Tag Archives: interesting things; Plimpton

Floral-strewn mathematics

Printers’ flowers, pieces of type bearing designs (generally floral and arabesque) rather than letterforms, are a convenient and traditional way for a printer to pretty-up a text, as the ornaments combine easily within the page of type for printing. The samples above and below, both from Agostino dal Pozzo’s Gnomonices biformis, Venice 1679 (Plimpton 513 1679 Au4), are pretty typical. (To be clear, in the example below, two kinds of printers’ ornaments surround a woodblock. You can see in the top right row where one of the ornaments was inserted 90 degrees off kilter.)

I love seeing what compositors can create with printers’ flowers. But then, working with books we’re cataloging from the Plimpton collection, I was so pleased to open Jean L’Hoste’s Epipolimetrie (Sainct-Mihiel, 1619), Plimpton F513 1619, and find pages like this:

There’s an initial S at the beginning of the page surrounded with printers’ flowers (I didn’t say they were all attractively printed, did I?), but what I find most appealing here are the little flowers scattered over the mathematical diagrams. They aren’t proper printers flowers, though they are loosely modeled after them, and cut into the wood block along with the diagram. Why? as I understand it, having what would otherwise be empty space within the type page filled with something print-high makes printing easier; but this isn’t so common an occurrence, so I believe that aesthetics are also involved.

I didn’t remember noticing this phenomenon before, but soon found two more examples. And from the book above, printed in France in 1619, we move across the decades to a book printed in Paris in 1556:


This is Oronce Fine’s De rebus mathematicis (Paris: Vascosani, 1556), Plimpton F513 1556 F49. Surprisingly, I found the same phenomenon in an Italian book:  Apollonius, Conicorum libri quattuor (Bononiae [Bologna]: A. Benatius, 1566), Plimpton F516.02 1566:

Isn’t it a beauty? Early Italian books have a certain robustness of appearance I always enjoy. Anyhow, I’ll have to keep a lookout for more samples of not-quite-printers-flowers.

Pretty Mathematics

We have restarted a project to finish cataloging the Plimpton Collection. George Arthur Plimpton (1855-1936) collected “our tools of learning,” pretty broadly described, and gave the collection to Columbia shortly before his death. I’ve been enjoying reviewing the early books — though I’ve been a little surprised by how many books printed before 1800 remain uncataloged. In any case, here are two which particularly caught my eye.

The first is plate five from Johann Friedrich Penther’s Praxis geometriae, 6th edition (Augsburg: Probst, 1761).


The plate demonstrates mathematical concepts, and makes concrete the metaphors used by the author. We start with a point, then a line….  Parallel lines are — see? like cart wheel tracks. My favorite part is the extremely elegant hand holding the pen/ plumb/saw, a hand which comes out of an equally elegant cloud/cuff, because hands (the artist must have thought to himself) have to come from somewhere.

The second image is from an earlier edition of Penther, the third edition,1749, also printed in Augsburg by Probst. This has the same lovely engraved plate, but also this wonderful dedication page:

And what’s not to love about this? It’s a good size, nearly 13 inches tall, with all the extras: beautiful engraving at the head; four great typefaces (if we count the three sizes of blackletter separately), including a roman type for emphasis; and one of the great factotums (woodcuts with a space within to insert a piece of type to make an initial) of all time.

Can’t wait for more!