THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

3 posts categorized "Rare books"

09 August 2017

Miniature books: a Lilliputian world - Part one

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Since when and why

In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left leg, which advancing gently forward over my breast, came almost up to my chin; when, bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hands, and quiver at his back… [1].


A particular from the book: Gulliver’s travels, illustrated by Rex Whistler (London: The Cresset Press, 1930), vol. I, p. 15 [Shelfmark: C.100.I.14]

 

I like to report on my first encounter with the miniature books world as a moment that was like waking up from my ordinary library day of submersion in beautiful American artists’ books, and discovering an exciting alternative reality made of miniature items. I perceived that these objects almost animated, approximately three or four inches tall, kindly throwing darts of curiosity at me with their bows loaded with charm. I immediately fell enamoured with them, and it did not take long before my desk was busy with library materials on miniature books.

“For those of us who have been bitten by this particular bug” [2] there is nothing left to follow the appeal of the beauty offered by the small miniature art masterpieces.


Some of the books consulted for my research, and on top the little: A dog’s tail, printed by Anicka and Gaylor Schanilec, (United States: Midnight Paper Sales & Flaming Cat Press, 2004), measures 1 1/2” x 1 1/8” [on cataloguing process]

 

Wondering ‘why’, and ‘since when’ have been the guideline of my innocent journey into the history of the little items. One of the first things I learned is that as old as the discovering of the written world is its counterpart in the miniature form. Secondly, I acknowledged that this world is regulated by laws, and for that, you will define as miniature books only those which respect the standard of being possibly even less than three inches but no more than four, and almost as it was heresy, five.

Defecting from the established rules in fact, an item of four inches or little more would only be a pain for a purist, and a joke for all artisans involved, printers, binders, papermakers, illustrators, illuminators, and engravers who would give all the very best of their art under more challenging and extreme circumstances from one to three inches.

It is said that to reach the completion of the 1878 Dante’s Divina Commedia edition (Padua: Salmin), also known as the “Dantino”, many artisans were injured: the necessary operations of preparing and cutting the types caused a serious injury “to the eyesight of both the compositor and corrector. It took one month to print thirty pages, and new types were necessary for every new form.”. Around the 70’s of the 19th century, two brothers from Padua, Italy, together with a small team of professionals such as casters, compositors, and correctors, developed an unprecedented minuscule typefaces, which they named carattere a occhio di mosca (fly’s eye type), and that was firstly used for the micro Dante’s masterpiece. The measures of the book are 1 1/4” x 1 3/4”, and it is only readable trough a magnifying glass [3].






The book of the world, by Irene Chan (Baltimore?: Ch'An Press, 2000), measures 1” x 1” (box). The text of this miniature book consists of an excerpt of John Dalton's 1808 Atomic Theory. The illustration is an image of Dalton's elastic fluids drawing that looks like the eye [on cataloguing process]

 

Indulging in more technical details, you would call a miniature book a 64mo. A single leaf of paper folded 64 times, originally printed with 64 pages on each side of it, and then scrupulously folded in order to bring up the correct sequence of the pages. The size of the pages are obviously determined by the size of the original master sheet, but a 64mo would inevitable be around 3 to 5 inches [4].

The purpose of creating, producing and collecting miniature books is two-fold: firstly, the practicality and secondly, personal pleasure, and the sense of beauty in small objects. Before Gutenberg, for matters European, miniature manuscripts were periodically produced completed with illuminations. Subsequently, the production of miniature books has continued to reflect the latest progresses of print machines and processes. There were miniature books printed in early Gothic and incunabula type characters, or in the earliest Greek types, Hebrew and so on. As in a shrinking mirror they were reflecting all new type acquisitions and binding progress [5].

Little books were simultaneously produced in the centuries alongside regular standard, so that men and women of faith could easily bring with them their collection of psalms and devotional books, students could carry their small library in a pocket, smugglers of ideas could easily hide tiny booklets in a secret bottom of their cape, merchants could quickly retrieve from their belt a tiny but complete guide on the equivalence of grains prices, scales, measures and conversion, and foreign currencies value meanwhile closing a deal, or that sharp businessmen could brilliantly define a legal contract.

