THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

6 posts from August 2020

31 August 2020

21 Gdańsk Demands: the First Step towards Freedom

This post is the first in a series published to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Solidarity movement in Poland on 31 August 1980.

In July 1980, a wave of strikes swept over Poland in response to the increased food and other goods prices set by the government. On 14 August a strike broke out at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk as a reaction to the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz, a crane operator, for her participation in an illegal trade union. The former shipyard electrician, Lech Wałęsa, also dismissed for his trade union activities four years earlier, took his famous leap over the shipyard fence to lead the strike. The workers demanded labour law reforms, respect for human rights and increased wages.

Solidarity logo

The internationally recognised Solidarity logo designed by Jerzy Janiszewski BL shelf mark Sol.764

The strike quickly spread to other enterprises in Gdańsk and a few days later the Inter-factory Strike Committee (Międzyzakładowy Komitet Strajkowy) was formed with Wałęsa as its head. The Committee drew up and presented the government with a list of 21 demands, including the right to organise independent trade unions, a guarantee of freedom of speech, the release of political prisoners and the right to strike. They went far beyond the scope of usual workers’ demands. Tough negotiations between the striking shipyard workers and a government commission, which lasted for eight long days, resulted in the signing of the accord, known as the Gdańsk Agreement, on 31 August. This led to the creation of the first independent trade union in the communist bloc.

Photo of Lech Wałęsa

French postcard with a photo of Lech Wałęsa (copyright Michel Philippot) Gdańsk, 16 December 1980. BL shelf mark Sol.764

Underground publishing began in Poland in 1976, and the network of independent publishers, printing facilities and distribution was well established before August 1980. Unsurprisingly, illegal publications were also being issued in the striking factories during the summer unrest of 1980. In the Gdańsk Shipyard, the Strajkowy Biuletyn Informacyjny Solidarność (Solidarity Strike Information Bulletin) began publication on 23 August. The bulletin became the official journal of the striking shipyard workers, openly produced and uncensored. It contained reports on the current strike situation and the progress of negotiations with the authorities. It also included texts of official documents and statements, strike poems, interviews and reportages. But above all, it stimulated the spirit of the strikers. The daily circulation reached approximately 40,000 copies. A spontaneous general strike embracing almost the entire working population of the country in solidarity with the striking workers in the Gdańsk Shipyard inspired the editors to come up with the idea of “Solidarity” for the title of the bulletin. The last issue, no. 13, was published on 31 August and included the text of the agreement and the statue of the newly established Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity.

Strajkowy Biuletyn Informacyjny Solidarność, issue no. 13

Strajkowy Biuletyn Informacyjny Solidarność, issue no. 13 BL shelf mark Sol.103

The Twenty-One Demands of August 1980 are included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List as one of 20th-century’s documents of particular political importance.

The demands initiated a process which culminated in the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989. Solidarity, created as a result of the Gdańsk Agreement, is not only the name of a trade union and a massive social movement with nearly ten million members but also serves as the symbol of a European peace revolution.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

27 August 2020

Dutch Debut Wins International Booker Prize 2020

“I am as happy as a cow with seven udders”, was Marieke Lucas Rijnevelt’s reaction to the announcement that they (Rijnevelt’s preferred pronoun) and translator Michele Hutchison had won this year’s International Booker Prize for The Discomfort of Evening (London, 2020; DRT ELD.DS.490780), a translation of their debut novel De Avond is Ongemak.

Front cover of The Discomfort of Evening with an illustration of a person with a jacket pulled up over their nose and mouth

Front cover of The Discomfort of Evening

Well, that got everybody’s attention. It may-be a less surprising remark when you know that Rijnevelt is a dairy farmer as well as a writer.

This year’s International Booker is one of ‘firsts’: the first win for a Dutch novel, by the youngest winner ever, for their first novel. Not bad going.

The comment caused as much a stir in the media as the book itself. Ted Hodgkinson, the chair of the jury, said of the book that it is “shocking” and “absolutely arrests your attention” (The Guardian 26/8), “not a book you can sit back from”.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld self portrait photograph

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, self portrait photograph (Source: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0) 

Rijneveld doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to telling the story of how a deeply religious farming family deals (or not) with the death of their young son in an accident. The story is told through the eyes of one of the daughters, who is ten when the accident happens and nearly twelve when the book ends. The book is based on Rijneveld’s own loss of a sibling in their childhood. They always knew they had to write a book about it. That became De Avond is Ongemak which became The Discomfort of Evening. Critics are full of admiration; calling the book visceral and virtuoso in its language, the best debut they ever read, and so on.

