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Initial Letters Used in the 1500s

written by: Gwen Hagaman•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 8/29/2010

Learn how colorful initial cap typefaces can draw attention to your text layouts. The history of using initial letters during the Renaissance of the 1500s contributed to the birth of the printing industry. Find resources for digital initial cap fonts and illuminated letter artwork.

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    Initial letters decorate the first part of a written story or at each chapter. They are larger than the body text and often colorful and illustrated with plants, animals and mythology. Commanding attention, the initial caps may be placed above the text (raised), in the left margin (hanging), or set into the text (wrapped). Sometimes the balance of the first word following the initial will be in all capitals.

    Some initial cap letters are simply larger sizes but similar to the text font. The 1500s initial letters often used elegant scripts and brackets with floret designs. The initial letters illustrated with plants, animals or generic people are called “inhabited.” Those showing specific people or scenes from events are called “historiated.”

    Images by Gwen Hagaman 

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    Initial Letters in the Renaissance

    Illustrated initial letters became popular in Europe and Asia from the mid-1400s through the end of the 1500s, known as the Renaissance. It was a time when book production was changing from hand scribed copies to mechanically printed editions. Each culture - from China to Germany - produced their own style of printed artwork.

    The Gutenberg Bible, published in 1455 in Germany, is an example of a transition between drawn and printed works. It was among the first large volumes to be printed with a moveable type printing press. It was printed in black ink with blank spaces reserved for hand drawn illustration and ornamentation to be added manually by artisans. Ornate and colorful artwork was typical for 1500s initial letters.

    Called “illuminated manuscripts,” such books were decorated with colorful and illustrated initial letters, borders, chapter dividers, ornate title pages and miniature illustrations. Books printed before 1500 are called “incunabula,” which refers to the infancy of printing technology. As books were expensive to make and purchase, most were religious titles for wealthy owners.

    The use of artistic elements to embellish the printed page became big business for craftsmen who carved woodcuts and made engravings for borders, initial caps and chapter headers. Carved from hardwood planks, the woodcuts were composed along with blocks of type and printed along with the rest of the page. The surface was carved to remove any areas to remain unprinted. As printing equipment and processes improved, color printing replaced painted illustration.

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    Digital Initial Cap Fonts

    Digital fonts that reproduce historic initial lettering are available. Some makers, such as Aridi Initial Caps and Burton Initials, offer illuminated vector art versions where colors may be easily changed. These initials need to be placed into desktop documents as graphics. Designers may create their own initial caps using custom illustrations suited to the text being used with software, such as Adobe Illustrator.

    Initial letter typefaces include Acorn Initials, Anabel, Caxton Initials, Celtic Eels, Dearest Open, Goudy Initialen, Griffin Dingbats Caps, Picto Glyphs and Roycroft Initials. Free initial letter fonts are available at EternalFonts.com, AbstractFonts.com and FontRiver.com.