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First Impressions

Nicolas Jenson 1420 - 1480

In 1469 Johann de Spira set up the first printing press in Venice, when he was granted a five-year monopoly on the process in the city. When he died the following year, the press was taken over and continued by his brother Wendelin, but the monopoly lapsed, and printers flooded into Venice to take advantage of the free market. One such was Nicolas Jenson, a Frenchman by birth who had worked as Master of the Mint in Paris. In 1458 he was sent by the French King to Mainz to learn the art of type founding, punch cutting and printing, which has led to speculation that he was sent there to spy on the new process and bring the information back to France. Whatever his motivation, he quickly acquired a reputation as a prolific and artistic punch cutter. He never returned to France, but journeyed south to set up a press in Venice. He went on to produce about 150 titles, including classical texts and religious books. He developed several handsome typefaces: a noble Roman fount, which was first used in 1470 to print Eusebius's De Evangelica Praeparatione; a Greek typeface that was used for quotations within the text; and a Black letter or Gothic fount, which was used to print books on history and medicine.

Jenson was a highly successful businessman as well as a printer and punch cutter. He enjoyed the patronage of Pope Sixtus IV, who made him a papal count in 1475.

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