It has been for that purpose that some of the earliest examples of books on miniature support were produced during the Babylonian Empire, as for the case of two small cuneiform tablets of Ancient Mesopotamia which preserve an antique writing system and concern trade and administrative issues. One of them, a clay tablet dated back to the 7th year of the reign of Bur-Sin, circa 2325 B.C., comes from the region of Ur, today Iraq, and measure only 1 5/8” x 1 1/2”. It contains extremely useful information while dealing with barley and bran for sheep (1), and the other, a Babylonian clay tablet from Senkereh, now Iraq, is dated 2200 B.C., and measure 1 7/8” x 1 1/4”, it was also used in the trading of animals and provisions (2).


(1), and (2). Photographic reproduction of an illustration taken from Miniature books: 4000 years of tiny treasures, by Anne C. Bromer, Julian I. Edison (New York: Abrams ; New York: The Grolier Club, 2007), pp. 11-12 [Shelfmark: LC.31.a.5071]

 

Another beautiful miniature object is the world’s first printing on paper. A very tiny scroll 23/8” tall obtained from wood blocks, is dated back to 770 A. D. and is well known as the D’harani prayer. Only the story of its origins is as enchanting as the scroll itself. With the aim of spreading awareness on Buddhism, the Japanese Empress Shotoku, gave order to print a million copy of these prayer-scrolls encased in charming wooden pagodas, then asked they be distributed all over the country divided among ten Japanese temples, a project which required over six years of continuous work [6].


A rare example of the D’harani prayer (23/8” tall) as illustrate by the Library of Congress Asian Collection




Annalisa Ricciardi is currently working as Cataloguer of the American Studies Collections. She is working on a heterogeneous collection of extraordinary interest and artistic value of American fine press and artists’ books, such as limited, numbered, and rare editions chronologically placed between 18th and 21st century.


[1] Gulliver’s travels, illustrated by Rex Whistler (London: The Cresset Press, 1930), vol. I, p. 18 [Shelfmark: C.100.I.14].
[2] Louis W. Bondy, Miniature books: their history from the beginnings to the present day (London: Sheppard Press, 1981), p. 3 [Shelfmark: 2708.e.223].
[3] Louis W. Bondy, Miniature books, pp. 93-95; and Anne C. Bromer, Julian I. Edison, Miniature books: 4000 years of tiny treasures, (New York: Abrams ; New York: The Grolier Club, 2007), pp. 47-49, 114. [BL Shelfmark: LC.31.a.5071].
[4] Doris V. Welsh, The history of miniature books (Albany, New York: Fort Orange Press, 1987), pp. 5-11 [Shelfmark: 2708.e.1550].
[5] Welsh, The history of miniature books, p. 2.
[6] Miniature books from the collection of Julian I. Edison (St. Louis, Missouri: Washington University), pp. 1-2 [Shelfmark: Cup.406.j.11]. See a rare example of the D’harani prayer as illustrate by the Library of Congress Asian Collection page: https://www.loc.gov/rr/asian/guide/guide-japanese.html

 

26 October 2016

The private life of the Canadian beaver

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The beaver is famous as a grafter: hence his adoption as one of the symbols of that industrious people, the Canadians.

In the medieval Bestiary he was associated with castration, on the grounds of a false etymology: Latin castor looks like it should be connected to castrare, and the tradition was that the beaver’s testicles were much sought after as medicine. When threatened with death at the hands of the huntsman, the beaver bit off his own genitals and escaped.

When the Baron de Lahontan published the account of his travels in New France in 1703, he has happier tales to tell of the hard-working rodent.

He describes the dams which they make ‘much more artistically than men’.  The Indians (‘sauvages’) are convinced that their ‘esprit’, ‘capacite’ and ‘jugement’ show that they must have immortal souls.  (Various unflattering comparisons with Tartars,  Muscovites and Norwegians follow.) 

The beavers hold their assemblies, communicating in ‘certains tons plaintifs non articulez’. 

They work through the night, using their tails as rudders, their teeth as axes, their paws as hands, and their feet as oars.

He also has a long section describing how the Indians hunt them.

Beavers 2

Nouveaux Voyages de Mr. le Baron de Lahontan, dans l’Amérique septentrionale, qui contiennent une rélation des différens peuples qui y habitent; la nature de leur gouvernement; leur commerce, leurs coutumes, leur religion, & leur manière de faire la guerre.(The Hague, 1703)  [1052.a.27.]

