Jefferson Bldg. They have a few nice books there & I got to see more than just two.
However, it was a treat to look at two different copies of the 1545 Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere that they hold. One is the Rosenwald copy and the other is the Fabyan copy.
The 1545 copy is a reprint from the 1540 publication. I haven’t looked at two copies of the same title of any writing manual from the same issue date. At Iowa I’d taken a look at 3 Bickhams from different years and the production variations were evident. I thought it might be fun to see what kind of variations there would be in two books from the same publication date and presumed that they were from different printings of the same year.
The Rosenwald copy isn’t trimmed as tight as the Fabyan. There are more generous margins on the Rosenwald book.
The paper looked the same as I started to go through it and the printing was comparable in terms of coverage. Inking on the reverse blocks varies but that’s to be expected.
I kept looking for a variation in block formatting or change in something as I went through the books.
The imposition of blocks was the same throughout the books. As I was going through them, I noticed a variation in the signature marks at Cii – not surprising if they were printed at different times.
When I went through the books a second time, I got a little excited because I hadn’t seen any other variation i the printing order or blocks. The rest of the letterpress was all the same.
Then I went through them again and looked at how the blocks lined up and looked for obvious variations in the show-through and found so much similarity in impression and inking and paper that I suspect they were printed in the same press run.
The Fabyan copy has an owner’s practice on the verso of the last page.
I mentioned this possibility to Mark Dimunation and he seemed interested. When I return, I’ll gather more information and see if my theory holds up to greater scrutiny.
Italian 16th century writing manuals are numerous, however the rest of the Continent took about half a century to catch up with the innovators. Neudorffer in Germany, Iciar in Spain published prior to the middle of the century, but there was one guy over in Flanders that stood out. When Palatino was making a splash with his Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivere Gerhard Mercator produced Literarum latinarũ, quas italicas, cursorias- que vocãt, scribendarũ ratio.
As you can see, Mercator went in for flourishes in a big way, even moreso than his Southern contemporaries.
Gerhard Mercator had skill, energy and intelligence and was schooled in writing out texts in all the current hands. He particularly favored the Italic hand for maps and his skill as scribe and engraver led to work in making globes and soon after, maps. He could cut woodblocks as he does in this manual or engrave in copper as he often did for maps. This level of versatility in dexterity, aesthetic and mathematical skills produced an impressive oeuvre.
Whether describing how to hold the pen properly or cut a quill, Mercator’s text is quite clear on how to do it.
Since Mercator wrote on maps, not in books (though he surely did that as well) his graphic design and purpose for flourishing were for a different kind of reading. Maps were important tools for marine navigators to get around. The Mercator projection wasn’t his invention, nor was it much used in his day. But let’s not get hung up on gnarly navigation details and get to his engraved maps. That’s where the fun in lettering and fantastical creatures of the sea are.
Mercator decided to show the Ptolemaic concept of the world in the 1580s and engraved maps based on this earlier world view.
Those flourishes may not be necessary, but they do look nice splashing around that sea creature.