Tractatvs de Officio Fiscalis (1606)

Alfaro spine.tif

Tractatvs de officio Fiscalis, translated into english as “A Treatise on the Fiscal Office,” was printed in 1606 in Spain and written by Don Francisci de Alfaro. We unfortunately do not know the full provenance of this book. While Tractatvs is an academic text, this does not mean any effort was spared in its creation. Let us explore the skill labor that went into the creation of this work, and through that journey learn more about the intensive process of knowledge creation.

While most modern book spines normally just feature the title and authors, the spine of the Tractatvs goes beyond such a limited organizational purpose. Note the intricate gilding designed to mimic the swirling design of Ionic columns. While we do not know whether this cover is original to the text or is a rebinding, what is clear is that the artisan behind the gilding intended to create a humbling and inspiring first impression. It is possible that the choice to mimic the Ionic Order was an attempt to allude to the Classical era, which would further elevate the reader’s experience when spotting this book on the shelf.


When opening the book, your eyes might be drawn to the marbled endpapers. Like the gilded spine, this feature may not be original to this text, for marbling’s arrival in Europe is dated between 1604 and 1646. The possibility of the endpapers being later additions is backed up by the fact that marbling first arrived in Europe in Germany and France, not Spain. However, it is possible that these marbled endpapers were not later additions, which would make this book one of the first of its kind.

Marbling was and is an art, with marblers taking great pains to conceal the methods of their craft to maintain exclusivity. While it is likely that information about the marbling process was maintained within private book collections for centuries, the methods were closed off to the public, with each aspiring marbler having to discover their own methods of marbling through trial, error, and theft from more established artisans. The complicated chemical combinations required to create the best possible colors drew many so-called alchemists to the practice, while the dexterous manipulation of the paint required to create beautiful patterns attracted painters and other artists to the craft. 

In the particular example of marbling, we see a stone pattern using blue and orange paints. The stone pattern is comparatively a simple pattern to create, but the required chemical complexity required to prevent the individual drops of color from merging and congeling into a large blob still required skill and experimentation. Moreover, the boldness of the blues and the choice to have the orange act as a supporting rather than contrasting color demonstrates both a skilled eye for contrast, and a scientific mind required to produce such hews and textures. Marbled endpapers signified the wealth and artistic eye of the owner of the book through the labor and skill of the artisans required to produce them. Without human labor, none of this beauty would have been possible


While this title page is not as colorful as the end pages or the spine, we still see intentional displays of craftsmanship and wealth. Note the irregular font sizing on this page, the use of different fonts and italics, and the very impressive Spanish Seal dominating the page. While the gilding and marbling would have been handled likely by other artisans, the construction of this page would have been handled by the printers themselves. 

The choice to create such a complicated page is intended to display the skill and wealth of the printers, and by extension the owner of this book. In order to create such a page, each letter had to be punched into a copper mold then cast from toxic lead just to create the letters needed to compose the page. Next, each letter is placed by hand into a reverse copy of the page, designing the output as if through a mirror. Most impressively of all, a stamp, likely carved from wood, would be created for the detailed crest, as wood allowed for more price work. The effort needed to carve the brilliant suns and ionic flourishes surrounding the sun would have been significant, as would the careful detailing of the heraldic crest of the ruling Habsburg family. The devotion needed to create such an output was as valuable to the owner of this book as the page itself, for such labor demonstrated the opulence of the holder and dedication of the manufacturers to their craft.

It is important to recognize that this title page clearly stretched the resources of the printer. Note how the font and kerning of Francisci is not uniform, with the serifs of the two I’s being different and the second I being shorter than the first. The printer here might not have had enough capital I’s in the same case to produce this page, or the ambitious variety of fonts and italics may have stressed the printing too far leading to printing errors. You can see one such printing error at the bottom of the page, where the edge of the printing block leaves an impression bottom left of Vallesoleti. This shows that behind all the ostentatious displays of wealth are human artisans, attempting difficult feats with limited resources.


While hand-illuminated manuscripts had fallen out of fashion by the 1600s, that did not mean that printers were not creative with their work. This first page of this chapter displays both a chapter header image and an illuminated letter. Both of these pictures were likely stamps, probably created out of carved wood like the previous crest. Printers used images like these to add flavor and imagery to books. The fantastical images contained within these prints are incredibly impressive given their size, which further goes to show the skill and economic investment within the book industry. Books were artisan objects, the culmination of the work of multiple skilled laborers and days of hard work.