Brief History of The Initial
The classical tradition was late to use capital letters for initials at all; in surviving Roman texts it often is difficult even to separate the words as spacing was not used either. In the Late Antique period both came into in common use in Italy, the initials usually were set in the left margin (as in the third example below), as though to cut them off from the rest of the text, and about twice as tall as the other letters. The radical innovation of insular manuscripts was to make initials much larger, not indented, and for the letters immediately following the initial also to be larger, but diminishing in size (called the "diminuendo" effect, after the musical notation). Subsequently they became larger still, coloured, and penetrated farther and farther into the rest of the text, until the whole page might be taken over.
The decoration of insular initials, especially large ones, was generally abstract and geometrical, or featured animals in patterns. Historiated initials were an Insular invention, but did not come into their own until the later developments of Ottonian art, Anglo-Saxon art, and the Romanesque style in particular. After this period, in Gothic art large paintings of scenes tended to go in rectangular framed spaces, and the initial, although often still historiated, tended to become smaller again.
In the very early history of printing the typesetters would leave blank the necessary space, so that the initials could be added later by a scribe or miniature painter. Later initials were printed using separate blocks in woodcut or metalcut techniques.
In principio from the start of the Gospel of John 9th century
Greek biblical text from Papyrus 46, of c. 200, with no initials, punctuation, and barely spaces between words
5th century Codex Alexandrinus with initials in left margin
"Diminuendo" effect in the first letters after this initial from the Cathach of St. Columba (Irish, seventh century)
One of thousands of smaller decorated initials from the Book of Kells
Large initial L from a Romanesque Bible
Mainz Psalter, printed in 1457 by Johannes Gutenberg - the main initial and border are woodcut, as may be the smaller red initials; the rest of the lettering is metal movable type
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