Friday, July 6, 2012

A Feast Of Late 15th Century Illuminated Books

By Stephen J. Gertz

Biblia germanica.
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, February 17, 1483.

Issued at three prices: with uncolored woodcuts,
cuts colored,and with cuts colored in a broader
palette and the major initials and first woodcut
illuminated with gold leaf.

When illuminated manuscript copies were replaced by printed books, the art of hand-painted decoration did not die with them. Incunables, books  printed within the first fifty years of the publication of Gutenberg's Bible, continued to be illuminated, even those with woodblock illustrations, which were supplemented with hand-painted historiated initials and margin flourishes.

Hermes Trismegistus. De potestate et sapientia dei.
Venice: Maximus de Butricis, July 29, 1491.

Not too long ago. a colleague bemoaned to me that there were only thirty or so incunables currently  being offered in the marketplace. That figure has now jumped to over one hundred.

FIRMICUS MATERNUS, Julius and Franciscus Niger (editor).
Mathesis (De nativitatibus).
MANLIUS, Marcus. Astronomicon.
ARATUS. Phaenomena.
THEON. Commentaria in Aratum.
PROCLUS. Diadochus Sphaera.
Venice: Aldus Manutius, June and October 1499.

Important Aldine collection of classical astronomical texts.

Shapero Rare Books has just issued a catalog of seventy-five rare and precious incunable editions, many illuminated, all from one of the most prestigious collections ever assembled, the renowned Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica.

COLUMNA, Franciscus [but eliseo da Treviso] and Benedetto Bordone [artist].
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
Venice: Aldus Manutius, December 1499.

The most admired of Renaissance illustrated books,
a celebrated masterpiece of Italian art and typography.

Carefully amassed over the last forty years by Dr. Joost R. Ritman, this unparalleled collection focuses on an important aspect of Renaissance culture: the revival of Antiquity and Platonism and their relationship to Christianity.

LACTANIUS, Lucius Coelius Firmianus. Opera.
[together with]
FORTUNATUS. De resurrectione Christi.
Venice: Johannes de Colonia ans Johannes Manthen, August 27, 1478.

Third Venice edition of the first works to be printed in Italy.

Dr. Ritman's guiding principle was to gather together the finest examples of printed texts in their earliest and most important editions. Complete copies, in contemporary bindings and often with hand-colored or illuminated initials and illustrations, were his prey. 

JOSEPHUS, Flavius. De antiquitate Judaica. De bello Judaica.
[Ausburg]: Johann Schüssler, June 28, 1470.

One of the few classics first issued in Germany.

Some editions are astonishing for their rarity, one copy of only a handful printed or from a press which published only a few books.

PLOTINUS and Marsilio Ficino (transl. and comment.)
Florence: Antonio di Bartolommeo Miscomini, May 7, 1492.

The only incunable edition of the primary documents of Neoplatonism.

The collection is a trove of important "firsts": the first book printed in Ausburg, Germany; the first dated book printed in Lübeck; the first book printed by Johann Schüssler; the first by Johann Bämler; books from the first printers in Paris and, indeed France; and first books printed in Nuremberg, Cologne, Zwolle, Ghent, and Haarlem.

RHODIUS, Apollonius and Janus Lascaris (ed.). Argonautica.
Florencec: Laurentius de Alopa, 1496.

First edition of Jason's epic quest for the Golden Fleece.
One of only five copies printed on vellum.
ARISTOPHANES and Marcus Musurus (editor). Komodiai ennea.
Venice: Aldus Manutius, July 15, 1498.

Editio princeps of Aristophanes' comedies

It is, in toto, one of the most impressive and jaw-dropping collections seen in quite a while, a delight to the mind and eye.

BERGAMO, Jacobus Philippus and Albertus de Placentia and
Augustinus de Casali Maiori (editors).
De claris mulieribus.
Ferrara: Laurentius de Rebeis de Valentia, April 29, 1497.

First edition of the first encyclopedia for women, a catalog of the
most important women in the history of humanity.
Bergamo, another view.

Each of these copies were, at the time of their publication, extremely expensive; illumination was labor-intensive and a high degree of artistry was required. As printed books became more widely distributed and read their cost had to fall and, as the printing of woodcuts as illustrations became practical and cost-efficient, illumination gradually dimmed from view, and with fewer outlets for their talents the number of illuminators declined and a noble art-form fell into disuse and withered.

That this important collection is being broken-up is unfortunate. Yet the books will likely find their way into other collections, ones that may also tell a compelling story about a time and place in the history of books, culture, ideas, and art.

All images courtesy of Shapero Rare Books, with our thanks.

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