The International Booker Prize is equally divided between the author and translator. Michele Hutchison is one of the top translators of Dutch literature. She has translated works by Esther Gerritsen and Tom Lanoye, and she was one of the translators in the Frisian literary anthology Swallows and Floating Horses (London, 2018; YC.2019.a.5165)

Her translation of the winning novel opens up the claustrophobic, isolated world Rijneveld conjured up so well in the Dutch version with an immediacy and totality seldom seen in translations.

I look forward to reading both versions: the English, and the Dutch, once the latter has a shelfmark. The book was received at the end of March, just after the Library closed due to COVID-19. It may yet take a while before it gets to the shelves, but meanwhile I’ll entertain myself with the English, digital version. It will be udder delight!

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

24 August 2020

Gutenberg Anniversaries - not all that they seem?

The date of 24 August is often claimed as the anniversary of the Gutenberg Bible, the first European book printed with moveable type. The date is not in fact the anniversary of the printing being completed, but is based on a rubricator’s  inscription of 24 August 1456 in a copy of the Bible held by the French National Library. It’s the earliest dated evidence of a complete copy being in existence, but obviously made when the rubrication was completed rather than the printing (thought to be the previous year). But it’s become well established as a date to commemorate the Bible’s completion.

Opening page of the Gutenberg Bible, with hand decorated initials and margins
Opening of the Gutenberg Bible, from one of the British Library copies (Mainz, ca. 1455) C.9.d.4.

In fact this is not the only anniversary date connected with Gutenberg that is somewhat tenuous. Few exact dates in  Gutenberg’s life (and little precise chronology of the Bible’s printing) are definitely known. However, since the 16th century, various years have been chosen and commemorated as Gutenberg anniversaries, and the two most common (1400 and 1440) are based on guesswork.

The most frequently commemorated Gutenberg date is 1440, claimed as the anniversary of the invention of the printing press. This is based on documents from a legal case brought against Gutenberg in 1439 in Strasbourg, which implied that he was working on some new innovation and used terminology similar to that later used to describe parts of the printing process. But it is not until the early 1450s that we have any evidence of Gutenberg, back in his native Mainz, actually producing printed texts.

Gutenberg Strasbourg
Statue of Gutenberg in Strasbourg, erected in 1840 to commemorate the ‘400th anniversary’ of the printing press (Photograph: Susan Reed)

Nonetheless, 1440 was the anniversary date that stuck. As early as 1540 the printer Hans Lufft of Wittenberg is said to have held a commemorative feast, although no primary evidence of this survives. A Latin poem published in 1541 has been described as the first Gutenberg centenary publication, but can only claim the title by default since the author, Johannes Arnoldus doesn’t actually mention an anniversary, stating that a visit to Mainz inspired his work. He calls the printing press a new wonder of the world, and praises Gutenberg and his colleagues Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer as divinely inspired.

Title page of 'De chalcographiae inventione' with a woodcut of printers at work
Joannes Arnoldus, De chalcographiae inventione poema encomiasticum (Mainz, 1541) G.9963

In 1640 a handful of scholars and printers produced celebratory publications for the bicentenary of printing. One such was Bernardus Mallinckrodt, apparently the first writer to use the term ‘incunabula’, from the Latin word for cradle, to refer to books from the ‘infancy’ of printing’, now used for western books printed before 1501.

Title page of 'De ortu ac progressu artis typographicæ' with portraits of Gutenberg and Fust and a picture of a printing workshop
Bernardus Mallinckrodt, De ortu ac progressu artis typographicæ dissertatio historica … (Cologne, 1640) C.75.b.17.(1.)

Mallinckrodt’s chief aim was to defend Gutenberg’s reputation as the inventor of printing against Dutch claims that Laurens Janszoon Coster of Haarlem had first perfected the art. This debate continued for generations, becoming particularly fierce in the 19th century. It even inspired a play, staged in London in 1856, which depicted Gutenberg’s ‘theft’ of Coster’s idea.

First Printer
Playbill advertising The First Printer, a play by Tom Taylor and Charles Reade, as performed at the Princess’s Theatre in March 1856 (Playbills 161)

In the Netherlands Coster was long celebrated as the inventor of printing, with 1428 commemorated as the date of his breakthrough. The modern consensus has come down in favour of Gutenberg, and contemporary debates focus more on whether or not knowledge of older East Asian printing technologies influenced developments in Europe.

