It is a commonplace amongst historians that the invention of movable type, and through it the advent of the printed book, in the middle of the fifteenth century, was one of the principal driving forces behind the emergence of modern science in the Early Modern Period. However, although historians of science pay lip service to this supposedly established fact very few of them give any consideration to the printer/publishers who produced those apparently so important early books on science, medicine and technology. Like the technicians and instrument makers, the printer/publishers, not being scientist, are pushed to the margins of the historical accounts, left to the book historians.
Here at the Renaissance Mathematicus I have in the past featured Regiomontanus, considered to be the very first printer/publisher of science, Johannes Petreius the publisher of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus amongst numerous other scientific works and Anton Koberger around 1500 the world’s biggest printer/publisher and the man who produced the first printed encyclopaedia, The Nuremberg Chronicle. Today I want to turn my attention to a less well-known but equally important printer/publisher of scientific texts, who was responsible for several significant innovations in book production, Erhard Ratdolt.
Erhard Ratdolt was born in Aichach in Bavaria in 1459 or 60 the son of the carpenter Erhard Ratdolt and wife Anna. Erhard apprenticed as a carpenter and a maker of plaster figures. At the age of fifteen, according to his own account, he travelled to Venice, where he set up a printer/publisher office together with Bernhart Pictor a painter from Augsburg and Peter Loslein from Langenzenn, a small town near Nürnberg, in 1476. The printing house was one of the earliest in Venice, where Johannes de Spira had set up the first one in 1469. By 1480 Venice had become to main centre for book production in Europe It seems that Ratdolt ran the business, whilst Pictor was responsible for the book decoration and Loslein for the text and copyediting. Both Pictor and Loslein had left the publishing house by 1478 leaving Ratdolt as the sole proprietor. Ratdolt’s two partners were probably victims of the plague, which wiped out eleven of the twenty-two printer/publishing establisments existing in Venice in 1478.
Their first publication was Regiomontanus’ Calendar, published in Latin and Italian in 1476 and in German in 1478. This book already contained several innovations. Ratdolt and his partners introduced the concept of printed ornamental borders for the pages of their books, a style that became typical for Renaissance books. They also introduced the first modern title page! It almost certainly seems strange to the modern book reader but the volumes printed in the first twenty or so years of book printing didn’t have title pages, as we know them. Ratdolt’s Regiomontanus Calendar was the first book to have a separate page at the beginning of the volume giving place, date and name of the printer. It was also the first book to have its publication date printed in Hindu-Arabic numerals and not in Roman ones. It would be some time before title pages of the type introduced by Ratdolt became common.
In terms of the sciences Ratdolt’s most important work was the first printed edition of Euclid’s Elements, which he published in 1482. Here the innovation, a very major one was the inclusion of illustrations in the text. I say within the text but in fact the book was printed with very wide margins and the geometrical diagrams were printed next to the relevant text passage in these margins.
Another of Ratdolt’s innovations was the introduction of first two-coloured printing and then over time building up to books printed in as many as five colours and also printing with gold leaf.
In 1486 Ratdolt returned to Bavaria and set up a new publishing house in Augsburg at the invitation of the bishop and it was here that he introduced his next innovation. He is the earliest known printer/publisher to issue a printer’s type specimen book, in his case a broadsheet, displaying the fonts that he had available to print his wares. Upon his return to Augsburg Ratdolt was the first to introduce the Italian Rotunda font into Germany. He was also one of the earliest printers to offer Greek fonts for printing. Another of his innovations was the dust jacket. Like most other printer/publishers in the first half-century of book printing Ratdolt’s output in Augsburg was mostly religious works, although he did print some astrological/astronomical volumes. Ratdolt’s output declined from 1500 onwards but between 1487 and his death in 1522 his publishing house issued some 220 volumes.
Given his youth when he left Bavaria for Venice Ratdolt’s contributions to the development of early book printing were truly remarkable. Even if his original partners were older and had started this chain of innovation, Ratdolt was still a teenager when they both disappeared from the business (died?) and the innovations continued when he was running the business alone.
Two interesting historical questions remain open concerning Ratdolt’s activities as a printer/publisher. We actually have no idea when, where or how he learnt the black art, as printing was known in that early period. The second problem concerns another early printer of scientific texts, Regiomontanus, and his connection to Ratdolt. The first book that Ratdolt published was Regiomontanus’ Calendar an important astrological/astronomical text that was something of a fifteenth-century best seller. The manuscript of the Euclid that Ratdolt published was one of the ones that Regiomontanus had discovered in Northern Italy when he was in the service of Cardinal Bessarion, as his book collector between 1461 and 1467. This raises the question, how did Ratdolt come into possession of Regiomontanus’ manuscripts?
Some earlier writers solved both questions by making Ratdolt into Regiomontanus’ apprentice in his publishing house in Nürnberg. The theory is not so far fetched, as Aichach is not so far away from Nürnberg and Ratdolt moved to Venice at about the same time as Regiomontanus disappeared and is presumed to have died. Unfortunately there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support this theory. Also given Regiomontanus’s renown at the time of his death, not just as a mathematical scholar but also as a printer/publisher, if Ratdolt had been his apprentice he would surely have advertised the fact in his own printing endeavours. I suspect that we will never know the answers to these questions.
 On a personal note I spent my first four years in Germany living just down the road from Langenzenn, where I spent most of my free time.