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Letter Punches: a Little-Known Feature of Early Engraved Maps

by Tony Campbell

The article below appeared in the Print Quarterly, Volume IV, Number 2, June 1987, pp.151-4. It is reproduced here on the web with grateful acknowledgement to the Print Quarterly.
This article has also been reissued on the Kunstpedia site.

[Mounted on the web June 2008]

The development of lettering and numeral punches in fifteenth-century Italy, as a semi-mechanical alternative to the engraver's burin, marks a little-known point of contact between the histories of engraving and cartography. 1 One of the unique features of a map is its necessarily dense toponymy, requiring the time-consuming skills of an experienced lettering engraver. Very early in the history of printed maps, indeed during preparation of the first set of maps to be engraved (if not quite the first to be published), punching was devised as a labour-saving alternative.

1478 Ptolemy

Fig.113. Claudius Ptolemy, Cosmographia, Rome 1478, detail from 'Nona Europae Tabula' showing three sizes of punched lettering (London, British Library, Maps C.1.d.3).

Conrad Sweynheym does not expressly claim responsibility for inventing punched lettering. But the dedication to the 1478 Rome edition of Ptolemy's Cosmographia (or Geographia), which appeared the year after his death, referred to the three years (i.e. 1474-77) during which, 'calling on the help of mathematicians, he gave instruction in the method of printing [the maps] from copper plates'. 2 On this passage and the evidence of the engraved maps which Arnoldus Buckinck issued after Sweynheym's death, hangs the German-born printer's claim to a technique that would be used fairly widely on Italian maps for the next century or more.

No punches from Sweynheym's sets or any other survive - at least none is recognized as such. Nor has punched work of this kind been identified on any surviving copper plate. Evidence for the appearance of the punches, their method of application, their proliferation, the incidence of their use and the places where they were found, must all derive, therefore, from impressions pulled from punched plates. To this end, a thorough study has been made of fifteenth-century maps, but sixteenth-century work remains to be systematically examined. All the instances that have been identified so far involve Italian work. 3 Besides the twenty-seven maps in the Rome Ptolemy (fig. 113), the technique can be seen on two other maps assigned to the incunable period. The so-called Eichstätt Map of northern and central Europe by Nicholas of Cusa, insecurely dated 1491 (and certainly produced in Italy, rather then Eichstätt as its inscription appears to suggest), 4 displays the evident use of Sweynheym's punches (fig. 114).

Nicholas of Cusa

Fig. 114. Nicholas of Cusa, 'Quod picta est parva Germania tota tabella' (the Eichstätt Map), Italy, late 15th century? Detail showing use of the same three sizes of letter punches as in fig. 113, with an additional smaller fount (London, British Library, Maps C.2.a.1.).

The last of the early examples is a Ptolemaic world map of uncertain date and origin, though clearly Italian and apparently produced in the fifteenth century. 5 A sampling of sixteenth-century Italian work - no more has yet been attempted - identifies the technique as recurring throughout the century, with the latest instance being Livio Sanuto's Venetian atlas of Africa, issued in 1588 (fig. 115). Nevertheless, in another context, that of music printing, the process of punching the notes into a pewter plate is still continued today.

Sanuto 1588

Fig. 115. Livio Sanuto, Geografia dell' Africa, Venice 1588, detail from 'Africae Tabula I' showing three sizes of punched lettering and handcut italic (London, British Library, Maps, C.21.c.6).

Punched lettering seems to have been restricted to maps. The main purpose of this note is to alert the historians of engraving to the possibility that the letter-puncher might have crossed the narrow divide separating the cartographic engraver from his counterpart working on reproductive prints. To assist in the identification of this technique and as a complement to the illustrated details, the following features associated with punched lettering can be itemized:

  1. Most inscriptions are formed of Roman capitals.
  2. The letters fall into set sizes, usually between two and five of these.
  3. The letters are formed very evenly and consistently, but their spacing will often be erratic. A further indication that punched lettering is involved will be the imperfect horizontal alignment of the various letters in a word or their slight tilting away from the vertical.
  4. Punched lettering also tends to be found in association with other punches, for example those for numbers or town circles, and in particular for the small triangular mark used to terminate an inscription.
  5. It has been pointed out how later hand-touching could partially disguise the presence of punched lettering. 'A certain variation in the detail of the letters might be produced by striking a little obliquely and so varying the amount of burr to be smoothed away; also by touching up with the graver names imperfectly punched, as well as by irregularity in inking and roughness of paper'.6
A cursory examination of maps believed to exhibit this technique has not revealed any obvious mistakes or signs of correction. The occasional letters in a smaller type than their neighbours evidently represent intentional contractions, of a kind common in this period, rather than an attempt to cover up forgetfulness. From this it must follow either that the puncher(s) was extremely meticulous or that he had an ability to erase his mistakes - a skill notably lacking in those map engravers who cut lettering by hand in this period (fig. 116). 7

Berlinghieri 1482

Fig. 116. Francesco Berlinghieri, Geographia, Florence. [1482], detail of the handcut title 'Hispania Nova', the first word of which has been carelessly altered from 'Gallia' (London, British Library, C.3.d.10.).