Portait of Coster holding a letter A and a printed sheet, with a church in the background.
Laurier-krans geflogten om’t hoofd van Laurens Koster, eerste uitvinder der boekdrukkunst binnen Haarlem (Haarlem, 1726.) Koning. 13. The scroll superimposed on the church spire may be intended to reflect the shape of an early press

1740 saw anniversary festivities in many German towns, usually organised by local printers and booksellers, but also involving scholars and clerics, whose lectures, speeches and sermons accompanied more entertaining events such as processions and firework displays. These celebrations often emphasised the role of printing in spreading Christianity. In a work commemorating the celebrations in Wernigerode, the printer Michael Anton Struck proudly claims to have printed 50,000 Bibles in 40 years.

Engraved title page with vignettes showing printers, presses, books and church scenes
Decorative title page of Michael Anton Struck, Wernigerodisches Danck- und Jubel-Fest, welches wegen der vor 300 Jahren 1440 erfundenen Buchdrucker-Kunst  … celebriret worden ([Wernigerode, 1740]) 9930.ccc.59.(5.)

In the 16th-18th centuries, Gutenberg commemorations emphasised the invention of printing more than the inventor. Gutenberg was praised, but there was little interest in his character or motivation. 19th-century Romantic notions of the hero were among the factors that helped move Gutenberg himself into the limelight in 1840. For the first time, fictional and dramatic portrayals of his life and work were presented, as well as biographies aimed at a wider popular audience.

Allegorical image of Gutenberg and a spirit
A tormented Gutenberg confronts the spirit of the past. From Franz Dingelstedt, Sechs Jahrhunderte aus Gutenbergs Leben: kleine Gabe zum grossen Feste (Kassel, 1840) 839.m.11.

The Gutenberg of 1840 appeared in many different guises, often with a particular political colour. To some he was still the man who had brought God’s word to the masses and facilitated the Reformation. To others, and particularly to radicals who used the anniversary to call for freedom of the press, he was a more secular apostle of enlightenment, pushing aside mediaeval darkness and superstition, and creating a technology to unite the peoples of the world.

Allegorical image of printing uniting the world
Printing unites the peoples of the world. From Heinrich Meyer (ed.) 1840: Gutenbergs-Album (Braunschweig, 1840). 819.l.15

1900 saw the first major celebrations of Gutenberg’s supposed birth date (as determined in the previous decade) of 1400. By this time Germany had become a strong unified state and the emphasis was more on Gutenberg as national hero. A spectacular pageant in Mainz placed him and his achievement in the specific context of German culture and history alongside figures such as Luther, Goethe, Schiller and Frederick the Great.

Frederick the Great and his soldiers as shown in the 1900 centenary procession
Frederick the Great and his army as depicted in the 1900 celebration pageant, marching past the Gutenberg Statue in Mainz. From, Gutenberg-Feier, Mainz 1900: Offizielle Darstellung des historischen Festzuges ... (Mainz, 1900) 1858.a.6.

With the advent of cheap mass-production, popular souvenirs such as postcards, ornaments and pictures were another feature of the 1900 celebrations. However, the anniversary also gave rise to a number of serious scholarly publications on the early history of printing which had become an important area of research in the previous century.

The idea of celebrating Gutenberg as a German hero was, of course, taken to extremes by the National Socialist regime, which instituted annual ‘Gutenberg Celebration Weeks’ in Mainz. However, with the country at war, plans for grandiose celebrations in 1940 were replaced by more modest events. It was among academics and bibliographers in the USA that the anniversary received perhaps the most attention. Their serious studies of early printing were complemented by humorous offerings such as M.B. Cary’s The Missing Gutenberg Wood Blocks (New York, 1940; 12332.bb.15.), purporting to be newly-discovered 15th-century illustrations of Gutenberg’s early life and work, and A.W. Rushmore’s ‘The Mainz Diary’, which portrays Gutenberg’s wife as the true inventor of the press.

Cartoon of a mediaeval woman working a printing press
Mrs Gutenberg at work. From: A.W. Rushmore, ‘The Mainz Diary: 1437-1440. In which new light is shed upon the cradle days of the art and mystery of printing.’, in Print: a quarterly journal of the graphic arts, Vol. 1 no.3 (December 1940). PP.1622.bfg.

