The early printing press – The Praelum Ascensianum

One of my great passions is early printing and bookbinding and in this post I am going to indulge that passion as I digress again into the wonderful world of Renaissance bibliography and take a look at the frontispiece of this splendid early printed book.  This book is an edition of Livy’s History of Rome and was published in Paris in 1516.   It was published as a joint enterprise by the two major Parisian printers of the age: Jehan Petit (who was using the alias Joanne Paruo) and Jodocus van Ashe Badius.  Although they jointly funded the printing of this book and as the title page suggests they sold the book in both of their respective shops, the Colophon of the book makes it clear that the book was printed by Badius in his print shop which was called the Praelum Ascensianum – the Ascension Press.  In a wonderful bit of marketing in the book’s Colophon, Petit and Badius claim that this particular book was a new improved edition of Livy’s History and was the most accurate available to the academics of Paris!   Now we say that Petit and Badius were printer’s, but they were not press men, they wouldn’t have got their hands dirty. They were print shop proprietors, speculators, Publishers if you like. It seems that Both Petit and Badius, Badius particularly, were men of considerable intellect and learning (see sources below), who were quite capable of producing accurate texts of important Classical works.  

The title page of this book is wonderful, full of detail and full of meaning  The text is set within a lovely little classical structure with pilasters and profile heads in medallions hanging from them, evoking the architecture of Ancient Rome.  Around the classical frame are lots of marginal details: Renaissance Putti, suits of armour eluding to the martial history of the Roman Emperors and various mythical creatures.  At the top is a man in a roundel flanked by two lions, busy writing away at a book on a lectern – is this Livy himself?  This particular wood engraved surround is used in other printed works coming off the presses of Petit and Badius.  Here is an example from another of their collaborations, it has at it’s centre the printer’s mark of Petit and was printed at his press rather than that of Badius. So clearly the two men were sharing their resources when there was call to do so.   

Back to the Lampeter copy of Livy’s History and on the frontispiece of this collaboration the printer’s mark this time is that of Badius. It’s a wonderful representation of the interior of Badius’ print shop the Praelum Ascensianum.  At the centre of the image is the very printing press that this book was printed on, with the name of the print shop clearly printed in red upon it.  At the bottom is the monogram of Badius: A(VA)B – for Jodocus van Asche Badius.   

There’s lots going on in this image and we can learn a lot from it about the process that went into producing a book like Livy’s History.    As I said the press is in the middle, it’s a wooden press with a wooden screw mechanism. The press man is on the right hand side of the press. With his right arm he is he pulling the handle, that will turn the screw, that will apply pressure to the ‘platten’, which will ‘press’ the inked type onto the paper.  With his left hand he is about to turn the ‘rounce’ the handle that is connected to a windlass, that operates the ‘bed’ of the press, or as they called in the sixteenth century the ‘coffin’. This ‘coffin’ contains the ‘form’ into which the cast metal type (the letters) is set and over this is placed the ‘tympam’ which contains the paper that is to be printed.    The man behind the press man is his assistant and he is holding in his hand two ink balls.  These ink balls have wooden handles and are made of leather stuffed with wool and are used to spread the ink evenly on the metal type. When the press man draws out the ‘coffin’ and as he removes the newly printed piece of paper, the assistant jumps in quickly, inks the type using the balls, before another piece of paper is put in and the press is pulled again.   Having two men working the press, a press man and an assistant, significantly increased the output of the press.  

Now on the right of the press is another man, he is seated on a bench; he is the typesetter or compositor.  In his right hand he has a composing stick and with this left hand he is reaching out to pick out the metal type, the individual metal letters.  He transfers the metal type into the stick in readiness for its transferal to the form.  Notice how his eyes are focused not on the type or the stick, but on the piece of text that hung up in front of him, this is the proof text he is copying.  An experienced compositor would be able to set type without looking down at the trays containing it. For Petit and Badius, the accuracy of the texts they were producing for the French academic market were clearly an important selling point. The accuracy of the text was in the hands of the skilled type compositor and the clarity of the printed text in the hands of the skilled press man.


T. Liuij Patauini historici clarissimi quae extant Decades : ad decem diuersa exempla acri iudicio repositae  – Paris, Venundantur ab Joanne Paruo et Iodoco Badio Ascensio, 1516.

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