Tag Archives: history of the book

The varieties of a Palatino edition

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.

1588 Compendio del gran volume, Palatino, G. The verso is written out in manuscript to look like type. It is the correct text for this edition of the book and pasted over another edition’s text. The recto of this page is type from the correct edition.

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.

1588 Compendio del gran volume, Palatino, G. The recto is written out in manuscript to look like type. It is the correct text for this edition of the book.

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.

1588 Compendio del gran volume, Palatino, G. The verso is written out in manuscript to look like type.


University of Iowa Center for the Book

At the Paper Lab of the University of Iowa's Center for the Book
At the Paper Lab of the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book

Last week I rode into Iowa City on Tuesday morning. The ride up from Texas had been really hot and I was in light pants and a t-shirt under my riding suit. I’d left the back vent open and was chilled to the bone an hour after starting at 6:30 that morning. I had to stop, drink coffee and eat to thaw. The temperature was in the 60s but I’d been riding in the 90s and 100s previously and I wasn’t prepared for such cool weather.

After that, it was a pleasant 200 mile ride to the Paper Lab in Coralville, just a few miles from the main campus. Tim Barrett, director of the Center for the Book, paper scholar and master papermaker was expecting me. I stowed my motorcycle gear, donned my tennis shoes and headed into Iowa City to have lunch with Cheryl Jacobsen, a very talented calligrapher and instructor at the Center for the Book. I was invited to speak at the start of Cheryl’s beginning calligraphy class that evening and we had a pleasant talk about what I’m trying to do. Cheryl’s classes are well attended and it’s gratifying to see that calligraphy and lettering are getting the attention of students today.

The Conservation lab at the University of Iowa Library is tucked away in the Government Docs section on the 5th floor
The Conservation lab at the University of Iowa Library

After lunch, I visited the conservation lab at the library. My good friend, Giselle Simon has been at the library for 3 years after working at the Newberry Library in Chicago. This is a small world and people I’ve known at one place often end up somewhere else. This phenomenon will repeat itself as I continue to travel East. Giselle’s a talented conservator and book artist and runs a pretty happy department at Iowa. I was fortunate to meet a few of the technicians and learn of their own skills and interests. A conservation lab often has talented technicians that work every day at the bench to conserve and preserve the library’s material. I enjoy seeing how people use their work skills in their own efforts.

Papermaking classroom at the University of Iowa Center for the Book
Papermaking classroom at the University of Iowa Center for the Book
Paper and mould
Paper and mould at UICB
Standing Press in the paper classroom at the UICB
Standing Press in the paper classroom at the UICB

Tim Barrett is a thoughtful and meticulous craftsman with a strong interest in the aesthetics of historic paper. He has spent quite a few years making papers that emulate Renaissance era paper. Two videos from 2013 and 2014, document the UICB paper lab’s attempts at making 2,000 sheets in a day. One of the things they learned that old rags are more porous and allow for better drainage than fresh material. And a paper mill had support staff beyond the three people at the vat. It took a team of 11 or more people to produce 2,000 sheets in a day.

Writing about historic craft processes is often done without the experience of doing that craft and approaching duplication of materials, techniques and conditions present in the period being studied. Tim and his team took the time and effort to investigate the question by doing. This kind of research is useful as it tests theories with experience.

Portrait of Scalzini. Note the surface of the paper
Portrait of Scalzini. Note the surface of the paper

As you may have guessed from this long post, I’m interested in paper. Was the paper used in writing manuals different than printed books of the same period and locale? What qualities are needed to get a good impression from a woodblock or a copperplate? Did the printmaking process require a different tooth or surface? More sizing or none?

I asked Tim these questions as a means of developing some sensibility to the substrate that writing manuals were recorded. I’ve been photographing paper surfaces and looking at smooth/rough and thin/thick papers to gather information. I’ll report back later after I’ve seen quite a few more books.


Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving
Coffee in Berkeley just days before leaving Photo C. Stinehour

The Motoscribendi tour rolls out in a few hours. I packed all my clothes and camping gear, now the hard part comes: Getting the traveling writing kit together – pens, inks, paper, etc.

Packing the bike
Packing up to leave. Photo M. Smith

The t-shirts are done as you can see and have already been shipped out, so that’s been a relief to have accomplished. Thanks to Meg Smith, other fulfillment will be done while I’m gone. And she and her boyfriend are taking their bikes to escort me to Sacramento on Delta roads and twisties just to get things going.

Where am I going?

I’ve come to the conclusion that an itinerary will help – even if I change things up along the way. The list below is my first attempt at routing.

