The Latin Psalters printed by Gutenberg’s successors between 1457-1459 with their multi-coloured initials are familiar images to students of printing. These Psalters were an attempt to replicate in print the marvelously colourful manuscript church books of the time. The possibility that the printing could deal with colour as well as black text was recognised from the start (Gutenberg had briefly experimented with a red second printing but abandoned it quite quickly), so that the Mainz Psalters are the first real attempt at printing in colour.
Fust and Schöffer decided on a different approach to Gutenberg. They appear to have first compiled the page with all the initial letters, decorative surrounds, etc locked up together in one forme. Then each coloured item was removed and the remaining text inked up in black. Next, each coloured piece was separately inked then replaced and the whole forme printed off. The advantage with this method is that the difficulties with registration are avoided and multi coloured printing becomes feasible. There are drawbacks though. Inking up the separate coloured pieces whilst out of the forme is tricky, as is inking up the black text on an unstable partially dismantled forme. There is also the danger of replacing the coloured parts in the wrong place and perhaps worst of all; it makes proofing impossible, thus sacrificing printing’s ability to deliver a potentially error free text.
The image above shows my attempt to explore these issues. On the right hand side are three pages printed in red, blue and black. On the left are the nine line blocks used to make them. The image is copied from the Bodleian’s Canon Missae printed in 1459, chosen because I happened to have a facsimile of it.
My method was first to scan the initials into photoshop and reduce them to black and white. They were quite fuzzy so I enlarged them hugely and cleaned up the images more or less pixel by pixel. It took ages and I am sure there must be a better way though I did get to know the images rather well. The line blocks (magnos) for each initial and its surroundings were ordered separately as I did not know at this stage how well things were going to work and ordering the whole page in one go could have resulted in an expensive failure. Magnos are available in a range of thicknesses. I chose the thickest (16 gauge) unmounted, because I was planning to separate each initial letter from its surrounding decoration and wanted them to be as strong as possible. I used a jeweller’s piercing saw to do this using the thinnest possible blade. After separation, each was provided with an MDF mount tailored to fit into its position on the page and to bring everything to type height. The text including its red parts was ordered separately then treated in the same way.
Inking the black text and the blue and red surrounds for the initials was straightforward but inking the initials themselves, because they have to be dropped into their surrounds and for this reason are unmounted was so awkward that I made two extra mounts with recesses shaped to fit the initials to hold them steady whilst applying ink.
Once it was working I passed it all on to my ex-colleague Martin Andrews who has been using it very effectively to demonstrate the process to students. However, since completion I have had some second thoughts. Some pages of these Psalters have many more initials than in the example I have used. Inking up the black text on mine when it is a line block is easy but imagine the difficulty when it is all made from separate types and a large portion of these have been removed for separate inking. They must have had a means of making the text stable so my assumption that the decorative surrounds for the initials each had their own mount is probably incorrect. The alternative would be to have both the surrounds and the initials unmounted and to have the space in the forme that they occupy filled with metal spacing material short of type height by the thickness of the initials. This still leaves the question about how the red text within the black text was managed. Digging out the type to be red printed, inking it up then re-inserting it would be troublesome but possible. The red types in my facsimile look thicker than their black counterparts. This could just be that the ink is different but I do wonder whether they had some means combining types to make slugs. The making of the blocks for the decorative initials and their surrounds is also intriguing. Hind in ‘An introduction to the history of the woodcut’ 14 speculates that these were metal casts taken from wood moulds. I am sure they are metal, not wood but just how the blocks for those thin squiggly loopy lines at the extremities of the decorative parts were made is puzzling and worth investigating practically.