It was not until 1968 that Gutenberg was commemorated on a verifiable historical date: the 500th anniversary of his death. Wider commemorations were held for his ‘600th birthday’ in 2000, again with a mixture of scholarly and more frivolous activities. Alongside exhibitions, conferences, and printed and digital facsimiles, there were new fictional retellings of Gutenberg’s life, and such souvenirs as Gutenberg chocolates and candles.

It will be interesting to see if 2040 is marked as the 600th anniversary of western printing. It wouldn’t necessarily be historically accurate, but it would continue centuries of tradition. As for today, 24 August 2020, surely even the most hard-nosed pedant can at least say, ‘Happy 564th anniversary of a Gutenberg Bible rubricator laying down his pen’. After all, he too was making history in his own way.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

Vignette 011899.h.515
Vignette showing Gutenberg at the press, from Paul Goldschmidt, Gutenbergbuch: Festgabe zur 500jährigen Geburtstagsfeier (Halle, 1900) 011899.h.15

19 August 2020

The City of Rijeka: European Capital of Culture

Rijeka (Croatia) and Galway (Ireland) are the joint European Capitals of Culture in 2020. Rijeka (in Italian Fiume) is one of the most important cities in Croatia, the largest port, and  a cultural, educational and scientific centre. It is a major Croatian publishing centre and the seat of the University founded in 1973. Geographically and culturally Rijeka and the Bay of Kvarner connect the Istrian peninsula with mainland Croatia.

Map of the Gulf of Kvarner
The Bay of Kvarner in an 1872 Austrian map of Rijeka Harbour, Croatia. Maps 3.e.19. 

To mark the first Croatian European Capital of Culture, and to showcase some rare items from the British Library Croatian collections, we team up with a Library user, Marko Grba a poet and PhD student at the University of Rijeka. Coincidentally, he has the same surname and initials as the curator of Southeast European collections in the Library.

Rijeka’s cultural programme motto is “Port of Diversity”, and in this blog post we will try to revive the memory of the people, events, tradition, identity and culture that created the city and this region. To highlight a succession of eras in this beautiful city and the surrounding Bay of Kvarner we are presenting, in addition to the selected collection items, a poem in Croatian and in its English translation by the poet, together with a selection of personal photographs taken recently.

Opening of a devotional book in Glagolitic script
Mirakuli blažene Deve Marije
(Senj, 1508) C.48.b.23., a printed Glagolitic book from the Senj printing press

This book is a translation from Miracoli della gloriosa Vergine Maria and other popular religious works of the period. It is the last of at least seven Glagolitic books from the Senj press, printed there between 1494 and 1508. A digital copy is available from the Digital Library of the Croatian Academy in Zagreb.

The printer of this early Glagolitic book was Grgur Senjanin, the first known printer in Croatia, who printed the Glagolitic Missal (1494), among other books, in the Senj printing press founded by Silvestar Bedričić. The British Library copy is one of the five known copies in existence worldwide.

Title page of the 1531 Croatian Missal, printed in red and black with a woodcut of St Jerome in his study
Title page of a Croatian Missal from the Rijeka press, Misal hruacki po rimski običai i činь (Rijeka, 1531) C.110.e.2.(1.).

Only six Glagolitic books have been identified so far from the Glagolitic printing house in Rijeka founded by Šimun Kožičić Benja, Bishop of Modruš, and the Croatian Missal of 1531 is regarded as the most beautiful work of the press. The book is printed in Church Slavonic, in Croatian Glagolitic script in two columns, in liturgical black and red letters, and decorated with woodcuts and initials in Gothic and Glagolitic uncial fonts. Bartolomeo Zanétti (b.ca. 1487), a typographer, is named as the printer of the book. The British Library copy is one of 15 copies identified in libraries around the world. A digital copy is available from the Digital Library of the National and University Library in Zagreb.


Title page of 'Amelia, ossia Il Bandito'
The first performance of the opera Amelia, ossia Il Bandito (Fiume, 1860) 906.d.5.(5.), adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s drama Die Räuber by the great Croatian composer Ivan Zajc from Rijeka. 

Title page of 'Fiume zur Zeit der Uskokenwirren'
Alfred Fest, Fiume zur Zeit der Uskokenwirren (Fiume, 1893). 10210.ff.9. A History of Rijeka in the 16th and early 17th centuries in the time of Uskoks, Christian rebels against the Ottomans who operated from the Habsburg border garrison in Senj and the Croatian Military Frontier in the Habsburg Monarchy.