August 6th – Saturday 8th: Oakland/Santa Fe, NM
August 10th – Tuesday 11th: Santa Fe/Austin
August 12 – 18 Austin, TX
August 18 – 21 Houston
August 22 – 23 Houston/Iowa City
August 24 – 25 Iowa City, IA
August 26 Iowa City/Chicago
August 27 – September 2 Chicago, IL
Sept. 2 Chicago/Ann Arbor, MI
Sept. 3 – 4 Ann Arbor & Detroit, MI
Sept. 5 – 6 Detroit/Charlottesville
Sept. 6 – 7 Charlottesville, VA
Sept. 8 – 9 Richmond, VA
Sept. 10 Richmond/Washington, D.C.
Sept 11 – 15 Washington, DC
Sept. 16 Washington, DC/Princeton
Sept. 17 -18 Princeton, NJ
Sept. 19 Princeton/NYC
Sept. 20 – 26 NYC
Sept 27 NYC/New Haven
Sept 28 – 29 New Haven, CT
Sept. 30 New Haven/Worcester
Oct. 1 – 3 Worcester, MA
Oct. 4 Worcester/Cambridge
Oct. 5 – 8 Cambridge, MA
Oct. 9 -10 Hanover, NH
Oct 11 Hanover/Scranton, PA
Oct. 12 Scranton/Philadelphia
Oct 13 – 14 Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 14 Philadelphia/Cleveland
Oct. 15 – 17 GBW, Cleveland, OH
Oct. 23 – 24 APHA Rochester, NY
Oct. 25 – 31 Return to CA, no fixed itinerary

Remember, this is a motorcycle tour of libraries that have writing manuals and copybooks, and to keep that in mind, here’s a few more items to look at.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library Photo NGY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NY
Horfei @ Harry Ransom Center Photo NGY

I’ll see you in a few days with a report.

Many Thanks!

Many Thanks!
Many Thanks

Thanks to all who contributed  to Motoscribendi!

The final count was $6,579 and this will allow me to print and make all the Perks (they will begin going out next week) and then allow me at least 45 days on the road. While 45 days isn’t a long time to travel 12,000 miles and visit almost 20 libraries (yes, the number has increased since I started this!) I will still spend a few days at each institution and gather information, look at the books and work with librarians to develop the Census.

Below are some shots Jennie Hinchcliff took at a presentation I made at the Letterform Archive.

Motoscribendi smacky prints
Motoscribendi smacky prints
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Bookcase at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Pointing out a manuscript exemplar at the Letterform Archive
Van de Velde & copy
Van de Velde & copy
Pairings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham
Parings from bamboo pens cut by Ward Dunham

I owe a ton of thanks to a number of people who encouraged me as well as helped organize the project. Next week I’ll get things organized enough to do a proper thank you as I have been scrambling to get all the artwork completed, sent to printers: T-shirt, sticker and offset printers.

I will be on the road by Wednesday night, August 5th. And I’ll probably leave at 8:00 pm and make all of 100 miles before I stop! I’ll continue the blog from the road.

Finding Libraries with Writing Manuals

What is a Writing Manual?

Writing manuals teach a student how to form letters and write a particular style of writing or hand. Often, a writing manual discussed ink recipes, paper selection, how to cut a quill into a pen and how to hold it. They came into widespread use in the first quarter of the 16th century as a way to teach students how to be scribes. The first writing book to be published was written by Ludovico degli Arrighi’s La Operina and was printed from a text cut in wood.

Books with text cut in wood had been available prior to the invention of moveable type, but those books were meant to be read for the text only. With metal type, there was no way to illustrate how to form letters, and Arrighi had his text engraved in wood and printed from these blocks of text. Writing manuals quickly became Renaissance best sellers. Writing manuals were popular books because they showed how to write specific styles and they were designed to be beautiful books.

Because the text was cut in wood (later engraved in copper), the blocks were saved for later printing and often printed by different printers. Their useful life could extend beyond a century. This gave rise to a dizzying number of variants and titles.

Giovanni Batista Palatino composed and published Libro nuovo d’imparare a scrivener  in 1540. As you can see from the title, the advertiser’s favorite “New and Improved” marketing technique was born. Julie L. Melby at Princeton’s Graphic Arts collection does a fine job of writing about these books in Palatino’s Tools of Writing.

The Bancroft Library’s copy Compendio del gran volvme dell’art del bene & leggiadramente scriuere tutte le forti di lettere e caratteri… from 1588, shows a previous owner’s attempt at writing out the text in the margin.

1588 Palatino @Bancroft Library. Student has copied part of the text in the lower margin.

Where are these books located & how do I find them?

The heavyweights in the history of writing have written about these books for a century. People like Stanley Morison, Alfred Fairbank, James Wardrop and Nicholas Barker dove deep into this subject. These guys were interested in how handwriting influenced type design and how these books were made and printed because they were primarily illustrated books about letterforms. Illustrated in wood or metal, the text might be all cut (therefore illustrated, not typeset) or an admixture of typographic and xylographic (woodcut) or copperplate. If you’re really interested in this, you can get lost in the subject and never even see one of the actual books. There is so much literature in both books and journals that you could spend a year reading and know only a little.

