Dante Incunabula

The word incunabulum (pl. incunabula) derives from the Latin cuna (cradle), and is used to refer to books printed during the infancy of printing, that is, before 1501. The invention of printing from moveable type, traditionally attributed to Johann Gutenberg, who printed his famous Vulgate Bible at Mainz in 1455, spread quickly from Germany to Italy. In 1464 Sweynheym and Pannartz, two Germans, set up a press at Subiaco, near Rome. In 1469, the German brothers Johann and Windelin of Speyer established their press in Venice. The typical early printer in Italy was in fact an artisan who had learned his trade in Germany like Johann Neumeister, who printed the first edition of the Comedy at Foligno in 1472.

The earliest printers were trained in the manuscript tradition and competed directly with the producers of costly manuscripts. Consequently, the first generation of printed books (until 1480) sought to imitate these, as evidenced by the incunabula of the Comedy displayed in this exhibit. This dependence of the early printers upon manuscript tradition is exemplified by the absence of title pages and pagination, as well as by the use of abbreviation signs even when they were technically inefficient (they increased the number of characters in a font and made the typesetters job more difficult). Moreover, early printers often satisfied their customers wish to have their books illuminated by providing spaces in which initials could later be painted. It was not until near the turn of the century that printers began to develop their own standards.

The size of an edition was an important consideration for early printers since a successful publisher had to gauge correctly how many copies the market could bear. Thus it is not surprising that publishers adhered primarily to the "bestsellers," namely religious books, textbooks, legal works and the classics. The number of copies printed during the incunable period was usually small, rarely exceeding 300 copies. Around 1500, when the size of the normal book was reduced from folio to quarto 500 copies became standard. It is thought that only 200 copies of Neumeister's editio princeps of the Comedy were printed, of which only about twenty are still extant.