Make do and mend

We sometimes tend to equate early printed books with ‘fine printing’, but often books printed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exhibit all the flaws of a handcraft practised carelessly, whether from inexperience, rushing to finish a job, or even the need to save money – paper, ink and time all being expensive commodities.

Pierre Chouët was an established printer in Geneva in 1675, the year he produced the first edition of Pierre Mussard’s Historia deorum fatidicorum, vatum, sibyllarum, phoebadum…, the first edition of a book which argued that Roman Catholic customs were derived from paganism. The book includes fifty engravings showing portraits of gods and hermetic writers including Apollo, Jupiter, Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistus, Iamblichus, and the sibyls.

But combining letterpress and engraving is no easy task, and even in the most experienced of print shops things can go awry. The plate on page 48 looks like all the others, but unlike the others it has not been printed directly on the page but has been printed separately, and then pasted onto the page. Why wasthis print treated differently? Holding the page to the light reveals the answer: underneath the plate, another image of Trophonius – this time upside down! Paper was too valuable to waste, and this was a rather clever way to fix a mis-fed sheet.

It was easy enough to repair that mistake, but unfortunately pages 232 and 237 show working practices that were less easy to hide. These sheets display what printers sometimes call set-off, when the still-wet ink from a printed sheet transfers onto another sheet producing a reverse image of the printed page. Again, perhaps, to save paper, the letterpress text was simply printed over the set off, and the page then treated as good.

Mistakes like these help to explain the practicality of how printing was done. It is clear from these errors that the engravings were printed before the letterpress, and that rather noticeable errors were not necessarily a cause for waste.


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