Title page of 'Memorie per la storia della liburnica città di Fiume'
Giovanni Kobler, Memorie per la storia della liburnica città di Fiume (Fiume, 1896) 10201.ff.7. A history of Rijeka in three volumes, with two appendices: chronological notes on the history of Rijeka from the year 395 to 1875, and a register of useful historical records from 803 to 1839. The author, Giovanni Kobler (1811-1893), was a lawyer and historian from Rijeka and the work was posthumously published by the city of Rijeka in 1896.Heraldic emblem featuring a double-headed eagle perched on a rock
Facsimile of the emblem granted to the city of Rijeka by Emperor Leopold I on 6 June 1659. From Memorie per la storia della liburnica città di Fiume.


Photograph of Giovanni Kobler with a facsimile of his signature
‘Fiumano’ (‘Citizen of Rijeka’). A photograph of Giovanni Kobler .

We turn now to some images of Rijeka and the Bay of Kvarner past and present. In one such a photograph (below) the memory of old tradition of fishing is preserved. Tuna-fishing was an important source of income in the city and the ‘tunera’ – wooden poles used as observation points for spotting the schools of tuna fish coming up the coast of the Bay of Kvarner – used to be a familiar sight, but are now long gone, as reflected in Marko Grba’s poem.

A wooden 'tunera' lookout pole over the water in Rijeka


Stare tunere kod Bakarca
(Prema razglednici M. Clementa Crnčića)

Od Kostrene, malog mjesta velikih obitelji kapetana,
Uokrug zaljeva Bakra,
Mjesta škole kapetana,
Koji je i Halley od kometa
Premjeravao za potrebe brodova Kraljevske mornarice,
Pa do tunera bakaračkih,
I još dalje prema Kraljevici,
Gdje se kovala urota zrinsko-frankopanska,
Plivale su, do ne tako davno, tune:
Moć i ponos Jadrana.
Ne plove više –
I ne vrijede više tunere,
Spomen zanosu Jadrana.

Old Tunera poles near Bakarac, Kvarner Bay
(After a motive by M. Clement Crnčić*)

From Kostrena, a small town with widely known families of seafarers,
Around the Bay of Bakar,
The place of a well known school of seafarers,
Which bay the famed Halley of the Comet
Gauged for the needs of the Royal Navy fleet,
All the way to the old Tunera poles of Bakarac,
And farther still, towards Kraljevica,
Where the plot of Zrinski and Frankopan was forged,
Until not so long ago, tuna were swimming:
The pride and might of the Adriatic.
They sail no more –
And the Tunera poles are of no worth any more,
But as a memory to the rapture that once was the Adriatic.

(Poem and translation © Marko Grba)

* Menci Clement Crnčić (1865-1930), Croatian painter, graphic artist and co-founder of the Academy of Fine Arts


Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre
The Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre, built 1883-85 in the typical 19th-century style of architecture in Rijeka (photograph by Marko Grba)

Rijeka City Library
The Rijeka City Library, housed in Palace Modello built in 1885 (photograph by Marko Grba)

 

VIIII_Sveučilišna biblioteka
Rijeka University Library, housed in the former School for Young Ladies built in 1887 and converted first into the Scientific Library in 1948, then into the University Library in 1979 (photograph by Marko Grba)

X_Riječki Korzo sa zastavama EPK
Korzo, Rijeka’s main promenade decorated with red and white ‘Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture’ flags (photograph by Marko Grba)


XI_Ičići2
A view of Rijeka in the distance across the Bay of Kvarner from Ičići a popular beach near Opatija (photograph by Marko Grba)

Milan Grba, Lead Curator of South East European Collections & Marko Grba, poet and PhD student at the University of Rijeka

References:

Jakša Ravlić, Rijeka. Geografija, etnologija, ekonomija, saobraćaj, povijest, kultura. (Zagreb, 1953). Ac.8967/23

Günther Tutschke, Die glagolitische Druckerei von Rijeka und ihr historiographisches Werk (Munich, 1983) 11879.aa.2/169 

Wendy Bracewell, The Uskoks of Senj (London, 1992) YA.1994.b.2298. (Limited preview available from Google Books)

12 August 2020

Inheritance Books: Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

This post is part of our ‘Inheritance Books’ series with the Americas blog, where colleagues choose an ‘inherited’ item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to ‘pass on’ to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they’re important to us. This week, Marja Kingma, responsible for the Dutch collections, shares her choices.

