Sunday, February 21, 2010

Three Hundred Years of Ownership

As I mentioned in a previous post, last month I attended a book auction for the first time. This week’s book is one of the two that made up the only lot on which I was the winning bidder; nearly all of the other antiquarian books -- with the exception of these two -- went to a very aggressive bidder (I think possibly a dealer in fine binding books) sitting directly behind me. I only managed to win these by sniping a bid at the very last second before the auctioneer hammered it away. I think I may have caught the other bidder a bit by surprise because I heard him sigh and mutter when they didn’t call his number.

The book is a very stout little volume (about 7.5cm thick, though splaying wider than that at the fore-edge) containing an early seventeenth-century edition of Natalis Comitis

Mythologiae, sive Explicationis Fabularum, a Latin and Greek collection of tales from classical mythology that was perhaps the most popular contemporary source for Greek and Roman religious narratives in Renaissance Europe. As a testament to its success, it went through twenty-seven different editions through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (all in French or Latin, though the author himself was Italian).

Originally published as ten volumes in Venice (1567), this copy of the Mythologiae is of the Geneva 1612 edition. I’m not able to say precisely who published the edition, because the name has been cancelled on the imprint and is indecipherable; it was printed, however, by “Samuel Crispinus”, who was also responsible for publishing a later edition -- my suspicion, therefore, is that whoever the publisher originally was, he sold or transferred his rights to the book to the printer for some unknown reason.

The author of the book was Italian poet, scholar, translator, and historian Natale Conti (1520-1582) and his take on classical mythology is extremely gnostic; in his view, the myths were a deliberate sequence of highly complex allegories in which was encoded a secret all-encompassing, universal life philosophy that had been known to the ancients but had become lost over the centuries. Thus, after recounting each myth (and he manages to cover nearly every one that was known in his day), the book provides a three-part analysis for the tale, described by Kevin Curran as historical, “scientific”, and ethical. As John Mulryan puts it in his close study of translation and mythography in the Renaissance, Conti used classical mythology to examine “the moral well-being of mankind”.

This systematic approach was highly influential with many of his time (including Francis Bacon, who relied upon Mythologiae for much of his own 1609 De Sapentia Veterum, many late-sixteenth century fine and performing artists who adapted Conti’s versions of the tales and his commentary into paintings, ballets, and masques, and teachers -- including in Elizabethan England -- who used it as a textbook), though it was not without controversy (Scaliger famously scorned Conti’s approach and shrugged him off as “an utterly useless man”). Conti’s pedantic esotericism ultimately fell from favor with the passing of the Renaissance and in the Romantic era his view on the myths was ridiculed for being simply ridiculous and inaccurate.

Beside his Mythologiae, this particular volume begins with the dedication to his 1600 edition and also includes his verse De Venatione, Geofrey Linocier’s essay on Conti’s version of the muses (included with most editions of Mythologiae after Conti’s death), and an anonymous collection of commentary observations on some of the myths in the preceding volume (this commentary has been traditionally scribed to the classicist Frederick Sylburg). Also included are indices of plants, animals, and places.

The book is in its original vellum binding, which is chipped and a bit worn, but still in fairly good condition; the top of the spine is flaring slightly from pull-damage and the cords from the spine are pressing tightly into the spine vellum. The back board is splitting apart slightly and a slight gap inside the book at gathering k reveals some of the leather bands inside the spine. An early hand has written the title in ink on the spine.

Also inked onto the binding are some decorative lines and, on the back and faintly on the lower part of the spine, several different permutations of the Latin phrase “Taciti Opera” are inked in precise block letters (likely an early owner was testing his/her handwriting by copying out from the title page of an edition of the complete works [Opera Omnia] of Cornelius Tacitus [Cornelii Taciti]) (see below).

The pages measure 10.5cm x 17cm and are of a hand-laid linen paper bearing chain-lines that vary in spacing and alignment between different gatherings; no watermarks seem to be visible, but flecks of poorly processed rag show through on nearly every page, suggesting perhaps that the printer resorted to a fairly cheap stock (in several different batches) for the job. The material interconnections between the physical world from which the book emerged and the book itself are neatly captured in the form of actual pieces of hair (animal? human?) that were trapped in the paper-mould when the paper was being manufactured, reappearing as part of the text on one page of the book (see below).

Expressed collationally, the book may be described as follows 8o: [#3] (:)8 a8-h8 i2 k8-z8 A8-Z8 Aa8-Zz8 Aaa8-Mmm43]: $4. Signatures are given with Roman letters followed by Roman miniscule numerals for sheet numbers (for example, Aa3 is signed “Aaiii”).

The precise number of pages is thus 1,594, though the pagination itself ends with the text of the Mythologiae (at what is marked as p. 1123) and does not include any of the following texts (which, if marked, would run 126 pages, from 1124-1250). The true pagination of such a large handpress book is bound to present problems; here is a list of some of the errors I noted in checking the book over (many of the errors are good examples of the kinds of mistakes a compositor can easily make when setting type by hand):

12 as “22”, 130 as “30”, skips from [1]30 to 143, 181 as “118”, 261 as “262”, 7 in “337” inverted (see above), 9 in “349” inverted, 433 as “431” (across D-E sheets) and follows (into other sheets, suggesting sheets were set in sequence and not simultaneously), 545 as “549”, 635 as “35”, 670 as “700”, 761 as “716”, 783 as “781” (across Cc-Dd sheets, but does not follow), 793 as “739”, 806 as “736”, 814 as “772”, 874 as “847”, 916 as “616”, 924 as “914”, 962 as “928”, 1034 as “1024”, 1043 as “1034”, 1053 as “1035”, 1061 as “1601”, 1071 as “1069” (across Xx-Yy and follows), 1071 as “1073”, 1104 as “104”

As this selection of errors shows, using page numbers as reference points in early books is asking for disaster. Thus, most scholars and bibliographers prefer to use the (generally, though not always, more accurate) system of signatures and gatherings.

