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A historiated illuminated initial

In a written work, an initial is a letter at the beginning of a work, a chapter or a paragraph that is larger than the rest of the text. The word comes from the Latin initialis, which means standing at the beginning. It is often several lines in height and in older books or manuscripts sometimes ornately decorated.

In illuminated manuscripts, initials with images inside them, like those illustrated here, are known as historiated initials; they were an invention of the Insular art of the British Isles in the 8th century. Initials containing, typically, plant-form spirals with small figures of animals or men that do not represent a specific person or scene are known as "inhabited" initials. Certain important initials, such as the B of Beatus vir ... at the opening of Psalm 1 at the start of a vulgate Latin psalter, could occupy a whole page of a manuscript.

These specific initials, in an illuminated manuscript, were also called Initiums.

Contents

Brief history of the initial

A set of 16th-century initial capitals, missing a few letters.

The classical tradition was late to use capital letters for initials at all; in surviving Roman texts it is often very hard to even separate the words as spacing was not used either. In the Late Antique period both came into in common use in Italy, the initials usually set in the left margin (as in the second example below), as though to cut them off from the rest of the text, and about twice as tall as the other letters. The radical innovation of insular manuscripts was to make them much larger, not indented, and for the letters immediately following the initial to also be larger, but diminishing in size (called the "diminuendo" effect, after the musical notation. Subsequently they became larger still, coloured, and penetrated further and further into the rest of the text, until the whole page might be taken over.

The decoration of insular initials, especially large ones, was generally abstract and geometrical, or featured animals in patterns. Historiated initials were an Insular invention, but did not come into their own until the later developments of Ottonian art, Anglo-Saxon art and the Romanesque style in particular. After this period, in Gothic art large paintings of scenes tended to go in rectangular framed spaces, and the initial, though still often historiated, tended to become smaller again.

In the very early history of printing the typesetters would leave blank the necessary space, so that the initials could be added later by a scribe or miniature painter. Later initials were printed using separate blocks in woodcut or metalcut techniques.

Types of initials

The initial may sit on the same baseline as the first line of text, at the same margin, as it does here. This is the easiest to typeset on a computer, including in HTML. An example follows:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Alternatively, the initial may be in the left margin, with the text indented, as shown here. In word processors and HTML, this can be implemented using a table with two cells, one for the initial and one for the rest of the text. The difference between this and a true drop cap can be seen when the text extends below the initial. For example:

L orem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

With a drop cap, the initial sits within the margins and runs several lines deep into the paragraph, pushing some normal-sized text off these lines. This keeps the left and top margins of the paragraph flush. In modern browsers, this can be done with a combination of HTML and CSS by using the float: left; setting. An example of this is the following paragraph:

L
orem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

In some older manuscripts, the first letter of normal sized text after the drop cap would also be capitalized, as can be seen in the Mainz Psalter above, and in the original 1609 printing of Shakespeare's sonnets. This evokes the handwritten "diminuendo" style of gradually reducing the text size over the course of the first line. This style is now rare.

See also

External links

- a website that shows 15th-17th century initials from most european countries








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