Anyone opening a modern book will see first the shortened title page known as the half-title, followed by a complete title page. On the title page we find – if it is properly designed – the name of the author, an indication of the contents (the title), the place of publication and often the year of publication.
The first title page in which we recognise all these elements is contained in a book that was printed in 1476, about 25 years after the beginning of printing with movable type. It concerns the Calendarium of Johannes Regiomontanus, the Latinized name of Johann Müller from Königsberg. This book was printed in Venice by Germans: Erhard Ratdolt, Bernhard Maler and Peter Löslein.
At a first glance, this page looks more like a Christmas card than a title page. Within a beautiful border decoration we see a Latin poem beginning with the lines ‘This is a golden work and there is no jewel more precious than the Calendarium.’ However, the poem itself mentions what we are looking for: the contents of the work in lines 3 to 8, the name of the author in line 9 and the place of publication in line 10. Below the poem we find the year of publication and below that again – in red ink – the names of the printers.
Did other printers follow this example soon after? No, this is not how it happened. The conventions of the title page developed very gradually in the early years of printing. With the invention of printing, book producers were confronted with a new phenomenon: they no longer worked to order, as in the manuscript era, but rather produced a large number of copies of one particular work for an anonymous market. The evolution of the title page formed a part of their strategy to attract the attention of prospective buyers and to recommend the work.