Rare & Beautiful

The World’s First Engraved Writing Book

With resurgent zeal for letterpress, hand lettering, wood block printing, and traditional book arts, extraordinary volumes from the past are of particular interest to illustrators, graphic designers and typographers. In the first installment of the Designers & Books “Rare & Beautiful” series, David Stang, of rare antiquarian book dealer Ars Libri, and Anne Quito discuss a lavishly illustrated calligraphy instructional manual by an 18-year-old Flemish virtuoso rumored to have become Queen Elizabeth I’s personal writing tutor. This groundbreaking copper-engraved tome is only one of four remaining first-edition copies among the 26 extant copies in public collections.

Anne Quito: What makes this book so special?

David Stang: Exercitatio alphabetica is a marvelous Flemish writing book published in Antwerp in 1569, filled with engraved grotesque ornament. All of the elaborate writing samples are in different fanciful styles—mirror writing (written backwards) surrounded by dazzlingly complex borders with monkeys, sphinxes, masks, putti, and other elements. It’s actually the first writing book in history to be engraved, rather than printed in woodcut, and amazingly, it’s the work of an 18-year-old boy, Clément Perret.

This copy is one of only a handful of surviving first issues of the book, distributed by Perret himself—in effect, almost sold by him out of the trunk of his car—before the work was taken over by the eminent Renaissance printer and publisher Christophe Plantin. It’s very exciting that this was a copy produced before it became part of the mainstream.

AQ: How did you come upon this volume?

DS: This volume is from the collection of Peter A. Wick, a renowned bibliophile, curator, and scholar. He held curatorial positions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. We acquired his library after his death in 2004. Aside from writing manuals and calligraphy books, he collected children’s books, illustrated romantic literature, and pictorial alphabet books. Mr. Wick’s copy of Exercitatio alphabetica is from the collection of the Princes of Lichtenstein with their ex-libris.

AQ: The background of the author Clément Perret is fascinating. What else do we know about him?

DS: Little is known about Perret. The scholar Croiset van Uchelen suggests that he was hired by the Queen Elizabeth I of England to be her personal tutor in Italian calligraphy. This would explain Perret’s mysterious disappearance from Dutch documents. In making Exercitatio alphabetica, he was a kid trying to produce a complete tour de force. It’s perfectly clear that its function is really not pedagogical. It’s really a demonstration of virtuosity in his part—a showpiece.

AQ: Why do you think this book is overlooked?

DS: Writing books are not something in the forefront of people’s minds these days, despite the fact that they are graphically so immediately appealing. It straddles the fields of the graphic arts as well as the book arts. People don’t see them very much.

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