The titles that introduce films get at least their share of
attention from designers and design buffs, but we neglect to note
the “opening credits” of books. No, not covers, but title pages,
recently curated in a show at the National Gallery of Art in
Washington, D.C, until June 18. “Announcing the
Text: Development of the Title Page, 1470–1900; Selections from the
National Gallery of Art Library” features a series of books,
open to their title pages, and laid out in vitrines in the museum's
(From left) Early title pages from Palladio's
I Quatro libri dell'architettura, 1570 (RIBA British
Architectural Library); Samuel
Richardson's Pamela, 1741; Wren's
City Churches, 1883, woodcut by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo
(National Gallery of Art).
Before visiting the show, I hadn't stopped to consider that
title pages had a history. Of course they do, and it is a long one.
In many ways title pages were book covers before covers. The dust
cover is a very recent concept, going back to the turn of the 20th
century, when it was conceived for marketing and display in the
shop window. For most of the prior history of the book, the cover
was custom, added by the owner after purchase or generic in
The title page was the prelude to the opera, the curtain raiser
for the reader. Bearing the title, the author and the publisher,
the title page emerged as a kind of second cover to the book. It
arose with printing as a protective page, but soon came to play
another role: It announced the pride of the printer, an
increasingly important figure, who added his colophon or maker's
mark. The colophon emerges from the world of heraldry as one of the
earliest business identifiers or logos.
first title pages were little more than the first page of the
text, preceded by title or “incipit.” The title page was also
important because it was the only, or one of the few, places in a
book where imagery appeared instead of just type. The exhibit
traced the shift in the technology used to supply imagery to the
title page, from woodcut to copper plate to steel engraving to
lithography. In the world of the manuscript, writing and drawing
were still essentially the same activity and initials and texts
were decorated with images. But printing changed that. Looking at
the books at the National Gallery, it is easy to understand how the
printed book, compared to that of the hand-copied one, might on its
first appearance have seemed thin and unsatisfactory, the way
digital books can today.
“Early printed books often followed the form of a manuscript and
had no title page,” according to the National Gallery exhibit. But
“in the 1460s printers began including a blank page at the
beginning of the book, possibly as a means to protect the text.” As
printing spread from Germany to Italy, where the Venetians took the
lead by around 1500, the title page came into its own. A 1505
edition of Ovid illustrates how “the title has moved to its own
page.” A red and black title page of a Plutarch, printed in Venice,
1516, suggests how “as the title page became a promotional and
marketing tool, more attention was focused on its design.”
(From left) Title pages from The Anatomy of Melancholy and
Leviathan; cover of Penguin edition of Leviathan.
In New York at the Morgan Library, current show “Palladio
and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey” displays the title
page of the architect's influential Four Books of
Architecture (I Quatro libri dell'architettura) from
1570. It depicts a structure of four Corinthian columns, statuary
and an entablature: the title page is a piece of architecture
itself—Palladian architecture, of course.
The most famous title page ever may be that of Leviathan
by Thomas Hobbes. The French artist Abraham
Bosse created the page for Hobbes, who wrote the book mostly in
Paris and published it in 1651. This one is so famous that a detail
from it is used as the cover of Penguin's edition. Robert Burton's
of Melancholy comes from a similar school of elaborate
title pages. Both include frames holding bits of iconography that
state the book's themes; in the case of the Leviathan title
page, military power is represented on one side and ecclesiastical
power on the other.
The symbols are set inside a visual structure that suggests a
shelf in a study—or, with its central curtain and stage, the kind
of furniture that would have been sold in our day as an
“entertainment center.” The title hangs like a banner from a rod.
Explanations, Edward Tufte discusses the
Leviathan page as an example of what he calls a visual
confection. By this he means a piece of imagery that is complex but
is neither diagram nor chart nor collage, but includes complex
meanings. He even calculates its value in words—about 31,200 of
Works by William Morris complete the historical cycle by taking
inspirations from hand-copied manuscripts in his title page for
Gothic Architecture: A lecture for the Arts and Crafts
ExhibitionSociety published in London in 1893 and a
proto Art Nouveau piece by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo from 1883.
(From left) Title pages for Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (The
Viking Press) and Capote's In Cold Blood (Random House).
Classic title pages include those for Richardson's novel
Pamela or Cervantes' Don Quixote. More recently, of
course, title pages have been overshadowed by dust jackets, which
we tend to call covers. I thought of a few favorites on my own
shelves (although the professionals out there will no doubt remind
me of more obvious examples). I recalled Ulysses, how it
opens famously with a giant S
—“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…”—echoing a manuscript initial, even
though that is not from the title page but the initial page. My
original 1973 paperback of Gravity's Rainbow takes two pages
to announce its title, most of which are dominated by a background
image of an ominous sky. Random House used not only two pages but
two colors for In Cold Blood and two boxes to frame the
killers' eyes. They are descendants of the boxes and frames in
early title pages such as the one for Leviathan are the only
images in the book—Capote included no crime scene photos or images
of the killers to compete with his verbal descriptions.
Title pages have always marked a threshold, a transition from
the “real world” to the world of the book. Electronic versions of
books, on our Kindles or iPads, may require such transition even
more. They may include whole title sequences, with moving images,
like film company logos or video clips, to signal the passage from
the world of motion to the quiet, inanimate world of words and
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