Monday, July 22, 2013

Ancient Empress Heats Up Rare Book Bound By A Master

by Stephen J. Gertz

Front wrapper.

Vulgar, insatiably lustful, shrewish, calculating, mean-spirited, born in a brothel and, above all, beautiful, she was the daughter of a bear trainer father and actress-dancer mother from Byzantium (Constantinople). Or, in the sanitized version, she was gorgeous and pious, the daughter of a Miaphysite Christian priest.

Title page.

The Byzantine Roman Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I, was one of the most influential women of her time. Justinian sought her counsel on politics, and she is credited with influencing social reforms, including the expansion of divorce rights of and property ownership by women, other rights for women, and the rights of children. Born in 497 CE, she reigned from 527 CE until her death at age fifty-one in 548 CE.

She got the royal treatment from French historian Charles Diehl (1859-1944) in a magnificently designed biography, Theodora Imperatrice de Byzance, with Italian Art Nouveau illustrator Manuel Orazi providing the lithographed decorations and images. It was published in Paris by L'Edition D'Art H. Piazza et Cie in 1904 in a limited edition of 300 numbered copies.

Chapter headpiece.

I recently had a copy pass through my hands, bound by René Kieffer of Paris and fit for an empress in a stunning Art Nouveau binding as showy as the sixty full color and gilt lithographed illustrations and decorative borders that frame the text.

Theodora's debut.

Diehl concentrates on the hot ancient empress born in a brothel aspects of Theodora's life as told by the historian Procopius, a scribe for the Byzantine Roman general Belisarius and Theodora's contemporary, in his Historia Arcana (Secret History) which went unpublished for over a thousand years until discovered in the Vatican Library. Within, Procopius claimed that both Justinian and Theodora were "fiends in human form" whose heads, according to witnesses, left their bodies to roam their palace. Had Procopius published the work his severed head would have roamed the palace like a  bowling ball.

Prior to the Historia Arcana Procopius wrote two other accounts of Theodora, twenty years younger than Justinian and his mistress before becoming his wife, both published while Justinian was alive and capable of retribution if he didn't like what he read. Each portrayed her as a courageous and influential (The Wars of Justinian), pious Christian (The Buildings of Justinian). Squeaky clean, that queen. But Procopius became disillusioned and turned bitter against the imperial couple.

You tell me which account is the more likely to appeal to a broad, popular audience:

"Theodora, the second sister, dressed in a little tunic with sleeves, like a slave girl, waited on Comito and used to follow her about carrying on her shoulders the bench on which her favored sister was wont to sit at public gatherings. Now Theodora was still too young to know the normal relation of man with maid, but consented to the unnatural violence of villainous slaves who, following their masters to the theater, employed their leisure in this infamous manner. And for some time in a brothel she suffered such misuse.

"But as soon as she arrived at the age of youth, and was now ready for the world, her mother put her on the stage. Forthwith, she became a courtesan, and such as the ancient Greeks used to call a common one, at that: for she was not a flute or harp player, nor was she even trained to dance, but only gave her youth to anyone she met, in utter abandonment. Her general favors included, of course, the actors in the theater; and in their productions she took part in the low comedy scenes. For she was very funny and a good mimic, and immediately became popular in this art. There was no shame in the girl, and no one ever saw her dismayed: no role was too scandalous for her to, accept without a blush.

Champion with Theodora as prize.

"She was the kind of comedienne who delights the audience by letting herself be cuffed and slapped on the cheeks, and makes them guffaw by raising her skirts to reveal to the spectators those feminine secrets here and there which custom veils from the eyes of the opposite sex. With pretended laziness she mocked her lovers, and coquettishly adopting ever new ways of embracing, was able to keep in a constant turmoil the hearts of the sophisticated. And she did not wait to be asked by anyone she met, but on the contrary, with inviting jests and a comic flaunting of her skirts herself tempted all men who passed by, especially those who were adolescent.

 "On the field of pleasure she was never defeated" (Procopius, Historia Arcana, Chapter 9, trans. by Richard Atwater).

Theodora Imperatrice de Byzance, no shock, went into five editions in its first year of publication but this, the true first, has become scarce. It was reprinted in 1937, and translated into English and published by F. Ungar in New York, 1972.

Binding by René Kieffer.

This copy was bound c. 1904 by René Kieffer in full mauve crushed morocco that picks-up the hue from the title page decoration. Multiple fillets and deep purple onlays as borders enclose an Art Nouveau design incorporating gilt-outlined, green onlaid flowers, gilt stems, and gilt-outlined, black onlaid branchwork, with gilt-bordered black onlaid dots. The design is reiterated in the spine compartments. 

Broad mauve morocco turn-ins with gilt rules and cornerpieces grace the inner covers with deep blue-purple patterned silk endpapers. Marbled endleaves follow the silk endpapers. All edges are gilt and the original wrappers are preserved.  Kieffer's ticket is found on the verso of the front endleaf. The whole is housed in the binder's morocco-edged slipcase

Inner front cover turn-in, with Kieffer's stamp.

According to Duncan & De Bartha's Art Nouveau and Art Deco Bookbinding, René Kieffer (1875-1964) worked for ten years at the famed Chambolle-Duru bindery in Paris, specializing in gilding, before establishing his own workshop in 1903. He debuted at the 1903 Salon des Artistes Françcais, and, evolving toward to more modern approach, became a disciple of the great Marius-Michel. At the time of this binding's creation he had begun to incorporate a transitional mix of flowers, vines, and colorful onlays in rather formal compositions, their Art Nouveau motifs retained within symmetrical borders that revealed his classical roots. By the end of World War I he had emerged as one of Paris's leading binders, his work sought after by collectors, his fine workmanship matched by a wide range of of progressive designs.


The patterned silk endpapers are extraordinary, amongst the most attractive and unusual I've seen; wonderful things happen when light strikes them at various angles.

Kieffer's stamp.
Kieffer's ticket.

Kieffer's design was not particularly original for the period yet the binding's beauty and masterful craftsmanship earned him the right to advertise his work as Art Bindings and the honorific, Binder to the Empress Theodora, sexpot sovereign of the Eastern Roman Empire.

[KIEFFER, René, binder]. DIEHL, Charles. Theodora Imperatrice de Byzance. Par Chalres Diehl, Charge de Cours a la Faculté des Lettres de L'University de Paris. Illustrations de Manuel Orazi. Paris: L'Edition D'Art H. Piazza et Cie., n.d. [1904].

First edition, limited to 240 copies (of 300) on vélin à la cuve, this being no. 242. Quarto (8 7/8 x 6 1/4 in; 226 x 159 mm). 261, [1] pp. Decorative text borders. Sixty full color and gold lithographed text illustrations, twelve hors texte.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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