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154 posts categorized "Romance languages"

10 March 2020

Jean Cocteau’s ‘Drôle de Ménage’

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The French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic Jean Cocteau is best known for his novels, his stage plays, his films and decorative art, and for having been linked to the major artistic movements of 20th century France.

Cover of Drole de Menage with an illustration of the Sun, the Moon and their children

Front cover of Drôle de Ménage ('A Strange Household') (Paris, 1948) J/12316.w.67.

So this book might be surprising: it is the tale of the marriage of the sun and moon and of their children, written ostensibly for children. At the time of publication, in 1948, the theme and images would have strongly resonated, for children and adults alike, with Charles Trenet’s successful 1939 song “Le soleil a rendez-vous avec la lune”, a famous and humoristic metaphor of the impossible relationships between men and women. In Cocteau’s book, however, the Sun and the Moon eventually meet and marry. They have children, but can never find the time to look after them, having to work night and day. They have the idea of entrusting their education to a lazy balloon-seller dog: catastrophe! The children start to behave like dogs, and the experience ends in disaster. After crying a lot, which ruins both the summer holidays and the crops of that year because of the incessant rains, the Moon and the Sun find a wonderful Nanny, a Star, which also acts as a nightlight for the children (who nevertheless regret their wild dog education).

Illustration of the wedding of the Moon and the Sun

Wedding of the Moon and the Sun, Drôle de Ménage

It is hard to tell to what extent the book was really for children, and really an expression by Cocteau (who considered himself first and foremost a poet) of graphic poetry. Although usually writing for adults, Cocteau has written a lot about lost children, and the trappings of parenthood and education – from the Enfants Terribles in 1929 to Les Parents Terribles in 1948, turned into a film and a play in 1948. The book, printed in 2720 copies, is illustrated all over by whimsical, and sometimes scary (the blood-red image of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, stays with you) drawings by Cocteau, and coloured on each page by a big block of colour. In the “dedicace a nos jeunes lecteurs” (address to our young readers) Cocteau seems to play with his own artistic work: “Autre chose: si les couleurs de notre livre vous déplaisent, prenez vos crayons de couleurs et ne vous gênez pas” (“and another thing: if the colours of our book are not to your liking, take your colour pencils and don’t restrain yourself”).

Page from 'Drôle de Ménage' with an illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens

Illustration of a child, knife in hand, being taught by a dog how to kill chickens, Drôle de Ménage

Cocteau’s a-conventional take on the story, however, might lie in the colours: the book ends on the ambivalent image of the severe Nanny-Star holding the hands of quiet, but now sad, children – the only image coloured in grey.

Final page of 'Drôle de Ménage'. The severe Nanny-Star holds the hands of the quiet, but now sad, children.

Final page of Drôle de Ménage

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

06 March 2020

Children’s Tales from Across the Channel (2)

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The British Library has just launched its new ‘Discovering Children’s Books’ web pages, a treasure-chest of stories, poems and illustrations from old favourites to modern classics, with plenty to discover along the way. This venture has inspired us here in European Collections to reflect on some favourite and classic children’s books from the collections we curate and the countries we cover.

Cover of Ježeva kućica with an illustration of the hedgehog smoking a pipe and having tea in his underground home

Cover of Branko Ćopić, Ježeva kućica (Zagreb, 1974). X.902/3982

Branko Ćopić, Ježeva kućica (Hedgehog’s Home)

Chosen by Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

‘There is no place like home’ and there is no other story that better conveys that message than the Yugoslav fable Ježeva kućica by Branko Ćopić. Ćopić wrote the story in 1949 but the famous picture book came to life in 1957, with illustrations by a well-known Croatian painter and illustrator, Vilko Gliha Selan (1912-1979).

