Cabinet 08: Historiated Initials

Historiated initials can be defined as those which have a scene incorporated into their design. The scene often told a story, hence the term historiated. Early manuscript historiated initials usually depicted biblical scenes, as did early printed historiated initials. After 1500, as influenced by the Renaissance (Bellaire), themes of historiated printed initials began to include depictions of everyday activities, children, and battle scenes. Printers not only used historiated initials as merely decorative elements but also as a way to indicate the theme of the text to the reader. A well designed historiated initial could encapsulate the essence of the text which, no doubt, contributed to the reading experience. This cabinet and the two drawers below contain examples of printed historiated initials.


Image one

Casto Innocente Ansaldi, De authenticis Sacrarum Scripturarum apud SS. Patres lectionibus libri duo. [Veronae] Typis Seminarii Veronensis, 1747. Shoults Itb 1747 A



Image two

Hyginus, Hyginvs et Polybius de castris romanorum. Amstelodami, Apud Iudocum Pluymer, bibliopolam. 1660. Shoults Lb 1660 H



Identifying Printed Initials

Identifying the designers of decorative initials and printing blocks is problematic. Designs were constantly being borrowed and modified (Bellaire), as were the printing blocks. Blocks were sold between printing houses around Europe. Therefore, an initial printed in an Italian book may, in fact, be from a French block based on a design by an English artist. As blocks were used for as long as possible, Bellaire notes that "initial letters a century apart in age, and from half a dozen sources may be found in a single volume" - this only adds to the difficulties in identifying them.

Despite the difficulties of attributing printed initials to a designer, block maker or engraver, they do seem to naturally fall into categories by their style (Bellaire).

Initial letters may be:

a) calligraphic
b) decorated - sometimes becoming distorted
c) the background can be decorated (eg. historiated initials)
d) "passe-partout"