(The) Front Matter(s)!

It is always tempting to skip past the first pages of an atlas or rare book, to get to the gorgeous illustrations or the fascinating text. But the front of old books matters!

Here one can find the names of previous owners, such as signatures, bookplates, or library stamps; dealer’s records; commentaries or dedications; beautiful frontispieces; and other material that both supplements the contents of the book and provides scintillating glimpses into the life of the book as a historical object, as well as the lives and thoughts of the people connected with it.

A frontispiece is a decorative, large-scale illustration found at the start of a book or atlas, opposing the title page. Typically, frontispieces are artworks spanning the whole page. The term ‘frontispiece’ comes from the Latin ‘frontispicium’ (‘frontispice’ in French). ‘Frons’ means forehead and ‘specere’ translates as ‘to look at’. Thus, a frontispiece presents the face of the book. It captures the reader’s attention and sets the tone as their first interaction with the contents of an atlas, codex, chronicle, or other work.

The tradition of the frontispiece can be traced back to the 15th century. By the 17th century, they were a commonplace feature of atlases and books.

The sumptuous colouring, detailed rendering, and symbolism in these wonderful illustrations showcases the skill of the printmaker and the wealth of the patron, and monumentalises the information held within the publication – sometimes quite literally!

Frontispieces often incorporated allegorical figures, iconography (emblems and symbols), and architectural features. They challenge the reader to interpret and decipher the meanings that can be derived from the visual symbols on the page.

Sebastian Münster’s ‘Cosmographia’, 1540

The frontispiece of Münster’s ‘Cosmographia’ pushed the limits of the medium of woodblock printing and reveals to the reader the wonderful illustrations and depth of information to come. The work has been attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger. The lower half of the frontispiece depicts a scene with a man hunting an elephant with a spear. It alludes to how the text seeks to impose a system of knowledge, and its encyclopaedic ambitions, through a scroll displaying the Latin name of the plant curled around its branches. The frontispiece incorporates typical design features which can be found on early modern maps, such as snake-like sea monsters.

Johannes Stumpff’s ‘World Chronicle’, 1547

The title page of Johannes Stumpff’s ‘World Chronicle’ explains to the reader the contents of the book. The heraldry in the illustration alludes to Stumpff’s documentation of battles and geographical boundaries. Set within richly ornamental, classical columns and scrolled frieze designs, are the coats of arms of major European countries. The illustration draws on the imagery of traditional frontispieces, setting the heraldry within architectural borders. Borrowing from the ancient design of Corinthian styled columns, it draws a parallel between Stumpff’s chronicling of Switzerland and surrounding Europe, and the reputation of classical knowledge, portraying them as equivalent humanist intellectual endeavours.

Andreas Cellarius’ ‘Harmonia Macrocosmica’, 1660

The figures depicted on this frontispiece design pay homage to great theorists that had come before Cellarius. It incorporates images of the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Nicholas Copernicus as well as Claudius Ptolemy and Galileo Galilei. The depictions of these astronomers make reference to the content of the atlas, which sets out different models of the universe. The figures appear engrossed in calculation or are shown pointing towards the Heavens, with instruments littered around their feet. They surround a depiction of Urania, the Greek muse of Astronomy and Astrology. The upper section of the print is given over to a representation of the sky, populated by little cherubs known as putti. A luminous sun opposes a crescent moon in shadow, with an arching zodiac cutting through the clouds beneath.

Printing Privileges

Early printmakers had to obtain permission to print a map or atlas in their local territory. In the 17th century, printing privileges were often recorded at the beginning of books and atlases, on the frontispiece. Holding such an exclusive right was a very important concession, given to the publishing house by a monarch or even the Holy Roman Emperor.

Permission rights were highly lucrative for mapmakers as they offered a complete monopoly over the market for that book or map. Anyone who infringed upon these unique rights would be subject to confiscations and fines.

In England, Henry VIII set up a system of royal privilege which lasted until 1775. It gave a publisher a patent endorsed by the Crown, authorising them to print a particular atlas or book for a certain period.

Similar systems were implemented across Europe. For example: in the Venetian Republic, Antonio Floriano was given a patent to print his “bicycle-spoke map” in c. 1555. The final lines of Andreas Cellarius’ ‘Harmonia Macrocosmica’ title page indicates that Johannes Janssonius had the privilege to print the book of knowledge in the Dutch States. Similarly, printed in red letters on the title page in Berlinghieri’s edition of Claudius Ptolemy’s ‘Geographia’ is the Latin phrase ‘Cvm Gratia Et Privilegio’.

