Back to the Start

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 study center.

Three title pages

(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 design.

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.

The 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.”

Title pages from The Anatomy of Melancholy and Leviathan; cover of Penguin edition of Leviathan

(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 famed Anatomy 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. In Visual 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 them.

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.

Title page spreads from Gravity's Rainbow and In Cold Blood

(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 letters.