But the glory is this plate, where we see (anti-clockwise from top): savage hunting beaver with rifle, savage hunting beaver with bow and arrow,  beaver dragging a tree on water, the beaver’s dray, beaver caught in nets, beaver’s lake, holes in the ice, savages harpooning a beaver, dog choking a beaver,  another dog choking a beaver, beavers going to work, beavers’ dyke, beavers dragging a tree on water, beaver in a trap, beaver cutting down a tree.

Let the ingenious and dexterous beaver be an example to us all.

By Barry Taylor, Curator of Romance Collections

 

Further reading:

Rachel Poliquin, Beaver (London, 2015).  YK.2016.a.3542.

 

23 August 2016

New Gods and Old

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In some ways, the “discovery” of America opened the mental horizons of Europeans: Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” (1580) was a landmark in relativism.

In others, the discoveries confirmed what Europeans had long thought but not actually been able to prove.

Pliny was full of tall tales of dog-headed men and men with one huge foot. When the explorers arrived in the Americas, they “found” what they always knew: the name of Patagonia derives from these monsters. The Amazon was populated by warrior women.

Fantastic beings Cosmographia 1297m6

Monstrous beings from distant land. From Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia (Basel, 1545) [British Library 1297.m.6.]

It’s well known that the Spaniards applied the names of European fauna to American animals: tigre (in Spain, tiger) became the jaguar, león (lion in Europe, puma in America), zorro (fox in Spain, skunk in the New World).

Early modern authors viewed America through Pliny (see Lacarra and Cacho Blecua). But Urdapilleta shows that writers who actually lived in the Indies soon cast off these old ideas and relied much more on the evidence of witnesses or indeed their own eyes.

Now, iconographical handbooks originated in the Middle Ages, and derived their pictures largely not from extant works of visual art but from verbal literary descriptions. 44 of these are reproduced in facsimile in the series The Renaissance and the Gods ((London, 1976-; X.425/5375).

The most famous is probably Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (first edition 1593; first illustrated edition 1603). Writers and painters alike drew on such sources (see Rosa López Torrijos). In this tradition was Vincenzo Cartari, Le imagini de i Dei degli antichi. The first edition (1556) stuck to the gods and allegories of Greece and Rome.

Imagini de i Dei 704.d.10

Title page of Vincenzo Cartari/Lorenzo Pignoria, Le Vere e noue imagini de gli dei delli antichi ... (Padua 1615) [704.d.10].

But in 1615 a Second Part was added by Lorenzo Pignoria, with gods of the Indians and Chinese. His source for the American gods was the Mexican Codex Vaticanus 3738. In his prologue, Pignoria follows the argument that paganism alias idolatry (whether Greco-Roman or contemporary) is a foreshadowing of Christianity, because these false religions derived from the Christian truth. He was not a believer in polygenesis: 350 years before Thor Heyerdahl, he maintained that the Egyptians had the seafaring skills to reach Mexico: after all, many accounts of America were thought mere fables until Columbus went there and proved them true.

Quetzalcoatl 704.d.10.

The God Quetzalcoatl from Le Vere e noue imagini de gli dei delli antichi [704.d.10]

 

Here is a case in point: the god Quetzalcoatl. His attributes parallel those of the ancients: on his head he bears the pointed stone, related to the knife used by the Devil in the rites of Cybele; in his right hand the lituus (curved wand) as used by the augurs; at his feet the cornucopia; and (the clincher) the Christian Cross on his cloak and on the cornucopia.

What better proof that all religions were one?

 

Barry Taylor, Curator of Romance Collections

References/further reading:

Sonia Maffei, ‘Le imagini de i Dei degli antichi di Vincenzo Cartari: Dalla poesia all’archeologia’ http://dinamico2.unibg.it/cartari/leimaginideiDei.html

Marco Urdapilleta Muñoz, ‘El bestiario medieval en las crónicas de Indias (siglos XV y XVI)’, Latino América, Revista de Estudios Latinoamericanos, 58 (2014), 237-70. 5160.235500

Miguel A. Rojas Mix, América imaginaria (Barcelona, 1992) LB.31.b.10858

Rosa López Torrijos, La mitología en la pintura española del Siglo de Oro (Madrid, 1985). YV.1988.b.1010 María Jesús Lacarra, Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua, Lo imaginario en la conquista de América (Zaragoza, 1990). YA.1997.a.7376