in'cu-nab'u-la (in'ku-nab'u-la), n. pl.; sing. -LUM (-lum). [L., pl. cradle, birthplace, origin. See In- in; CUNABULA.] 1. Cradle period or state; beginnings; infancy. 2. Bibliog. Works of art, or of human industry, of an early epoch; specifically books printed before 1501 A.D. Also in the singular form, in'cu-nab'u-lum (-lum); -- called also cradle book, fifteener.
In 1639, Bernard von Mallinckordt of Munster Cathedral first associated the term "Incunabula" with books. The study of books printed during the first fifty years of printing illuminates the birth of the craft and the transition from the manuscript tradition to the print tradition.
Printing spread rapidly from Mainz, Germany throughout Europe during this time period. Printers established shops in centers of commerce where the demand for books was high and supplies were accessible. Italy quickly became a center for printing with prominent shops operating in Rome and Venice in the early 1470s. By 1500, the proliferation of printers had nearly saturated smaller commercial centers throughout the continent and printing became an established profession.
Among the features to note during the period of incunabula are the development of roman and gothic typefaces, and the rise of title pages and colophons in books.
Gothic typefaces took hold in Northern Europe and remained popular in Germany into the nineteenth century. Southern Europe followed the humanist tradition more closely and preferred the more open roman styles. These roman typefaces also represented an easier transition from the manuscript era as they more closely resembled manuscript writing. The business-minded Venetian printers also viewed the compact roman types as more economical, allowing them to print more text per page.
Even though the printing press provided for the reproduction of texts more quickly and easily than by hand, a large amount of time was still taken to illuminate and sometimes hand illustrate books of this period. Another popular method of illustrating texts was the use of the woodblock print. Printers at this time also began to work with engraved metal plates.
The transition to print was not an easy one for all readers to make. Many aristocrats of the late fiftenth century hired scribes to hand-copy printed books to manuscript form, so that they might be kept in their original format.
As the 15th century came to a close, Venice had established itself not only as a center for international commerce and trade, but also as the capital of the printing world. Hundreds of presses were operating in the 1480s and 1490s producing a wide variety of materials. The majority of the incunabula in this exhibit come from Venice, and represent a wide cross section of works printed here.