Thursday, 15 December 2011

The forgotten encoder: Plantin, mise-en-page and some thoughts towards the future

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Designers working with digital media, particularly those with an interest in layout, should look to the early modern book for inspiration. Consider, for example, Christopher Plantin's eight-volume folio Polyglot Bible, the Biblia Sacra (Antwerp: 1568-1573). What an amazing feat. First devised by Plantin in 1566, the set was finally completed in 1573. This remarkable multilingual translation, (which is based on versions in Chaldean, Greek, Hebrew and Latin), was supervised by Arias Montano and Plantin’s Bible received royal patronage from the Spanish King, Philip II.

What always amazes me, though, is Plantin’s mise-en-page: remarkable layout, brilliant engravings, and several ancient languages set side by side. How long would it take to set a single page of Plantin’s Bible, and what compositor had the qualifications to do such work? Unfortunately, the compositors of the early modern period almost always go unnamed. Will today's encoders and web designers face a similar fate? Looking back fifty years from now, in 2061, how often we will know who did the work on a website produced in 2011? Perhaps the problem, if it is a problem, will not be whether we can identify the encoders, but if we can find the site. Just a thought….

The two images shown here are taken from the second volume of Plantin’s work. Figure 1. shows a typical opening from Plantin's Bible; figure 2. shows one of five frontispieces commissioned for the eight-volume work. Both the frontispiece and the historiated initials used to begin the different sections of the translation have been expertly handcoloured.

Images come courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto. Call # G-10 00137. The Fisher has volumes 2-6, 8 of the Polyglot Bible.

Works Cited

Biblia Sacra, Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece, & Latine. Excud. Antuerpiae : Christoph. Plantinus, 1568-1573.

Bowen, Karen L. and Dirk Imhof. Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Scott -- this is really interesting. Bibles are generally good touchstones for new reading technologies, as they're often the first books to be adapted to new platforms. I think the first text that went into Project Gutenberg was the Bible, but I could be wrong about that. It might be interesting to look at the history of Bibles as they appear in new reading technologies.