Ancient tome pages
Art History

Folio is an ancient printed rarity with an interesting history.

Folio. Gutenberg Bible from the Museum in Mainz 1450
Gutenberg Bible from the Museum in Mainz 1450

A folio (from the Latin folium – “leaf”) is an old book of the 15th-18th centuries in folio format (into one typographical sheet folded in half). Due to the lack of uniform standards in the printing industry of that time, the sizes of such publications can vary greatly. The most common folio format: height – 40-45 cm, weight – 5-7 kg, thick binding.

What is the difference between a Folio and an incunabula and a manuscript?

A folio is a thick, large-format printed hardcover edition. As mentioned above, the weight of folios reaches an average of 5-7 kilograms, but at least 3.5 kilograms. A tome can be an incunabula and vice versa. Incunabula are printed books of any size and any weight, created before January 1, 1501. For later printed editions, this definition does not fit.

Page from the prayer book of Maximilian I with marginal drawings by Albrecht Dürer 1515
Page from the prayer book of Maximilian I with marginal drawings by Albrecht Dürer 1515

Let’s look at examples:

  • Printed book, 40-45 cm in size, issued on December 31, 1500, is a folio and an incanabula;
  • Printed book, 20 cm in size, issued on December 31, 1500, is an incanabula, but not a folio;
  • The printed book, 40-45 cm in size, issued on January 1, 1501, is a folio, but not an incanabula;
  • The printed book, 20 cm in size, issued on January 1, 1501, is neither a folio nor an incanabula.

The folio is fundamentally different from the manuscript in the way it is made. The word “manuscript” comes from the fusion of 2 Latin words: manus – “hand” and scriptus – to write. That is, a manuscript is always a handwritten book.

Folio. Opening of the first edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphilus 1499
Opening of the first edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphilus 1499

History of the tome

The history of the tome dates back to the invention of printing in the middle of the 15th century. The Guttenberg Bible is the first folio (in size and weight) and incunabula (by date of publication) known to the world. In those distant times, books were a luxury item, only very wealthy people could afford to buy them:

  • the highest dignitaries of the church;
  • rulers of Medieval Europe;
  • rich merchants;
  • professorships at prestigious universities.
Folio. Title page of the First Folio 1623
Title page of the First Folio 1623
The large format of the first printed books was also due to other reasons:

Presentable appearance. Printed publications occupied a central place in state libraries and served as a symbol of wealth.

The comfort of reading content. In churches, folios with religious texts in large type were convenient to use during church services.

Security considerations. Heavy books from libraries are more difficult to steal or steal than smaller books.

technical problems. Many books were originally printed on parchment, and this thick and rough material is not suitable for printing small format books.

For reading ancient folios, there were special devices: music stands and special book wheels.

Ancient tome pages
Ancient tome pages
Heavy books were placed on them to:
  • free your hands while reading;
  • minimize the need for tedious transfer of ancient editions;
  • be able to simultaneously study the contents of several sources.
By the end of the 15th century, the situation with printing in Europe began to change rapidly:
  • a large number of printing houses opened;
  • mass demand for print publications began to grow;
  • parchment was replaced by more practical paper;
  • cheaper printing technologies appeared.
ancient tomes
ancient tomes
Already at the beginning of the 16th century, publishers launched a mass production of small-format books:
  • calendars;
  • medical practitioners;
  • prediction books;
  • pocket prayer books;
  • news sheets.

Folios gradually began to lose popularity. By the end of the 16th century, their share in book printing was only 20%, and a century later it decreased by an order of magnitude.

Most of the folios of the 16th-18th centuries are publications on a very narrow topic:
  • bible;
  • specialized dictionaries;
  • fundamental scientific works;
  • works of the most famous poets and writers of that era.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the demand for large-format, thick-bound books had fallen to almost nothing. Folios have become a relic of the past, giving way to more successful small and medium format print publications. And today, antique books in folio are of great historical and cultural value for mankind.

Underground Library of Ivan the Terrible
Underground Library of Ivan the Terrible
Notable tomes

The most famous ancient tomes rightfully occupy pride of place in the collections of museums around the world. The creations of the ancient masters of typography are admired by our contemporaries. Among them stand out:

  1. “The Gutenberg Bible”, 1450 – a folio with exceptional quality of design, the pinnacle of creativity of the famous first printer. At the moment, there are only 47 copies of this rare book around the world.
  2. Hypnerotomachia Poliphila, 1495, is one of the first artistic prints of the Renaissance era that have come down to us. The book contains many illustrations made in the technique of woodcuts. The novel, written in a complex language from a mixture of Italian and Latin, is designed for a very erudite reader.
  3. The Prayer Book of Emperor Maximilian, 1515 is a masterpiece of a medieval book, printed in only 5 copies.