The main protagonist is a hedgehog called Ježurka Ježić, a name cleverly derived from the word jež (hedgehog in both Serbian and Croatian). His English counterpart is Hedgemond the Hunter, as named by S.D. Curtis in Hedgehog’s Home, a relatively recent and first translation into English published by Istros Books (YK.2013.b.3589).

Ježurka Ježić wanders in the woods, hunts and is known by all of the other animals. One day Ježurka receives a letter from Mici the fox inviting him to a party, which he gladly accepts. After what seems like an abundant feast, Mici tries to persuade Ježurka to stay but he is keen to get back to his cosy home. The curious fox decides to follow Ježurka and see what the fuss is about. On her way she picks up the angry wolf, the hungry bear and the greedy wild boar, only to discover that Ježurka’s home is indeed a very humble abode. But for Ježurka his home is his castle, he takes pride in working and defending his precious home. The message of this popular and timeless Yugoslav tale is universal, that of love for what is ours, especially for our home.

Three covers of Histoires de Babar with illustrations of Babar the elephant

Three copies of Histoires de Babar (1930s) from the British Library collections: LB.31.c. 2337, LB.31.c.2154, LB.31.c.2155.

Jean de Brunhoff, Histoires de Babar

Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

In the summer of 1930, a pianist named Cecile de Brunhoff invented a bedtime story for her two sons about the adventures of a little elephant. The boys liked it so much that they asked their father, the artist Jean de Brunhoff, to illustrate it for them. This led him in 1931 to produce a book published by the Jardin des modes – an avant-garde fashion magazine and publishing house directed by his brother Michel de Brunhoff. It was an immediate success. Histoire de Babar: le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar), was quickly followed by Le voyage de Babar (The Travels of Babar), in the same year, and Le Roi Babar (King Babar) in 1933.

Jean de Brunhoff created four more Babar books, but died of tuberculosis at the age of 37 in 1937. Laurent, who was 12 when his father died, later succeeded him and went on to produce more Babar books. Over the years, Babar has been many things to many people and embodied many of the complexities of children’s literature (accusations of colonialist undertones and of scenes too scary or sad for children have even led to an essay boldly asking “Should we burn Babar?” (Kohl, 2007)) but the stories of Babar, now the subject of exhibitions the world over, are still read by parents and children alike today.

Cover of the first Swedish translation of The Hobbit with an illustration of Bilbo by Tove Jansson

Cover of J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo. En Hobbits Äventyr, translated by Britt G. Hallqvist, with illustrations by Tove Jansson (awaiting shelfmark)

J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo. En Hobbits Äventyr, translated by Britt G. Hallqvist, with illustrations by Tove Jansson (awaiting shelfmark)

Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Bending the rules slightly, here is an English classic in its first Swedish translation that the library has just recently acquired. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was first published in 1937 to critical acclaim, leading to the demand for the sequels that became The Lord of the Rings. Although revisions were made to subsequent editions of The Hobbit as the fictional universe developed through the later works, the Swedish translation, published in 1962, is based on the original. The library holds some unique archival material from Tolkien, including this Map of Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world was influenced by the sagas and legends of Northern Europe and its own significant contribution to that fantasy tradition is evident in the choice of Tove Jansson, creator of Moomins, as illustrator. Jansson’s wide-eyed, juvenile figures populate Tolkien’s epic mountains and dark forests, an imaginary landscape already so familiar to the artist’s imagination.

A selection of covers of Éva Janikovszky’s books

A selection of covers of Éva Janikovszky’s books: Happiness! (X.990/2342), Felelj szépen, ha kérdeznek! [=Answer nicely when you're asked!] (YA.1990.a.12972) and If I were a grown-up… (X.990/2343), with an opening from Happiness! below.