The one item that I would consider to be my inherited item is a 16th-century herbal, which has been a constant presence over the ten years I have been a curator for Dutch Language Collections. It is without a doubt my favourite item from the Dutch Language Collections.

It is a Latin edition of Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydboeck, or herbal, Stirpium historiæ pemptades sex, sive libri XX, printed in 1583 by Christophe Plantin in Antwerp. It was THE standard book on plants for almost 200 years.

We hold two copies, but my favourite copy is at shelf mark 442.i.6.

Title page of Stirpium historiæ pemptades sex, sive libri XXX

Title page of Stirpium historiæ pemptades sex, sive libri XXX. (Antwerp, 1583). 442.i.6.

I had only just taken up my position as curator in January 2011 when I received an enquiry from a reader relating to this copy. I cannot remember what the enquiry was about, but I do remember my utter amazement and surprise when I opened the book.

It is full of manuscript notes, in the margins, in between text blocks and on inserted pages, crossed out sections, hand-coloured images of plants, cut out from some other book (another edition of his Cruydboeck, perhaps?). It had five dried plant specimens in it, now separately stored in a special case.

The title page of the second edition of 1616 states: ‘Varie ab auctore, paullo ante mortem, aucti & emendati’ (‘In several places augmented and amended by the author shortly before his death’). Dodoens himself edited the second edition shortly before his death in 1585. Could this copy be the editing copy?

It was none other than Hans Sloane, one of the founders of the BL’s collections, who acquired this copy. His catalogue number is written on the title page (to the right of the words ‘medici caesarii’ on the title page pictured above).And it was none other than Joseph Banks, another founder of our collections who acquired the second edition. (442.i.7). I display both copies at show-and-tell sessions for visitors, where I lay them side by side so you can trace the changes made by Dodoens. We also hold many more editions of Dodoens’ Cruydboeck, as well as other titles written by him. 

Last September BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time recorded an episode at the British Library. I asked the panel whether they could identify the dried plant specimens. It turns out they are all medicinal plants. I like to think they were inserted by Hans Sloane, which would make them 300 years old.

The link between Dodoens, a Fleming of Frisian descent who taught at the newly established university in Leiden, the city I was born in, with Sloane and Plantin makes this copy very special to me. The copy is digitised and will be available online via our website in due course.

The book I would like to pass on is a wonderful artist’s book, entitled Spijker-schrift, by the avant-garde artist Willy Scholte. This is also a unique book, for it is handmade and one of only six copies. Willy was self-educated as an artist and her handmade publications were usually issued in small editions

Front cover of Spijker-schrift

Front cover of Spijker-schrift (Amsterdam, 1985) HS.74/2416.

Scholte was one of very few women artists in Amsterdam working with Stempelplaats, an avant-garde printing house/artists’ studio in Amsterdam led by Ulises Carrion and Aart van Barneveld, from its beginning in 1976.

The book plays with the concept of nails. Spijker-schrift is the Dutch term for cuneiform, and there are two clay tablets with cuneiform texts, one a quote from the Assyrian period. The clay is of course modern. It is attached to cardboard ‘pages’, two of which have nails in them. The pages are wrapped in a cardboard cover, which is covered on the inside in words and texts relating to nails, produced using a stamping technique. You can watch a video about it on the @BL_European Twitter feed.

Spijker-schrift is a marvellous work and I am so happy I have been able to acquire it, thanks to a London based dealer who specializes in mail art, concrete art and similar avant-garde art forms from all over Europe. It is a valuable addition to our small but nice collection of works by concrete and mail artists from the 1970s and 1980s.

It is an art form I knew nothing about before I became curator, but I am getting to know it better and love it. I hope to write more about it in future.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

N.B. Items mentioned in this blog were acquired and previously owned by figures who are associated with wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence.