Because I have spent a lot of time looking at these books all over the US, I’m familiar with their location and know where the major collections are. Making a census of books by location will assist scholars in their research. Without this type of finding aid, it is difficult to know what is in an institution since items are not cataloged in a way that they can be found online.

I invite readers to suggest institutions with writing manuals and copybooks that I may have missed.

Map it!

I am drawing a map that will give you a view of where I’ll be headed – and loosely, when. Then you can follow along, and if I discover more institutions along the way I can visit them. The trip will begin in the Bay Area and head in a counter-clockwise direction around the US and into Canada.

Leaving the locals till last, I’ll give you a quick highlight: Huntington Library, Harry Ransom Center, UTAustin, Library of Congress, Folger Shakespreare Library, Scranton, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York Public Library, Columbia University, Yale, American Antiquarian Society, Harvard, Toronto, Chicago, Iowa City, and home to the target-rich environment of the Bay Area.

Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive. First horizontal writing book.
Amphiareo, 1580. Letterform Archive.
First horizontal writing book.

Locally, the Bancroft Library at UCBerkeley has a number of items, San Francisco Public Library, Stanford and the Letterform Archive. You’ll be hearing about this new institution as my friend Rob Saunders has turned his private collection of material about letterforms into a nonprofit organization that offers digital images of the collection as well as on-site study for type designers, calligraphers, lettering artists and historians.

I’ve got a few things to prepare for my Indiegogo launch on June 19, and will be back in a day or two with more.

Here’s a few woodblock items I’ve done and printed letterpress.

Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock, on press with print pulled away from block.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock alphabet, cut in reverse. Printed letterpress.
Woodblock printed letterpress
Woodblock printed letterpress

Motoscribendi: Libraries, Historic Calligraphy Manuals, Book People and Motorcycles

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library


My name is Nicholas Yeager, I’m a scholar, librarian, motorcyclist and scribe.

You know what the first three are, but what’s a scribe? Every time you write something with a pen, you are inscribing the paper (or other substrate) with your handwriting. A scribe may be called lettering artist or calligrapher these days but there was a time when the only way to record information was by writing it down. And the people that did that were called scribes.

Motoscribendi will chronicle my travels – yes, by motorcycle – to major collections of old writing manuals, copybooks and lettering instruction manuals at libraries across North America. These visits will enable me to develop a catalog of representative writing manuals that will help people locate these scattered resources. (Despite a resurgence in type design and lettering art, there’s still no centralized way to find them.)  The trip will also help me produce a modern writing manual that pays homage to this type of book.

A Little History

If Gutenberg were trying to destroy the scribal industry by inventing printing back in the 15th century, he blew it. Because one of the unintended consequences of printing was to establish a permanent place for calligraphers and scribes. Printing didn’t eliminate scribes, it created even more need for scribes to record legal, commercial, theological and medical correspondence. And printing allowed writing masters a method of recording their exact lettering instructions to teach students far from their writing schools.

How to hold the quill pen
How to hold the quill pen

My Story

Thirty-nine years ago I began to study calligraphy and the history of the book. With Patti Downing, I began a manuscript study group at the Newberry Library in Chicago. We studied various hands and book design, early printing and the large collection of writing manuals that are housed at the Newberry.

My interest in these books stayed with me and I continued to study them at the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University’s Rare Book Room and as a librarian at New York Public Library.

Horfei's Roman Capital A
Horfei’s Roman Capital A at the Harry Ransom Center

Along with this I practiced calligraphy and graphic design, wrote about and edited calligraphic and book art publications and studied descriptive bibliography and the history of printing. I teach calligraphy and lettering and make pieces for shows and for sale.

Palatino 1588 Bancroft Library
Juan Yciar 1564 Bancroft Library

While I moved around the country, I rode motorcycles for most of that  time, having begun riding when I was 13. My love of long-distance motorcycling didn’t have an opportunity to develop until I was in my 40s and has since been a major component of my life. I have traveled to library trade shows, exhibitions and workshops on my motorcycle. Riding lets me discover what lies between the major cities I travel to – and to be fully present in all those places. It gives me the same feeling of immersion and discovery I get from studying a writing manual. In both cases, a lot of the most interesting stuff is hidden in the finest details. It needs to be experienced up close and in person.

Stroke sequence

My trip will start in mid July. I hope you’ll come along  especially if you’re new to these books and their history. I’ll discuss their design, printing and collecting history as well as my talks with historians, librarians, printers and other book arts practitioners across North America.