Bruges printer conquers the world!

Colard Mansion, manuscript producer and the city's first major book entrepreneur, is the subject of a landmark exhibition at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. Mansion was one of the most active book publishers in the city during the latter part of the 15th century and learned his craft together with William Caxton, the printer who brought book publishing to England.

Book printing was in its infancy when Colard Mansion operated the city's first main workshop combining manuscript production and book printing. Little is known about the life of this enigmatic figure. The exhibition opens with a document that contains the first mention of Mansion in Bruges.

Exhibition co-curator Evelien Hauwaerts (photo below) of the Bruges Public Library that staged the exhibition with Bruges Museums: "The document dates from 1457 and mentions Mansion as an intermediary between the Burgundian court and the Liberty of Bruges, the local government in the area outside the city proper. Mansion was an important figure in the city. By the time he's first mentioned in the archives he has already made it. He has a further thirty years to go as an active member of Bruges society until in 1484 when we encounter the last mention of his name in a document stating that he has fled Bruges.

Against the backdrop of political turmoil in the city he disappears as mysteriously as he first appeared three decades earlier. We can take it Mansion was a Fleming, possibly a native of Bruges or even northern France. We don't know what his native language was. It may have been Flemish, but could equally have been French. What is clear is that most of his production was in French. This shouldn't surprise us. Mansion was working for the nobility and well-to-do merchants. He was a Jack-of-all-trades and quite commercially spirited producing manuscripts and printed books and at that time demand was for books in French. Mansion didn't print a single book in Dutch!"

Often, the name Colard Mansion does not ring a bell, but his importance rivals that of his contemporary William Caxton, who was also living and working in Bruges at this time. Caxton brought printing to England, but first brought printing to Bruges! When printing first appeared it was closely linked to manuscript production; the two activities impacted on each other and often the same people were involved in either trade.

Evelien Hauwaerts: “Colard Mansion was a scribe: he was a master of copying texts in neat book hand. He also became a book entrepreneur. He was the person you came to if you wanted to commission a manuscript. He authored books himself, translated works too, always from Latin to French. He could find you an author, get your work copied, illustrated and bound.”

Bruges was a commercial hub in the 15th century with trading communities from across the continent of Europe. Here goods from across Europe were traded and this also included manuscripts and books. Bruges was a book producing centre of world renown. The city specialised in the international trade in luxury items and books too formed part of this traffic. Books from Bruges conquered the world as a result of this trade and book-giving by kings, counts and other members of the nobility.

For Colard Mansion books meant business. He employed scribes in his workshop and bought and sold works. Mansion printed his first books in Bruges in the early 1470s. Gutenberg had invented printing with movable type in Mainz in Germany only two decades earlier. The industry was still in its infancy and the letter type or font used by Colard Mansion most closely reflected the handwriting used in manuscripts.

The skills needed to produce books were readily available in Bruges. As an important commercial centre it boasted numerous goldsmiths and their skills were needed to create engravings. Books not only contained texts, but illustrations reminiscent of the illuminations in medieval manuscripts also formed an integral part of book production. Mansion experimented with woodcuts and engravings. Often some artisans were active both in the jewel and book industries and their methods of working overlapped. Metals played an important role in bookbinding too providing protection for valuable tomes as well as magnificent book clasps.

Colard Mansion produced 26 printed books: all are represented at least by one edition at the exhibition. Mansion's books and manuscripts reached the four corners of the earth, but thanks to this exhibition many are returning to the city for the first time in five centuries.

The exhibition contains countless gems and priceless specimens that are unique in the history of book printing. These include the first printed book to enter England from abroad. The English played an important role in book printing in Bruges. It was the Englishman William Caxton, who first brought printing to Bruges. Caxton was the head of the English Nation in Bruges, the organisation representing the English community of merchants and diplomats.

In the 1470's he was exiled from Flanders and fled to Cologne where he learned the printing trade. On his return to Bruges he printed the 'History of Troy' and that book, ladies and gentlemen, is the first book ever to be printed in the English language. The work commissioned by Margaret of York is currently on view in Bruges. The exhibition also boasts the very first book ever printed in the French language.

William Caxton was a close associate of Colard Mansion and two of the books that the publishers printed together are included in the exhibition too. Printing was still finding its feet and printers were having a field day experimenting with type. So too, Colard Mansion, who invented two new types of font, the batarda and the rotunda, both on show in Bruges. The type itself was made of lead. It may have been modelled on Colard Mansion's own handwriting, though this is impossible to prove as we do not possesses any of examples of his book hand that have been conclusively attributed to him.

To bring Mansion's font right up-to-date the Bruges museums and public library commissioned digital type designer Jo De Baerdemaeker to create a digital type set especially for the exhibition texts that was inspired by Mansion's own fonts: Colard Mansion sans serif.


Mansion was also keen to experiment with copper engravings in books and illustration layouts. The exhibition shows how manuscript production and printing were two activities that were still closely connected in this day. Initials and illustrations in printed books were often added by hand by the same craftsmen that completed manuscripts.

One of the highlights is Mansion's edition of Ovid's 'Métamorphose'. It recounts the stories of the Roman author Ovid about the physical transformations certain figures in classical antiquity were able to make. Mansion used a Christianised version of these pagan tales in order to make them more acceptable to a medieval European public.

A second highlight is Mansion's 'De la ruyne des nobles hommes et femmes'. The text by the Italian humanist Giovanni Boccaccio describes the tragic fate that befell a number of unfortunate figures from the Bible, classic antiquity and the Middle Ages. Four different versions have survived. One was printed to allow the addition of miniatures as illustrations, a second left space to include engravings. It is one of the first books to be illustrated with engravings. A set of nine engravings was carried out by an unknown artist referred to as the Master of the Boccaccio Illustrations. All have been returned to Bruges from a variety of provenances.

The exhibition is a tour de force. There are some 150 exhibits. Some from the sizeable collection of the Bruges Library that has the largest collection of manuscripts in Flanders, but many from further afield. Evelien Hauwaerts: "It was important to get the French National Library on board that provided the largest number of exhibits. Once they had agreed to loan exhibits other institutions made few problems: the British Library, the British Museum, the V&A, the National Gallery in Washington, the Huntington and the Morgan Library and Museums just to name a few."

'Haute Lecture' includes 150 loans from 55 archives, libraries and museums.

'Haute Lecture by Colard Mansion: innovating text and image in medieval Bruges' runs at the Groeninge Museum until 3 June 2018. A scientific catalogue is available in English with OKV publications available in Dutch and French. The exhibition is curated by Evelien de Wilde, Evelien Hauwaerts and Ludo Vandamme.

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