Often, we find ourselves engrossed in a book, —whether for a little escapism or perhaps for the purposes of research—lost amongst the words on the page. The art of writing is, of course, reason alone to become lost. However, the beauty of the book itself, as an object of material culture, can often be overlooked (and for the sake of the context of this blog, especially older books).
Like many antique objects, most books contain clues pertaining to the many hands that made them. The printing and publishing of these objects was regarded as being a highly specialised occupation, which required multiple skill sets and creative talent. Sadly, many of the crafts which together created the books that lie within our Special Collections stores today are currently endangered. With this in mind, a rise in appreciation for the art of the book—that is as an object and not solely for the content that fills its pages—has generated a desire both to admire and to study books for their individuality and charming features, such as marbled endpapers and painted fore-edges. The printer’s mark, or the printer’s device (the two are used synonymously), is one such charming characteristic which deserves attention. This blog post will give attention to the art of the printers’ devices and hopefully will encourage others to do so too.
A printer’s device refers to an identifying mark which can be found inside a book, either on the title page, the colophon, or sometimes at the end of a book. Typically, this mark consists of a combination of images and texts, both decorative and functional. Printing houses depended on this mark as their brand, more so than bindings, since in previous centuries it wasn’t unusual for books to be rebound various times over the course of its life.
A printer’s device served to identify the printer’s work and often their knowledge, educational status and interests. In a sense they are used in a similar fashion today, although many are quite simple and stylized in their appearance (such as the Dolmen Press and Penguin examples shown above). It would be unlikely to come across a device as elaborate and eye-catching as the examples which follow.
A well-known old printer’s device is that of Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), the Venetian printer and humanist of the renowned Aldine Press. His printing house, regarded as being highly influential, is considered to be a catalyst for the beginnings of printing on a larger and more inclusive scale throughout the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Manutius was the first printer to use italic type, the first to print in Greek, and the first to print smaller books, which became popular alongside an interest in travel and in various disciplines. At a time when most printers would print runs of a couple of hundred copies, the Aldine Press was printing a thousand.
The famous symbol of the dolphin and the anchor refers to the proverb Festina lente, or ‘Make Haste Slowly’. It was through this harmony of speed and accuracy that the Aldine Press became one of the most highly regarded printing houses of its time. The prominence and successes of this press resulted in many other printers basing their own devices on the dolphin and anchor device of the Aldine Press, right up to the present day.
The printer’s mark of Heinrich van Haestens (1566-1629), found within a beautifully decorated vellum binding from the Franciscan Collection, is one such device which pays homage to Aldus Manutius. Heinrich van Haestens was active throughout the early seventeenth century in Louvain, Belgium—a city which is renowned for its early printing culture and activity.
Haesten’s device depicts a rather jolly looking winged turtle. The turtle sits under a scroll banner, framed by a leafy wreath, which reads: ‘Cvnctanto Propero’ meaning ‘I slowly hasten’, this being a pun on the printer’s name Haestens which means haste or speed. This adage also recalls Aldus Manutius’ motto to ‘make haste slowly’. Many different variations of this device exist (this is true with many printers’ devices!), but the turtle which features here looks particularly delighted with him/herself.
As you can see, the inclusion of animals within these miniature works of art was quite trendy. The Cat and Mouse devices of the Sessa family, who resided and worked in Italy from the end of the fifteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century, are quite eye-catching and difficult to miss upon opening a book’s cover. The Sessa family of Venice adopted the cat as their device in some forty-odd variations over four generations of printing and publishing. This Sessa device found in our collection is impressive, both in scale and in detail. Perfectly framed by classical elements, such as cherubs and ornate sculptural features, this cat takes centre stage. If you look closely, you’ll spot a little something hanging from the cat’s mouth.
Historically, cats have played an important role in protecting the written word from hungry pests, such as the unfortunate mouse or rat that we see here. Perhaps this printers’ mark acts as a homage to the many cats who, for centuries, have played a key role in preserving the materials housed within many pest-prone libraries and monasteries throughout history. The pedestal or disc on which the cat proudly sits might be a testament to this. Or maybe the Sessa family, like many of us, were simply fond of feline friends.
The prominent bookseller and printing house of Arnold Birckmann is another example of a printer’s device being kept alive through generations. Birckmann was active in Cologne, Germany, throughout the sixteenth century. After the bookseller’s death, his widow, Agnes, continued running the business with her sons in Cologne, Antwerp and further afield in London. Agnes, like many women at the time, played a major role in the continued success of the family business. In 1585, Barbara Birckmann, future wife of the bookseller Arnold Mylius, and her brother took over. From then on, the printing house, directed by Mylius, was known by its corporate name ‘Officina Birckmannica’.
This beautifully detailed device is a favourite of mine. It features a cheery looking hen, pottering around the foot of a tree. Enclosed within the highly decorative frame is the Latin proverb, Utilia semper, nova saepius profero, which roughly translates to ‘useful things, and more often new things, I bring forth’. The oval frame, within which the proverb is set, draws the viewers’ eyes to the intricate picture of the hen under the tree.
The successful use of these delightful printers’ devices dates to the fifteenth century. Today, collectors of antique books and bibliophiles alike seek out these unique trademarks. The printers’ devices detailed above are a fraction of many which lie within the diverse bindings housed in our collections. Hopefully, more and more individuals will begin to consciously take the time to appreciate the many endangered crafts and one-of-a-kind features associated with bookbinding. Surely then we can assist, even in the smallest of ways, with a revival of this beautiful craft.
This blog post was written by Rachel Daly, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections.
Blogpost by Laura Ryan, DCU Special Collections: https://www.libfocus.com/2023/05/the-role-of-librarians-in-preserving.html
Edward Worth Library online exhibition, ‘Printing in Sixteenth-Century France at the Edward Worth Library’.
Hebrew printers’ marks, by Abraham Yaari,1971.
Heritage Crafts webpage: https://heritagecrafts.org.uk/redlist/
The book and the printing press in printer’s marks of the fifteenth & sixteenth centuries, by Abraham Horodisch, 1977.
University of Barcelona Printers’ Devices database: