June 13

Not at all content to allow his works to speak for themselves, the great Venetian printer Nicolas Jenson wrote into the colophon of De Veritate Catholicae, “Moreover this new edition was furnished us to print at Venice by Nicholas Jenson of France, a true Catholic, kind towards all, beneficent, generous, truthful and steadfast. In the beauty, dignity and accuracy of his printing, let me (with the indulgence of all), name him the first in the whole of the world; first likewise in his marvelous speed. He exists in his own time as a special gift of Heaven to men. June 13th in the year of the Redemption, 1480.”

The practice of inserting a paragraph concerning the printing of a book began with the publication of the great Psalter, printed in Mainz in 1457 by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer. The Psalter is also notable for being the first dated book and the first to carry the device of its printer, the well-known crossed shields now so widely known as the emblem of the International Club of Printing House Craftsmen. Prior to the invention of printing, manuscript books usually began with the words, “Here beginneth” and contained no title page. Rarely were they dated.

In the early days of the craft, when numerous printers were competing in the printing of scholarly works, the colophon became exceedingly important to the purchaser, assuming the present-day significance of the publisher’s imprint. Printers were therefore in the habit of pointing out that their texts were authoritative and free from error. It was upon such precepts that Aldus Manutius built his sound reputation, succeeding so well that even his colophons were pirated.

The writing of a colophon sometimes presented an opportunity to printers with poetic aspirations, as is evident from a book published in Naples in 1472 by Sixtus Russinger:

“Sixtus the copies printed with much care,
Now twice revised by Dr. Iliviere;
The happy purchaser in vain shall look,
Yet find no error in this faultless book.”

A 1507 colophon represented an essay into humorous verse:

“May this volume continue in motion,
And its pages each day be unfurled;
Till an ant has drank up the ocean,
Or a tortoise has crawled round the world.”

There are several explanations of the derivation of the word colophon. That it comes from the Greek word meaning summit, or finishing stroke, appears to be the most logical, but another legend offers more fascinating possibilities. In this explanation the word is taken from an Asiatic city of the same name, as the home of artists of every description who were possessed of great skill in completing their projects. Such proficiency promoted a proverb, ulliman manam imponere, or to put the finishing hand to anything.

Bruce Rogers, in the colophon of his wise and informative book, Paragraphs on Printing, writes: “Christopher Morley once said it was most appropriate for book printers to name the finishing stroke of their work after the ancient Ionian city of Colophon, because the cavalry of that town always concluded an engagement with a furious charge. (In this instance ten dollars.)”

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