An ‘excellent and learned printer'

A leaf from a seven-volume Latin Bible, printed by Johannes Amerbach in Basel in 1499 (323 x 227 mm)

Another celebrated Basel printer was Johannes ­Amerbach, described as ‘one of the most excellent and learned printers of his time’. His printshop survives to this day in the Totengässlein in Basel, now occupied in part by a Museum of the History of Pharmacy. It was here that Amerbach’s successor, Johannes Froben, played host to a number of important international scholars, including Erasmus of Rotterdam. Here too came well-known illustrators such as Hans Holbein and his brother Ambrosius.

The leaf has a small portion of the Book of Psalms, embedded in acres of commentary by a leading French scholar, Cardinal Hugo of St Cher. It illustrates the remarkable degree of typographical complexity attained by the end of the fifteenth century. For example in the larger type used for the actual biblical text, tiny superscript letters above vowels in certain words are repeated slightly larger at the left hand end of the line, cross-referencing to the relevant passages in the commentary. To achieve this, Amerbach's font must have included special vowel characters cast with the superscripts already in situ.


The Amerbach premises in Basel, photographed in 2011