Monday, May 17, 2010

Houghton Library Exhibit Illuminates The Book Within The Book

Guillaume d'Estouteville (ca. 1412-1483), Epistola ad heremitas Sancti Augustini, Central Italy, after 1475. This volume is comprised of a series of letters written by various Popes to Augustinian Hermits. Depicted here is the presentation of the book to a member of the Holy Order by Pope Sixtus IV. The compiler, who later became Dean of the College of Cardinals in Rome, is seen standing beside the papal throne.
(All images courtesy of the Houghton Library.)

Lovers of the quiet, solitary refuge of books seem to find themselves outnumbered today. In a world where the moving, electronic image has become the most common form of mass communication, readers may wish they could have lived in an earlier time. A time in which the bound, printed word still reigned supreme as the major source of knowledge and culture. A new exhibit at Harvard University's Houghton Library looks back at such a time, The Middle Ages. It shows that in the medieval world, at least for the upper classes, books were essential to nearly every important part of everyday life.

Polistorio (Polyhistoria), Northern Italy, late fourteenth century. This volume, written in 1383, is a world chronicle that focuses on the city of Rome. The image seen here shows a copyist at work, using one text to create another. The depiction here is idealized, as actual calligraphy was done on loose sheets, which were only later bound together.

The show, Books in Books: Reflections on Reading and Writing in the Middle Ages, is made up of 10 of the library's most important medieval manuscripts. Spanning more than three hundred years, from the early 12th to the early 15th centuries, each of these texts show books being written, created, presented, exchanged, read, or studied. These artifacts show that for those living in Europe's Dark Ages, books illuminated ancient history, literary traditions, and religious doctrines. They also dictated social customs, manners, morals, and the appropriate role of art, music, dance, sports, and games in courtly society. And, in the case of the Bible, the book was even taken as the literal word of God.

Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, England, ca. 1420. this prayer book combines Flemish and English modes of illumination. The image shows St. Jerome, patron saint of libraries and librarians, holding a quill and a pen knife in his hands as he works on a long unfurled scroll.

The images of books within books in these manuscripts serve a wide variety of purposes. Portraits of writers at work identify them as the authorities behind the text. Dedication portraits pay tribute to the patrons who commissioned the works, and often depict the finished book's presentation. Sometimes the images help to convey how a book is to be received: readers may be shown engaging in a discussion over the text, or a solitary reader may be seen inviting the viewer to quietly look over his shoulder, or they may show a reader benefiting from the wisdom gained upon finishing and applying the work's content to improve his daily life.

Konrad von Ammenhausen (ca. 1300), Schachzabelbuch, a translation into German of Jacobus de Cessolis (flourished 1288-1322), De ludo scachorum. Austria (Vienna?), before 1408. The full title of the original Latin work, of which this manuscript presents a translation into German, reads, in translation: "Book of the Customs of Men and Duties of the Nobles and the People as Seen through the Game of Chess." The work uses the game of chess as an allegory of the social hierarchy. It contains tinted drawings of bishops, knights, peasants, money changers, physicians, innkeepers and gamblers, among others. Here two elderly gentlemen may be engaging in a discussion over the volume.

The artistry of the calligraphy and illumination of each manuscript in this exhibition points out how immensely the physical creation of books has changed over the centuries. The painstaking hand work of each volume could not be more different from the mass produced, printed paperbacks of today. But the fact that the book survived through so many technical innovations is comforting in light of the advent of e-books, Kindles, and iPads. In one form or another, the written word lives on.

Treatise on Tournaments, France, between 1452 and 1475. This compendium on the form and organization of knightly contests brings together several works. The work may have been written by the great bibliophile, Jacques d'Armagnac (ca. 1433-1477), the Duke of Nemours, whose great library was confiscated by Louis XI after his execution for treason. The image here depicts a knight presenting the book to his lord. Other illustrations include fictive coats of arms for the 150 Knights of the Round Table, and watercolors featuring suits of armor.

The Harvard University Books in Books show will be on display through June 25, 2010 in the Amy Lowell Room of Houghton Library. It was a joint project of the library and Professor Jeffrey F. Hamburger, the Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture, and the Chair of Harvard's Medieval Studies Committee. As part of the project, the manuscripts were digitized, and are available in an online version of the exhibition. This use of modern technology brings rare books and manuscripts to a far wider audience than they have ever previously enjoyed. It reminds us that even though the book may no longer be the center of our culture, some of the items that seem to be replacing it are ironically making it more accessible.

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