A number of other printing errors in the book bear noting for the bibliographic record: signatures kii and kiiii are set as “lzii” and “lziiii” respectively, pi is unsigned, and Miiii is set as “miiii”. Looking at the running-titles of a handpress book can also be informative; on some pages, the word “Mythologiae” is spelled with a Greek miniscule “y” or even a capital Roman “I” for the “y”. Likewise, errors in the running-titles on many pages (see above and below) indicates that Crispinus did not use a “skeleton forme” for printing the book (a skeleton forme consists of a separate setting of type for text on the outside of a sheet that does not change much or at all between sheets; it is meant to speed up the composing process), an oddly cumbersome choice for such a tremendously long book.

As noted in the collational formula, gathering i is only two pages; it is, in fact, tipped-in onto the final leaf of h. This corresponds to the skipped pages 131-142 noted above, suggesting that these pages are “cancellans” -- cancelled leaves, likely resulting from an egregious printing error, were removed from the book (either before or after printing) and replaced by hand.

One of the wonderful features of handpress-period books is how markedly unique each copy is, not just because of owner’s marks (on which, more below) but even from the manufacturing process itself. My copy of the Mythologiae shows unique evidence of how it was made. For example, “furniture” were small blocks of metal of various sizes that could be inserted into the frame that held the pieces of type (the “chase”) in order to keep everything tight and aligned; the furniture was not as thick as the type-face itself, so when the ink was applied it would not show on the page. In at least two places in my copy, however, the furniture must have not been inserted fully into the chase or it was not locked down tightly, because the inked impression of the pieces appears on the pages (see above and below).

Likewise, a small spacer -- a thin piece of metal lower than the type-face used to set the distance between letters and words -- was accidentally inked and appears on a catchword on one page (below). On one sheet, the chase itself was not firmly locked and the type along the inside of one page on the sheet has drifted out of alignment in the first few lines.

Post-production damage and evidence of use provides evidence of another part of the “circuit” through which the book has travelled. Inky fingerprints on Fff3v and some of the pages after it suggest where a reader held the book, perhaps with pen in hand (a student?) (see left). Some dried mud stains splattered on only one opening (between Nn5v and Nn6r) suggest it was once accidentally dropped by a careless owner. Several gatherings have detached completely from the binding (m, C, E [unstitched completely], Eee, and Ggg) possibly indicating that content on those pages caused them to be turned to more frequently than other places in the book.

There is no marginalia in the book itself, though there is a sequence of owners’ inscription that bear comment. On the verso facing the title page there is an almost entirely erased pencil inscription at the top of the page. Beneath it is a sequence of inscriptions, in different inks and hands. Perhaps most intriguing about this sequence is that the more recent the inscription, the worse the handwriting, Latin, and clarity of message. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of the declining importance put upon manuscript notations in books over the years; indeed, today we seem to be moving more and more enthusiastically toward digital books that make lasting reader interaction less and less possible (paradoxically, while making ephemeral reader interaction and the ensuing illusion of thought more and more accessible).

Joannes Junius haecer praemium tulit ab Academia Salmuriensi ob egregia nauatam literis operam in tertio studiosorus ordines Anno MDCXXXV Rectore Mose Amyraldo.

Joannes Junius bears this prize from the School of Saumur on account of distinguished enthusiasm devoted to work in the third [year of] studies. So ordered, 1635. Rector Moses Amyraut.

Amyraut (1596-1664; shown to the left), a major promoter of the spread of Protestantism in early modern France, was a famed scholar and teacher of a particular brand of Calvinist theology (the “School of Saumur”) at the University of Saumur in western France. This careful inscription clearly suggests that the book was given as a gift by the theologian to one of his prized pupils. Another celebrated pupil of his was William Penn, who adapted Amyraut’s principles of religious pluralism in the founding of the Pennsylvania Colony.

Joannes Junius hoc praemium tulit et mihi nepoli sui Dedit 1674. [Beneath this is an undecipherable monogram.]

Joannes Junius bears this prize and my grandson himself gave it 1674.

This is a real puzzle to me. Dated 39 years after Amyraut awarded the gift to Junius, it uses much of the same language as the original note. This same hand has written an illegible inscription that begins “Ex libris” on the inside of the front cover, on the pastedown; it, too, is dated 1674.

While I can’t quite make out the name, it is very clearly not Joannes Junius.

ex Libris Joannis Baptista pallimi [illegible word] Doctoris medici [three illegible words]. 1747.

From the library of John Baptista cloaked doctor of medicine . 1747.

It’s rather infuriating that such a late hand should be so unclear (though if Baptista was a doctor, it’s little surprise his handwriting was so atrocious); it’s also possible that the writer has made errors in the Latin (or confusedly mixed Italian into his Latin).

Samuelo Thorne togam virilem sumer[t?]i de amico suo. Noel Morse. 1925. [ornamental underline]

Samuel Thorne lawyer[?] manfully obtained on account of joining a friend. Noel Morse. 1925.

I’m sure that whatever it was that Morse was trying to say with this cryptic and bizarre message was completely clear to Thorne. Today, the identity of both these men, their relationship, and the meaning of this inscription is, however, a complete mystery.

These owners’ inscriptions, bearing witness to nearly three-hundred years of changes from within the preliminaries of a book, conjure up an image (however romantic) of the book actually being handed off from one owner to another over four centuries, ending (for now) with me.

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