Hungarian children’s books by Éva Janikovszky, with illustrations by László Réber

Chosen by Ildi Wollner, Curator East & SE European Collections

During the 1960s-1980s Hungary's young enjoyed a series of attractive and witty children's books written by Éva Janikovszky (1926-2003). Her typographically chopped-up texts are abundantly interspersed with distinctive illustrations by caricaturist László Réber (1920-2001). The stories tend to revolve around child-adult relationships, voicing the ponderings of a young boy. He proudly shares his reservations and realisations on the weighty issues of life at his age, all with the utmost seriousness. On the one hand, these books were presumably aimed at helping children to navigate the maze of the big world – refreshingly, not in an overly dogmatic way so typical of those times. On the other hand, they also made grown-up readers smile (including hopefully at themselves!), as they were confronted with their own ingrained but not always reasonable behaviours. We hold several of Janikovszky’s books in our collections, in both the original Hungarian and English translation.

An engraving of the white cat by Voldemārs Krastiņš in Kārlis Skalbe, Pussy’s Water Mill

Engraving by Voldemārs Krastiņš from Kārlis Skalbe, Pussy’s Water Mill, translated by W.K. Matthews (Stockholm, 1952). 12802.aaa.42

‘Kakīša dzirnavas’ (‘The Cat’s Mill’)

Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

The fairy tale ‘Kakīša dzirnavas’ (‘The Cat’s Mill’) by the Latvian writer and politician Kārlis Skalbe (1879-1945) is firmly part of the Latvian literary canon. This tale of compassion and forgiveness was recently recognised as the nation’s favourite book. It tells the story of a white cat who owns a mill. After spending his money on his daughters’ dowries, the cat falls on hard times and sees his mill being taken over by an evil black cat. Turned away by his daughters, chased by dogs and pelted with sticks and stones by children, the cat finally finds his way to the royal palace where he tells his story to the sick king who “grieved for all that man and beast suffered in the world” and is so compassionate that “skilled court physicians advised him to bind his heart with golden hoops, that it should not tremble so easily at every sigh”. The cat surprises the king by refusing to bear any grudges against his tormentors, teaching him the value of forgiveness. As in traditional fairy tales, order is restored at the end – the cat gets his mill back, the king is cured of his illness and new life begins at the palace.

26 December 2019

One of the very best Danish bookplate artists: two recent Ebba Holm acquisitions

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According to Otto Wang, author of niche publications in defence of the reputation of Danish ex-libris, and writing in 1927, no one had received more praise for their bookplate artistry than Ebba Holm. A painter, engraver and illustrator, Holm became most famous for 108 linocut illustrations to a 1929 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Christian Knud Frederik Molbech’s translation. Otto Wang sees Holm as belonging ‘to the not too many Danish artists who have really been interested in this special little art [of ex libris] and realized that it is necessary to cultivate it and subject it to a special study’.

In Wang’s survey of Holm’s ex libris art, he suggests the artist has given us two of the greatest Danish bookplates, one being for Harald and Karen Abrahamsen (answers on a postcard) and the other being Ebba Holm’s own. Recently, the library acquired L’Opinion et l’amour, a 1830 French book belonging to Holm herself, so we are lucky enough to be in the possession of this famed ex libris. Sadly we don’t know much about Holm’s personal library, and whether she had chosen the book because it was a historical novel written by a woman, Madame de de Saint–Surin, who had also written about the Middle Ages, or for its pretty binding by Janet, a Parisian bookbinder known for his decorative tastes. In any case, it is exciting to see her choice for this most personal design:

Ebba Holm’s ex libris featuring a knight on a horse

Ebba Holm’s ex libris from Madame de Saint Surin, L’Opinion et l’amour (Paris, 1830), awaiting shelfmark

Holm’s love of medieval imagery, or of all things medieval, is expressed in her own bookplate, which features a knight (or could it be Joan of Arc?) holding a spear from which floats a banner displaying her name.

The library has since also acquired a copy of Johannes Jørgensen’s Dantestemninger (‘Dante moods’), a limited edition from 1928, which features a quartet of poems first published in Jørgensen’s collection Bag alle de blaa Bjærge (1913) here in large format alongside four striking woodcuts by Ebba Holm. Our copy has a small book label designed by the illustrator and stuck on the inside back cover. It bears her initials and is adorned with what looks like a heraldic eagle.

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Jørgensen and Holm were both Italophiles. Jørgensen (1866-1956) lived in Siena from 1914 and wrote the lives of St Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and St Bridget of Sweden after his conversion to Catholicism around 1895.

The Dantestemninger were written at the time he was composing his work on Catherine of Siena and his research into the period allowed Jørgensen to explore an interest in Dante. As Jørgen Breitenstein has written, the poems often explicitly recall Molbech’s translation of Dante, as we see at the end of Jørgensen’s first poem’s reference to Inferno III, 1: ‘og fører ind til Staden, fuld af Jammer’ (‘Per me si va ne la città dolente’ / ‘Through me the way into the suffering city’). That said, Jørgensen portrays a wet, foggy, autumnal forest that has no real parallel to Dante’s Inferno, and Holm depicts a lost forest-bound protagonist in the first woodcut.

Jørgensens Inferno

Jørgenson’s Inferno in a Northern European sylvan mood

Holm might be said to deviate from Jørgensen’s second poem as she depicts the protagonist’s encounter with Beatrice. Holm’s scene might be based on Dante’s Florence but the city is also simple and industrial, the encounter itself without any of the symbolism of Jørgensen’s (and Dante’s) association of Beatrice with fire and flames.

Woodcut depicting the meeting of Dante and Beatrice

Dante meets Beatrice

The third poem deals with Dante’s exile from Florence and the fourth with Dante and Beatrice’s ascension in Paradiso.

Woodcut of Dante in exile. He is sitting under a tree and his hand is resting on a book. Florence is depicted far in the background.

Dante in exile

Woodcut depicting Dante's ascension to heaven

Dante in paradise

Holm’s illustrations here are accomplished without being remarkable but they can also be seen as preparatory for the more lavish, impressive and ultimately prize-winning linocuts for the later Divine Comedy edition. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a copy of this but we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for a fine edition!

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections, and Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Johannes Jørgensen, Dantestemninger (Copenhagen, 1928) LF.31.b.13902

Otto Wang, Ebba Holms Exlibris (Kolding, 1927), 2708.g.23

23 December 2019

Is it better to give or to receive?

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Everybody needs a patron, nobody more than the medieval or early modern author.

Erasmus dedicated one work to four successive patrons (Carlson 85; also 45). The assumption was that the patron would respond with a payment, sometimes delivered on the spot (Carlson 85). Hence the delicious title of Richard Firth Green’s Poets and Princepleasers: literature and the English court in the late Middle Ages.

Woodcut of the poet Juan de Mena doffing his cap to King John II

Title-page of Juan de Mena, Las ccc (Seville, 1499) G.11274

Here we see the poet Juan de Mena doffing his cap to King John II. (Of course, the woodcut obviously comes from some other work, but such reuse was commonplace.)

Another popular scene shows the patron, the author and the book. It’s probably the norm for an author to be shown presenting his work to his patron.

Harley MS 4431 (c. 1410-c.1414), f. 3r, for example, shows Christine de Pizan presenting her manuscript to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria:

Christine de Pizan presents her manuscript to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria

But in other cases the patron is pretty unambiguously doing the presenting.

Henry VIII hands out his Great Bible

Here Henry VIII is handing out his Great Bible (London, 1540; C.18.d.10) to the clergy and directly to the people.

Henry‘s iconography is probably the older, as it has been traced back to images of Justinian handing down the law.

Here we have Fray Antonio de Montesino kneeling before Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. The book is his Spanish translation of pseudo-Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi (Alcalá de Henares, 1502-03; C.63.i.1.). 

Woodcut of Fray Antonio de Montesino kneeling before Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs

Lyell (385, n. 150) thinks the presenter is the patron Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, the recipients the patron’s patrons the King and Queen, and that the humble translator, Montesino, is literally sidelined.

The tug-of-love between King and Cardinal makes it hard to see who is giving and who is receiving.

So just remember that this festive season.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References

David R. Carlson, English Humanist Books (Toronto, 1993) YA.1995.b.12352

Richard Firth Green, Poets and Princepleasers: literature and the English court in the late Middle Ages (Toronto, 1980). 80/17195

James P. R. Lyell, La ilustración del libro antiguo en España (Madrid, 1997). YF.2009.a.21979. (First published in English as Early book illustration in Spain (London, 1926) 11907.g.58.)

20 December 2019

Travels with George Eliot: the Moulin/Moinho/Mühle on the Floss

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Last month readers throughout the world were celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mary Ann Evans – or, as she would later become known, George Eliot. Before her bicentenary year passes, it may be fitting, in view of her cosmopolitan interests and fondness for travel, to see how her works have fared abroad.

Engraving of a portrait of George Eliot in 1865

George Eliot in 1865, engraving after the portrait by Sir Frederic William Burton, from The complete poetical works of George Eliot  (New York, 1888) 11612.h.1

Not surprisingly, given Eliot’s lifelong interest in German literature and philosophy, it was not long before her writings were translated into German. Patricia Duncker’s novel Sophie and the Sibyl (London, 2015; Nov.2016/1979) offers a lively account of Eliot’s relations with the firm of Duncker & Humblot (founded by Franz Duncker, an ancestor of the author) which published the German versions of her novels. The first of these to appear was Die Mühle am Floss, translated by Julius Frese (Berlin, 1861; 12633.cc.4), followed by Emil Lehmann’s four-volume translation of Middlemarch (Berlin, 1872-73; 12637.aa.6.). German readers had to wait until after Eliot’s death for Scenes of Clerical Life to come out in their language as Bilder aus dem kirchlichen Leben Englands in a translation by G. Kuhr (Leipzig, 1885; 12604.h.10).

Title page of Silas Marner with notes in French

An edition of Silas Marner with notes in French (Paris, 1887) 12604.cc.10.

With the exceptions of Romola, Daniel Deronda and the novellas Brother Jacob and The Lifted Veil (the last partly set in Prague, a city which Eliot visited in 1858 and described, somewhat confusingly, as ‘the most splendid city in Germany’), Eliot’s work largely draws on the landscape and society of Warwickshire, the county of her birth. For French readers who wished to become acquainted with her writings in the original English, Hachette brought out, in 1887, an edition of Silas Marner with notes in French and an introduction, also in French, by A. Malfroy which rather disparagingly describes the author’s native landscape as having about it ‘rien de pittoresque ni de grandiose’. Those not deterred by this unenthusiastic appraisal but mystified by the dialect spoken by the people of Raveloe might turn to translations such as those of Scènes de la vie du clergé, made by A. F. d’Albert-Durade, also for Hachette (Paris, 1886; 012547.e.77), in which Janet’s Repentance is transformed into La conversion de Jeanne. The same translator produced a version of Romola the following year (Paris, 1887; 12603.ff.11), but it was not until 1890 that a translator identified only as ‘M.-J. M.’ ventured to tackle the monumental Middlemarch. Étude de la vie de province (Paris, 1890; 12603.f.16).

Title page of a Yiddish edition of Daniel Deronda

Title page of a Yiddish edition of Daniel Deronda (Warsaw, 1914) 012612.i.2.

At first sight it might appear that the limited geographical compass of such novels might discourage translators from opening them up to a wider audience, but this is far from being the case. The British Library’s holdings include translations of Eliot’s works into Japanese, Telugu, Estonian, Oriya and Irish, as well as more widely-spoken languages. It is interesting to consider the reasons for a translator to give preference to one particular title and select it as likely to appeal to potential readers within a different culture. A notable example of this is Daniel Deronda, which appeared in translations into Hebrew by David Frishmann (Warsaw, 1893; (B)615.7045) and Yiddish. This is not surprising, despite the unpopularity of the novel’s Jewish plot among Gentile readers, as Eliot’s partner G. H. Lewes writes in a letter of 24 December 1876 to the palaeontologist Richard Owen:

[T]he Jews themselves – from Germany, France, and America, as well as England – have been deeply moved, and have touchingly expressed their gratitude. Learned Rabbis, who alone can appreciate its learning, are most enthusiastic. Is it not psychologically a fact of singular interest that she was never in her life in a Jewish family, at least never in one where Judaism was still a living faith and Jewish customs kept up? Yet the Jews all fancy she must have been brought up among them; and in America it is positively asserted that I am of Jewish origin!

Portuguese artist’s impression of the world of The Mill on the Floss

Cover of The Mill on the Floss in Fernando de Macedo’s translation, O moinho à beira do Floss (Lisbon, 1943) 012643.ppp.17

In this, perhaps, lies the key to Eliot’s world-wide popularity among translators. Her empathy with characters from many walks of life and ability to portray them with humanity and vividness enables her to transcend boundaries of language and geography. Moreover, the apparently humdrum nature of the landscapes of some of her novels became quite different when viewed from a different perspective. The Portuguese artist’s impression of the world of The Mill on the Floss in Fernando de Macedo’s translation is just one example of the inspiration which these distant and paradoxically ‘exotic’ scenes provided for illustrators. Similarly, a Dutch translation of Adam Bede by Anna Dorothee Busken Huet contains three plates by Jozef Israëls portraying the figures of Adam, Dinah and Hetty with deep psychological insight.

Plate depicting Adam Bede engaged in woodwork

Plate from Dutch translation of Adam Bede (Sneek, [1891]) 11409.m.39, showing the eponymous hero

The fact that George Eliot’s writings so quickly found translators testifies to their universal appeal and relevance of the issues which they raise. Whether they are given a voice in Swedish, Hungarian, Czech or Greek, Adam Bede, Silas Marner and Dorothea Brooke are truly citizens of the world and witnesses to the greatness of their creator.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

17 December 2019

Beautifully meaningless: Codex Seraphinianus

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Despite what title of this book might suggest, there is no need for Latinists or philologists: the Codex Seraphinianus is not a medieval manuscript, nor a translation from Latin, it is not written in an undiscovered or secret language either. All the scholarly efforts to decipher the text were dismissed by the author himself who revealed that the writing is asemic, therefore no hidden message to discover. And I guess this is the beauty of his work (the beauty of art in general): the trick can be exposed but the mystery remains, the mystery of creativity.

Codex Seraphinianus text
Pages of text from Codex Seraphinianus (New York, 1983) f84/0685

We look at “…those minute, agile and (we have to admit) very clear italics of his”, as Italo Calvino finely put it, and “we always feel we are just an inch away from being able to read”.

The art book by the Italian artist, designer and architect Luigi Serafini – an imaginary encyclopedia of an imaginary world – was first published in a two-volume edition in Italy in 1981, followed by a single-volume edition in 1983 published in New York, which is the edition held by the British Library. The limited editions and the value attributed to them make the Codex a rare item, sought-after by collectors. Paul Fisher Davies in his article gives an overview of the studies on the text: as he rightly points out, there is a narrative in the sequence of the images and in the way the text connects to them. Even though, the readability of narrative Davies refers to is still imaginary in that the text itself remains undeciphered, the connection between text and images has a powerful impact. Serafini says it himself in an interview: “There is no a written message or something to decode. There are other aspects. There are beauty, the relationship between the images and writing.” (You can see video of Serafini being interviewed here: https://www.the-mag.org/codex-seraphinianus-il-favoloso-mondo-immaginario-di-luigi-serafini/).

Certainly the book does not lack of the systematic division we expect from a science book, and this is marked by what can be assumed is the title, followed by an introduction and table of contents, before the beginning of each of the 11 “chapters” of the 1983 edition, as the photo above shows. However, even the illusory systematicity of the first chapter, which can be safely interpreted as dedicated to “botany” from beginning to end, does not seem to be applied in the second chapter. This begins with an illustrative catalogue of individual light particles, each with different shapes and names, and in the image below it the same light particles are shown as a swarm flying out from the head of a street lamp. This and the bigger catalogue of individual rainbow particles which comes after, tell us that the second chapter is dedicated to “light”.

Image of a rainbow and rainbow-coloured particles from Codex Seraphinianus
Rainbow particles from Chapter 2 of Codex Seraphinianus

But the chapter changes pattern and shows images impossible to interpret, even though, the text below them gives us a sense of reconciliation, an explanation which cannot, does not need to be put in words. And it makes me wonder: can attempting to read asemic writing echo back as a liberating asemic thinking? As Calvino observes “Serafini’s writing has the power to evoke a world where the syntax of things has been distorted, it must contain, hidden beneath, the mystery of its indecipherable surface, a deeper mystery still regarding the internal logic of language and thought.”.

The second chapter continues with images of fishes, snakes, birds, dogs, deer, horses, and ends with this:

Images of rhinoceros-like beasts from Codex Seraphinianus

The third chapter does not even try to make us believe it’s focusing on anything in particular, yet it does not stop overwhelming us with surreal shapes and wonderful colours. And again in the following chapters, until chapter 7: this opens with a catalogue showing the profile view of human heads, which, after so many surreal images, we find ourselves absorbing with the same puzzlement.

The beautifully meaningless journey continues and ends with a page tightly and tiredly written (with a couple of words crossed out, and a couple of others inserted in between, in different parts of the text) and partly lifted as if it accidentally detached itself and, pulling up like a curtain, shows what was not meant to be shown: the broken bones of a hand laying on the floor of a tiny grim room.

In the end what Serafini asks us to do is nothing but immerse ourselves in his magical, often disconcerting world. I find interesting that Serafini decided to give his art book – a book which celebrates freedom from the rules of interpretation and meaning – a title in Latin, which seems to impose a certain historicity based on those rules. I like to think that he does this to make us feel a contraction of time which propels us to a world where, dare I say, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Pliny’s Historia Naturalis meet. As Serafini says in the same interview mentioned earlier, his work could be open to artists of the future, “ … every 5/6 years I could add a chapter and even in the future, I would imagine it as an open work which can be continued by other artist maybe for two or three centuries…”.

Images of fantastical machines with human hands from Codex Seraphinianus
Fantastical machines from Codex Seraphinianus

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions Support Manager

References/Further reading

Paul Fisher Davies, ‘On the comics-nature of the Codex Seraphinianus’, Studies in comics, Vol. 6:Issue 1 (2015) ZK.9.a.12040

Italo Calvino, ‘The encyclopedia of a visionary’, in Collection of Sand. Translated by Martin L. McLaughlin (London, 2013). ELD.DS.180656

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the European Studies team

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Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

The British Library has, for the third year running, worked with the British Fashion Council on the Research Collaboration Project. This year Glaswegian radical designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year, followed in October by a Masterclass organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition. Charles Jeffrey, considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the BL resources. The show and tell, being the interactive part of the Masterclass, gave curators opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of the visually intriguing collection items.

Image 1

‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – The British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

In this blog post the European and Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’, as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief.

