Identifiers of Early Books: The Frontispiece


Jax De la Cruz-Luera ’20


Imagine this scene: You’re wandering through your local antique shop and you see a bookshelf stacked with dusty, leather bound volumes. Some of the books have titles on the front, others a gold design engraved in the leather, and some are completely blank. You pick one up, and flip to the first page. It has a piece of tissue paper on top, and underneath is a complex and very detailed drawing and this page is a little thicker than the rest of the book. The second page has what could be a title, but is really more of a whole sentence introduction, and there are more drawings around the border of this page. Immediately you know this must be an old book. But how do you know this? What is different about the way these books are set up that tells modern readers they’re about to venture a few hundred years into the past? 

Now that we are familiar with how the printed book emerged and changed the world, there are a few characteristics of early printed books that not only help us identify an item or book, but also give a little insight into what was culturally significant in Europe during the early modern period. As books began to be printed in larger quantities and dispersed throughout the world, there emerged artistic and stylistic trends that tell us more about how the historical actors would have interacted with these works. In the next few posts we will take a look at 5 categories of characteristics: Frontispiece, Title Page, Address to the Reader, Ornaments and Fleurons, and Page Numbers and Catchwords. Most of these characteristics are still utilized in books today, albeit in a modern fashion, and can help historians trace the evolution of the book over the centuries. 

The Frontispiece

Shortly after books began to be printed, the frontispiece appeared. A frontispiece, Latin for “looking at the forehead,” gave a face to a book. Prior to the printing press, manuscripts were typically commissioned, or made to order, and therefore would likely have been taken to a professional binder fairly quickly. Yet, once book production began to streamline, booksellers were faced with shelves of books, with nothing but a white blank sheet of paper on top of the pages to protect them while they waited to be purchased. Therefore, frontispieces were created to serve as identifiers of unbound books until they were taken to be professionally bound. Creativity soon followed necessity and artists began to weave metaphors and context messages through these frontispieces. Publishers would typically send out the frontispiece as a separate page along with the prospectus as advertisements for the book. 

Historians have studied frontispieces as evidence of the division of labour in the bookmaking industry. The frontispiece was produced separately from the book and usually on an entirely different stock of paper. Additionally, the frontispiece was typically signed by the engraver, since the frontispiece belonged to the art of engraving and not relief printing. It could be sold as prints to collectors, intimately tying artists with the growing book business. There were multiple types of frontispieces, depending on where the book was published and what was being conveyed by the artist. Therefore besides the division of labour, scholars of early books also study the depictions on these engravings to understand cultural evolutions.  

The word frontispiece originated from a term which referenced the front of a building. In the same manner that the front of a building separated those on the outside from what’s held inside, the frontispiece signified entrance into the book. A journey of sorts into the very text. Therefore, early frontispieces commonly depicted classical architecture. This consisted of classical buildings, theatrical backdrops, commemorative arches, or even scenes of a hero’s triumphal entrance into town through temporary structures common in the 16th century. 

The second type of frontispiece commonly found in early printed books was the artist’s portrait. This approach marks a significant intersection between art and book production. Typically, if the author was a well known person, a portrait of them was readily available for purchase. Publishers would purchase a portrait, and commission an artist to create a frontispiece with the portrait reimagined in a new manner. These changes may have consisted of small things such as changing the attire or emotion conveyed, to adding backgrounds and scenes. The changes would have likely reflected that artist or publisher’s particular culture, and therefore these frontispieces are incredibly interesting to compare. For example, a well known artist such as Shakespeare would have been presented to a French audience in a different manner than he was presented to an English one, even if the same portrait was used. 

The third style of frontispiece is probably the most familiar to modern audiences, and that is the narrative frontispiece. The narrative frontispiece functioned similar to a movie preview. It was a depiction of a scene from the book with no words or context included. This would intrigue readers, and allowed artists to display their creativity through their own interpretation of the text. 

The fourth type was perhaps the most abstract. Known as the catalogue of collections, these pictures typically appeared as a fourth wall in a room, where many different items were held or stored. This type of frontispiece was used to convey to the reader all that the book might include, or inform on. It holds a sense of informational authority, reassuring the reader that they will become knowledgeable from reading the text. 

Similar to the fourth type, the last style of frontispiece is known as mediation of knowledge. In these scenes there is a figure drawn who is meant to convey the knowledge of the book to the audience. Depicting a tudor or scholar figure in the frontispiece really drives home the intention of schooling the readers on the subjects of the book. Many times these were found among educational texts.