06 August 2020

Gianni Rodari, the logic of fantasy (part 1)

Photograph of Gianni Rodari

Gianni Rodari. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the first blog post in a two-part series to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Italian children’s writer Gianni Rodari (1920-1980). You can read part 2 here

Gianni Rodari (1920-1980) is regarded as the father of modern Italian children’s literature and we celebrate his fantastic contribution to literature and education in the year of his triple anniversary. 100 years since his birth, 40 years since his death, and 50 years since his “Little Nobel”, namely the Hans Christian Andersen Writing Award, his books are still inspiring all sorts of cultural events in Italy. Last March, for instance, his iconic Favole al telefono triggered “Pronto, chi favola?”, a free storytelling service on demand set up spontaneously by actors to uplift children at home during the COVID-19 lockdown: every day from 4 to 8 pm, an actor rings a child to read over the phone one of the 70 fables included in the book.

Cover of Favole al telefono

Cover of Telephone Tales with an illustration of a child sitting on an arm chair while on the telephone

Front covers of Favole al telefono illustrated by Bruno Munari (Turin, 1962) F2/0682, and its English translation Telephone Tales (London, 1965) X.990/103

In Italy Gianni Rodari needs no introduction, but English translations of his books are few and readers in the UK are not familiar with his delicious children’s stories. Although the British Library’s acquisition policy for purchasing foreign material generally excludes children’s literature, the library fortunately holds 40 works by and about Rodari. This presence underlines the international recognition gained by the author and helps to track his legacy through translations, adaptations and critical writings. Half of our holdings, consisting of criticism on Rodari’s intellectual contribution, might serve teachers and educators as an inspiring toolkit. An interesting surprise is the existence of four musical scores inspired by Rodari’s texts, one in Italian and three in Russian. This illustrates his huge popularity in the Soviet Union, a country where his books met with massive success thanks to several translations and adaptations for schools, and that Rodari visited often between 1952 and 1979. He commented on the Soviet educational system in Giochi nell’URSS. Appunti di viaggio (Turin, 1984; YA.1990.a.3048). On the other hand, a report of his journey to China in the 1970s is available in Turista in Cina (Rome, 1974; X.709/25245).

In regard to Rodari’s fiction, the British Library holds some Italian and English first editions of nursery rhymes, fables and short stories. The most recent publication is a bilingual collection (Italian/English) Tales to change the world (Lincoln, 2008; YK.2010.a.169). Among the first editions there is also a Russian one, Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla? (Moscow, 1954; 12843.p.54), including two poems translated by children’s writer Samuil Y. Marshak

Cover of Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla?

Gianni Rodari, Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla? (Moscow, 1954) 12843.p.54 

Before introducing three of Rodari’s cult stories, a brief remark on his style and preference for extremely short literary genres (aphorisms, limericks, nursery rhymes, poems, fables, etc). A supreme love of words (in sound, script and meaning), a musical ear and a witty irony are key elements in his writing, always aiming to select the exact word. His surrealist approach to linguistic invention has been compared to those of Raymond Queneau, J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll. Rodari’s graceful pen mastered nonsense, parody and puns to perfection. He also believed that the best literary form to educate children with courage and intelligence was the fable.

Front cover of Il pianeta degli alberi di Natale

Front cover of C’era due volte il barone Lamberto

Cover of Mr Cat in Business

Front cover of Tales told by a machine

Front covers of Il pianeta degli alberi di Natale (Turin, 1962; F2/0681), C’era due volte il barone Lamberto (Turin, 1978; X.908/85349, illustrated by Bruno Munari), Mr Cat in Business (London, 1975; X.990/7133), and Tales told by a Machine (London, 1976; X.990/8338)

Cipollino

Italian and Russian children share a common literary hero in their childhood memories, Cipollino (‘Little Onion’), the vegetable protagonist fighting for social justice in Il romanzo di Cipollino (1951, retitled Le avventure di Cipollino in 1957) and its sequel Le avventure di Cipollino 2 – Cipollino e le bolle di sapone (1952). The book was an immediate success in the Soviet Union thanks to the Russian translation and various adaptations including a ballet (Chipollino; Moscow, 1977; g.1548.v), and a cartoon. Being published by communist publishing houses, it was no wonder that the book had difficulty circulating in 1950s Catholic Italy. The British Library holds one of the late anthologies Le storie (Rome, 1992; YA.1994.a.15779), where Cipollino’s story is in good company with five others (Piccoli vagabondi, La Freccia azzurra, Gelsomino nel paese dei bugiardi, Atalanta, Il giudice a dondolo).

La Freccia azzurra

Cover of The Befana's Toyshop

Front cover of the English translation The Befana’s toyshop (London, 1970) X.990/2455.

