The John Rylands Library has one of the world’s largest and most magnificent collections of early European books printed before the year 1501. Collectively known as incunabula – a word derived from the Latin in cunabulis (“in the swaddling clothes” or “in the cradle”) to mean books produced in the infancy of printing – these are the first books made by the new invention of printing with movable metal type which began in Mainz, Germany, during the early 1450s.
A brief guide to the incunabula collection, mentioning some of the highlights, can be found here: https://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/special-collections/a-to-z/detail/?mms_id=992983876724001631.
There are about 4,000 incunables in the library. The majority of them were collected at vast expense by George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), who owned perhaps the greatest of all private libraries. The Spencer collection was purchased from the 5th Earl in 1892 by Enriqueta Rylands to form the centrepiece of The John Rylands Library, which opened to the public on 1 January 1900.
The incunabula are currently represented in the University of Manchester Library catalogue with very basic records derived from the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue. These records simply list the author, a brief title, place of publication, the printer’s name and a date of publication (if known), but lack other details.
The Incunabula Cataloguing Project will catalogue all of these 15th-century books to a very high level of detail. It will provide, for the first time, full bibliographic descriptions of each book and notes on the contents. This will include copy-specific details such as provenance, annotations, inscriptions, illuminations, illustrations, decoration, rubrication, bindings, collations, imperfections and sophistications.
I’ll begin this series of blogs on the Project by highlighting two early Italian incunables which have recently been catalogued. These two books have similar contemporary illuminated decoration, perhaps by the same artist or produced in the same workshop, but they have different provenances.
The first book is this large and magnificent copy of the editio princeps (first edition) of the Geographia by the ancient Roman author Strabo (ca. 63 B.C.-24 A.D.), an encyclopaedic work on the people and places of the ancient world. It was printed at Rome by Konrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz in 1469. Sweynheim and Pannartz were the first printers in Italy, producing their first books at Subiaco in 1465 before later moving to Rome.
The first page is richly illuminated with a border of flowers and leaves in various colours, with filigrees of curling black pen-work and gold dots. The large initial ‘S’ contains a portrait of the author Strabo. In the right-hand side of the border is a scene of two deer lying down in the countryside, and three birds (a black eagle, a thrush-like bird in gold and maroon, and a black cockerel) seemingly wander through the foliage.
The armorial device of the book’s first owner appears in the lower part of the border: two angel supporters holding a wreath containing a coat of arms, above which is a gold cross and it is flanked by the initials ‘M V’. This was Maffeo Vallaresso (1415-1495), a Venetian patrician and Archbishop of Zara (modern Zadar in Croatia), who was a humanist scholar and book collector.
The Renaissance scholar Professor Lilian Armstrong of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, identified the illumination as being by a Venetian artist in the style of the so-called Pico Master, an illuminator and miniaturist who was active in Venice and Ferrara from 1460 to 1505.
The second book is this beautiful little copy (it is only 8.7 cm tall) of one the earliest known Books of Hours to have been printed in Italy. A prayer book for daily use, it contains a cycle of devotions to be read at certain times during the day and night. It was printed at Venice by Nicolaus Jenson in 1474. This luxurious copy is printed on vellum. Only 6 copies are known to have survived to the present day.
As with the Strabo, it is also decorated in contemporary Venetian illumination, in the style of the Pico Master, though sadly some of the illuminations have deteriorated over time. At the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin (prayers honouring the Virgin Mary) the illuminated first letter – ‘D’ of ‘Domine’ (“Lord”) – contains a picture of the Virgin and Child seated on a throne, but Mary’s face is missing. Was it deliberately scratched off in an act of religious iconoclasm or has it been worn away over the years by the constant touching of devout fingers?
On another page, the illuminated first letter ‘D’ of the word ‘Dilexi’ (at the beginning of Psalm 114 in the Vulgate) contains an illustration of a skull.
The book’s first owner was Tiburzio Passerotti (1444-ca. 1524), a goldsmith from Bologna. His coat of arms appears in the painted border on the page with the defaced Virgin Mary. On the facing page Passerotti has drawn his circular trade mark with his initials “T + P”. Leaving no doubt as to who owned this book, at the end of the book he wrote: “Questo libro si e de tiburrio passaroto oreuexe da bologna: 1474.”
A later 18th-century owner of the book was Jacobus Antonius Rossi (1700-1760), a physician of Rivella, near Padua. He signed the book just below the earlier inscription: “nunc est Ad usu[m] Jacobi Antonii Rossi medicin[a]e D[octo]ris Rivellensis 1733.”
In the early 19th century this book was in the possession of Carlo Del Mayno, a Milanese bibliophile. It was later owned by Luigi Serra di Cassano, 4th Duca di Cassano (1747-1825), of Naples. The Duke of Cassano must have purchased the book from Del Mayno before 1819, as this was when he sold his entire library to George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer.