The body of a book is uniform in character. You will find hardly if ever more than three styles of type: capitals, lower case, or italics, are used on the running page. However, printers have traditionally used the freedom of display which the title-page offers. This page is a first meeting between the book and its reader. It is an introduction, or, in musical terms: an overture, the printer’s orchestral showpiece that precedes the content of the story proper.
In historical terms: the book came first. The title-page was a later addition. The first printed books were not given a title-page. Early printers sought to imitate the beauty of medieval manuscripts. They had to compete with the scribes for a niche in the market. As with those manuscripts, the reader launched at once into the text, with no more than a brief phrase at the head of the first column which stated: ‘Incipit’: ‘Here beginneth’ – followed by the subject itself. Following the practice of the scribes, early printers put a colophon or ‘final touch’ at the end of the book, although the term colophon itself was not applied until the later eighteenth century. The Mainz Psalter, printed by Fust and Schoeffer in 1457, had the first printed colophon. There the printers proudly present the new process of printing. In translation, the statement reads: ‘The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457 on the vigil of the feast of the Assumption.’ The first recorded colophon was a printer’s advertisement. The practice spread rapidly.
During the last decades of the fifteenth century the colophon moved from the last to the first page. Initially, the practice was used in a haphazard manner. Some books were dated, others were not. Some carried a printer’s device, others did not. There was no uniform approach in the design of colophons, ‘aesthetics’ were not considered because of the overriding importance of the economics of publishing, and the whole design of the title-page was in an early stage of experimentation. The addition of the printer’s device proved popular. At first the design of these devices was simple, but they became more and more elaborate (if not tasteless). They were further embellished with decorative engraved borders. The principal purpose of the title page is to give information, in spite of early attempts at decoration. Colophons were occasionally printed in capitals, and large types were used frequently for first lines in separate paragraphs. Types began to be made purely for the function of display. However, the simple display title-pages were not considered particularly attractive during the sixteenth century. Embellishments were preferred. They were used in profusion and in great variety. Books had to look like manuscripts. It renders the books produced by Venetian Aldus Manutius unique. He was an advocate of simplicity and modesty, without sacrificing quality. His taste for simple but stylish design is characteristic for the works published by the firm. From the beginning of his career in 1494, he set a standard in care and distinction, which had declined, once the scribes had been replaced by printers. It was Aldus who would inspire later publishers such as William Pickering.