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.