The lapse of the Blaeu family’s printing privilege in 1620, meant that Johannes Janssonius was able to print Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s atlas, ‘Light of Navigation’. And in 1677, Nicolaes Visscher was given a patent in the States of Holland and West-Friesland to print maps for a 15-year period, which was renewed by his son when he took over the business in 1682.

Patrons and Dedications

Producing maps and atlases was an extremely expensive, multi-step process. Atlases required collating geographical knowledge, designing maps, cutting blocks or incising plates, printing the visuals, and hand-colouring them. Finding a patron to fund these activities was critical. Patrons offered financial support and prestige through their high status as Popes, monarchs, or nobles.

By supporting the work of an important cartographer or publisher, the patron also associated themselves with a publication of importance and great skill or knowledge. For example, Robert Dudley was patronised by the Medici family – in particular Ferdinando II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who supported the production of his famous ‘Dell Arcano Del Mare’.

Petrus Apianus was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V to create the ‘Astronomicum Caesareum’ and his coat of arms can be found on the verso of the frontispiece. There is a depiction of a dragon set within a volvelle-like structure on the frontispiece. The creature had long been associated with the Holy Roman Empire due to the prominence of the Order of the Dragon.

The wealthy elite were prompted to support cartographical publications as symbols of their far-reaching influence, extensive wealth, and modern intellect. The tradition of seeking patronage in the arts can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. The custom of crediting patrons at the front of books took hold in the early Modern period. These dedications took the form of august portraits and text, praising the patron.

The frontispiece in John Speed’s atlas states that the book is dedicated to King Charles II of England and displays the Monarch’s coat of arms. The Charles II’s heraldry is surrounded by arms of Kings who came before him. Great Britian’s origins are traced back to the Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans. Each civilisation is represented by an essential sculptural figure, dressed in armour, and set within an architectural niche. The allegorical figure of Britain stands proud at the centre of the composition, uniting the nation’s disparate ancestry under the banner of Britannia. The front matters of Speed’s atlas glorify and harken back to Great Britain’s ancestral heritage.

The Life of a Book

Looking at the inside cover and first pages of a book or atlas can reveal wonderful details about the life of the book. For example, many owners inserted an ‘ex libris’ to assert their ownership. This Latin term means ‘from the library of…’.

The ex libris began humbly as a simple mark of ownership inscribed into the cover of the text, such as a handwritten name or symbol. However, their sophistication grew with increasing access to the printing press. Sometimes they included a coat of arms or even a family motto, or the name of a collection.

Artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein are known to have produced ex libris prints for the wealthy elite. A simple example of an ex libris print can be seen in Regiomontanus’ 1496 edition of Ptolemy’s ‘Almagest’.

Marks of ownership are vital for understanding an atlas’ provenance. They can reveal hints about the owner’s interests, occupation, or the date of acquisition. These inscriptions provide insight not into the book’s complex information but deepen our understanding of the life of the book itself.

Both editions of Isidore of Seville’sEtymologies’ held in the Sunderland Collection, as well as Rolewinck’sFasciculus Temporum’ include elaborate marks of ownership and commentaries in their front matters.

Straight to the Heart of the Matter: Books without Frontispieces

Isidore of Seville’s, ‘Etymologies’ 1476

As can be seen in this early edition of the ‘Etymologies’ of Isidore de Seville (1476), many 15th century books of knowledge did not include initial pages. The text follows the custom of illuminated religious manuscripts and jumps directly into the text. Despite not having a frontispiece, the book incorporates elaborate illuminated details to celebrate the beginning of Isidore’s encyclopaedia. A gorgeously rendered ‘D’ kick-starts the book. Plentiful scrolled vines erupt from the character, which is set within an ornamental background. Expensive ultramarine blue pigments derived from lapis lazuli and gold leaf illude to the eminence of the knowledge contained within.

Rudimentum Novitiorum’, 1475

The tradition of the frontispiece did not take hold until the 17th century. This strikingly beautiful first page of the Rudimentum Novitorum uses the vivid primary colours of blue, red, and yellow. The artist illustrates the genealogy of humankind from God in Christianity. The richness and bounty of the vines is shown through the intensity of the green pigment. The hand-coloured scroll work is inhabited by birds and abundant flowering buds. There is a visual language of interlacing and interlocking. The designer has included heraldic imagery of lions and a dragon, as symbols of power and bravery, possibly in reference to a patron or the location of the book’s publication.