Printing with gold in the fifteenth century
By Victor Carter, Lotte Hellinga, and Tony Parker
The Electronic British Library Journal (1983)
Introduction: Several years ago, concern about the technique of gold printing—had gold leaf or pigment been used? —instigated the research described in the present article.
Victor Carter, head of the manuscript conservation workshop, suggested that the flecks of gold visible with the help of a high-magnification microscope were the remnants of superfluous gold, not bonded to the page, and dispersed with a brush. His flash of insight was followed by deliberations about the technical possibilities of the fifteenth century, weighing of alternative explanations, reasoning on the basis of the available evidence, and, most of all, by attempts to repeat the experiment
It is for his co-authors a cause of sad satisfaction that Victor Carter, who had been their leading spirit, did approve the final version of this article, and that during the last weeks before his death the questions posed in it occupied his mind and continued to rouse his enthusiasm.
Gold printing in the fifteenth century is very rare. There are only two printers who are known to have applied this technique. One of them was Erhard Ratdolt who first used gold for printing a gloriously spectacular full page of dedication in a number of copies of his editio princeps of Euclid. The book was completed a little over 500 years ago, on 25 May 1482. The British Library owns a particularly fine copy on vellum, which was given by the printer to Giovanni Mocenigo, Doge of Venice from 1478 to 1485, to whom he had dedicated the book. It bears the arms of the Doge and his portrait on the page facing the dedication in gold. This copy formed part of the en bloc collection of books which King George III acquired in 1765 from Joseph Smith, the English consul in Venice who is better known to posterity as a collector of art and a dealer in paintings. Smith had brought together a collection of very fine books, especially of first editions printed in Italy which were to become the foundation of the king’s library.
The exceptional copy of the Euclid had no doubt been found by Smith in Venice. It is now on permanent exhibition in the King’s Library. There are other copies recorded which have the dedication page printed in gold: two in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (one on vellum and one on paper), two in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, one in the University Library in Budapest, and one in the Stadtbibliothek in Augsburg. They have this feature in common: the dedication page in gold is printed in a different typesetting from that used in the other known copies printed in black.