Freccia azzurra is a toy, a blue train, that little Francesco wishes to have as a gift from the Befana. In Italian folklore the Befana is an old woman who rides a broomstick and delivers sweets or presents to good children and a lump of coal to bad ones, entering through the chimneys on the eve of Epiphany. This tradition is much loved by children and is the second most longed-for holiday after Christmas. The tale first appeared as a serial in the children’s magazine Il Pioniere, then was published as Il viaggio della Freccia azzurra (Florence, 1954) and later retitled La Freccia azzurra (Rome, 1964). In Rodari’s story, the toys come alive and escape from their toyshop in order to reach poor children’s houses. The book inspired an animated film carefully crafted by director Enzo d’Alò in 1996, with stellar contributors such as actor Lella Costa and the Nobel Laureate Dario Fo providing the voices, and Paolo Conte and Miriam Makeba the soundtrack.

A pie in the sky

Front cover of A pie in the sky

Front cover of A pie in the sky (London, 1970; X.990/2913) 

The phrase “pie in the sky”, meaning “an unrealistic enterprise or prospect of prosperity”, is borrowed by Rodari in a surrealistic and hilarious way: the image of the metaphor is transformed into an actual gigantic pie flying above Rome. That is why Rodari’s tale La torta in cielo (Turin, 1966) sounds better in its English translation. In one of the interviews in the documentary Gianni Rodari, il profeta della fantasia, teacher Maria Luisa Bigiaretti explained how Rodari worked with her pupils at a primary school in Rome in order to co-create this story starting from the title-metaphor. The chimeric pie, which suddenly appears in the sky, is actually an atomic bomb that only brave children will be able to deactivate. Written in the Sixties during the nuclear war fever years, this pacifist tale aimed to present a difficult problem to children in order to open up a debate in the classroom and prompt their alternative solution to war.

Rodari believed that every children’s author has a duty to be as close as possible to his little readers so as to write stories with which they can connect and have an enjoyable learning experience. Reading must be a personal enriching pleasure above all, as Rodari stated: “La lettura, o è un momento di vita, momento libero, pieno, disinteressato, o non è nulla” [Reading is either a moment of life, a free, full and disinterested moment, or it is nothing (my translation)].

In Omegna, Rodari’s birthplace, the town council is keeping alive his legacy with a literary festival and a theme park, the Parco della fantasia Gianni Rodari, where children and their families are able to meet Rodari’s tales and heroes at any age, getting involved in one of the most exciting adventures that is literature.

To be continued

Ramona Ciucani, West European Languages Cataloguing team

Further reading:

Pino Boerio, Una storia, tante storie: guida all’opera di Gianni Rodari (Turin, 1992) YA.1995.a.529

Francesca Califano, ‘Political, social and cultural divisions in the work of Gianni Rodari’ in Mary Shine Thompson and Valerie Coghlan (eds.), Divided worlds: studies in children’s literature, pp. 149-158 (Dublin, 2007,) YC.2008.a.8892 and m07/.33327

Bernard Friot, ‘Quel che io devo a Rodari’ in Andersen 365 (Genoa, 2019) https://www.andersen.it/quel-che-io-devo-a-rodari/

Ann Lawson Lucas, ‘Blue train, red flag, rainbow world: Gianni Rodari’s Befana’s toyshop’ in Beyond Babar: the European tradition in children’s literature edited by Sandra L. Beckett, Maria Nikolajeva (Lanham and Oxford, 2006) m06/.36134

Donatella Lombello (Padua University) on Gianni Rodari in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cx1eo9rAUXQ

Pietro Macchione, [et al.], Storia del giovane Rodari (Varese, 2013) YF.2013.a.19948

Giulia Massini, La poetica di Rodari: utopia del folklore e nonsense (Rome, 2011) YF.2012.a.26928

Il mio teatro: dal teatro del “Pioniere” a La storia di tutte le storie, [testi teatrali di] Gianni Rodari, a cura di Andrea Mancini e Mario Piatti (Pisa, 2006) YF.2006.a.37288

Gianni Rodari, Telephone Tales (translated by Anthony Shugaar), to be published in September 2020

M. L. Salvadori, ‘Apologizing to the Ancient Fable: Gianni Rodari and His Influence on Italian Children's Literature’ in The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 26, part 2, 2002, pp. 169-202; 5221.742000

Patrizia Zagni, Gianni Rodari (Florence, 1975) X.0907/36.(100)