It is not so surprising that it should have been a printer who developed letter and numeral punches. The use of metal stamps or dies would have fallen well within Sweynheym's experience, since steel punches were employed in forming the matrix (or mould) from which printer's type was cast. Punch-cutters were experienced in cutting an individual piece of type in relief on the end of a steel punch. They, or the matrix-maker, would have been thoroughly versed, too, in the art of hammering that punch with a consistently strong blow into a block of copper, although this technique must have needed modification when dealing with the much thinner copper-plate.

The more fundamental difference between the two applications is that the punches for map lettering would be unusual in having each letter cut the right way round (right-reading), so that a reversed image would be transferred to the copper-plate, for that, in turn, to be righted in printing. Conversely, punches cut by a punch-cutter for casting into type would require wrong-reading lettering, as would those for use by a goldsmith or book-binder. The punches for the purpose that concerns us would therefore have had to be cut specially; there was no other obvious use for them.

Despite the relatively small number of instances so far detected, the century or so that spans the observed Italian examples suggests that we are dealing with a formalized and continuous practice, probably transmitted through some kind of training and possibly with its own manuals of instruction. In a purely fifteenth-century context, the identified punches range from various sizes of lettering and numerals to stars and arrangements of town symbols imaginatively used on the Eichstätt Map. In later centuries, punches reappeared intermittently and for a variety of features. That relatively few publishers after Sweynheym's time thought fit to employ punches for lettering - the most time-consuming and complicated part of a map engraver's work - has a number of possible explanations. The equipment and highly specialized skills needed to use it may simply have been unavailable. Alternatively, the saving of time may have proved illusory, or others may have shared the aesthetic qualms of a much later commentator, Diderot. 8 It is not impossible, though, when contrasting the size and range of fifteenth-century punches with the difficulties encountered by later practitioners, that some of the skills of Sweynheym's puncher died with him.

It should not be thought that there is any originality in these observations on punched lettering; this is just a prime example of the interrupted transmission of knowledge. The first known reference in print to the use of lettering punches was a note by Wilberforce Eames, made a century ago. 9 While discussing the maps in the 1478 Rome Ptolemy, he pointed out that the inscriptions were not 'engraved but were made with a punch and mallet'. This discovery remained largely unnoticed. The authority on engraving, A. M. Hind, praised the lettering on the assumption that it had been hand-cut, 10 although he acknowledged his error on being shown some enlarged photographs by Hinks in 1943. 11

The subject of punched lettering on maps is sufficiently important to justify a thorough investigation by a printing historian. Woodward has highlighted the potential that can be anticipated from a study of this technique:

'Since these punches create a constantly consistent image which can usually be readily identified whenever they are used, it is theoretically possible to trace the use of a given set of punches from map to map. The life history of these punches should help in identifying engravers and place of publications by acting as an engraver's trade mark as eloquent as his initials.'12
1. Much of this note is extracted, with permission, from a forthcoming book, The Earliest Printed Maps: 1472-1500, due to be issued by British Library Publications later in 1987. [Afternote: the volume duly appeared in 1987 with the ISBN 0-7123-0133-X, and from the University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles) in 1988. Appendix 2 (pp.223-5) reproduced the present text with only minor amendments.]
2. R. A. Skelton, bibliographical note prefixed to the facsimile of the Rome Ptolemy of 1478, Amsterdam 1966, p. vi.
3. The Reysers - Michael Reyser of Eichstätt or Georg Reyser of Würzburg - were accorded responsibility for the Nicholas of Cusa map by Arthur M. Hind, Early Italian Engraving, London 1938, I, p. 292, while Hans P. Kraus, Catalogue 69: Cradle of printing [part 1], New York 1954, no. 37, pointed out that Eichstätt was the only German city from which engravings were issued before 1491 and that the Würzburg Reyser used lettering punches. However, the supposed Reyser connection appears to be based on a misunderstanding and the claim for punched lettering in Würzburg is not corroborated.
4. 'Eystat anno salutis 1491. XII kalendis augusti perfectum' (Completed at Eichstätt the 12th day before the Calends of August [i.e. 21 July 1491] ). Whatever the meaning of this mysterious inscription, it is clearly not an imprint.
5. Hind, op. cit., plate 482.
6. A. R. Hinks, 'The Lettering of the Rome Ptolemy of 1478', Geographical Journal, Cl, 1943, p. 189.
7. See fig. 116, and also the crude attempts at erasure on sheets in the Bologna Ptolemy of 1477.
8. E. M. Harris, 'Miscellaneous Map Printing Processes in the Nineteenth Century', Five Centuries of Map Printing, edited by D. Woodward, Chicago 1975, p. 114.
9. W. Eames, 'A List of Editions of Ptolemy's Geography', in J. Sabin, A Dictionary of Books Relating to America, New York 1886, no. 66470.
10. Hind, op. cit., I, p. 290.
11. Hinks, op. cit., p. 189.
12. D. Woodward, 'The Study of the Italian Map Trade in the Sixteenth Century: Needs and Opportunities', Land- und Seekarten im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit, edited by Cornelis Koeman, Munich 1980, p. 142.

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