 

Picture of marble pavements in St Mark's basilica, Venice

Ferdinando Ongania, Dettagli del Pavimento ed Ornamenti in Mosaico della Basilica di San Marco in Venezia, Venice, 1881 (74/tab.1283)

Ferdinando Ongania and his Venetian workshop spent more than 10 years (between 1881 and 1893) publishing the 18 volumes of La Basilica di San Marco in Venezia. Inspired by John Ruskin’s work, Ongania commissioned studies to historians, architects, and archaeologists, and put together an exceptional body of photographs and illustrations. His work depicts every single detail of the exterior and interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica, from the architecture to the sculptures and the decorations. The British Library owns the full set, but the volume I chose for the show and tell focuses solely on the mosaic floors, whose drawings I find particularly inspiring for the kaleidoscopic richness of the details and beauty of the colours.

Valentina Mirabella – Curator, Romance Collections

Abstract floral designs

Abstract floral designs

G. Darcy, Or et Couleurs, Paris, A. Calavas, [n.d.] Probably 1920/1921? (fF5/3743)

The designs in the albums contain a variety of geometric motifs, flowers, plants and birds typical of the Art Deco style. Art Deco fashion, which started in France in the 1920s, and took its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, was inspired by new artistic movements, most notably Cubism and Fauvism, by the bright colours of the Ballets Russes, and by the “exotic” styles of Japan, Persia, ancient Egypt and Maya art, among others.

The technique of “Pochoirs”, or stencils, used here, was at the height of popularity in France during the 1920s. It was frequently used to create prints of intense colour and the brilliant effects of gold and silver, as expressed in the title of these collections of plates. The full title explains further that the plates were made in the “new taste” for use by “Fabric makers, Decorators, and ornaments designers” – it was for sale at the bookshop of the Arts Décoratifs.

A particularly interesting feature of this item is that it comes from Nottingham Public Library, which acquired it very soon after its publication. It was quite successful, and was borrowed 25 times between 1922 and 1930.

I chose this item because of my interest in the Art Deco movement and the pochoir technique. The plates are very beautiful of course, and the colours are still incredibly vivid, but most of all I think it is fascinating to have a real proof of interest from readers (presumably amateur decorators and fashion lovers) in the 1920s.

Sophie Defrance – Curator, Romance Collections

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January 2020 when during the reverse show and tell students will reveal their work inspired by the British Library collections.

For featured American collection items please see the parallel American Collections blog.

14 November 2019

Recreating the Lost Sculptures of Umberto Boccioni

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Of the many groundbreaking sculptures Umberto Boccioni created between c. 1913 and 1915, only a handful remain in existence today – most of them were accidentally disposed of on a rubbish dump in 1927. However, using a combination of vintage photographic material taken from books, and cutting-edge 3D printing and milling techniques, four of Boccioni’s destroyed works have now been reconstructed by two digital artists: a volumetric study of a human face titled Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head, and three of the artist’s iconic striding figures. Modern audiences can now ‘see’ these lost masterpieces for the very first time at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London.

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Estorick Collection)

Boccioni’s best known surviving three-dimensional work is undoubtedly Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). One of the most instantly recognisable of all modernist sculptures, it represents an aerodynamic figure – part man, part machine – racing energetically towards the brave new world envisioned by the Futurist movement, a world ‘multiplied’ by technology, speed and industrialisation.

Portrait of Boccioni

Portrait of Boccioni, from Roberto Longhi’s Scultura Futurista Boccioni (7875.dd.31.): 

This work was in fact preceded by three sculptures on the same theme: Synthesis of Human Dynamism, Speeding Muscles and Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Movement. Until today, all that remained of these earlier works were a number of photographs taken in Boccioni’s studio and at three exhibitions around the world between 1913 and 1917. More clearly than ever before, the reconstructed sculptures reveal the evolution of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, enabling us to perceive the progressive refinement of Boccioni’s ideas and the streamlining of his sculptural forms.

Images showing Umberto Boccioni with Synthesis of Human Dynamism

Images showing Umberto Boccioni with Synthesis of Human Dynamism, from Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece, The Avant-garde in Milan and Paris, New York, 2004 (LD.31.b.256).

Why attempt to recreate long-lost works of art? Surely, only their creator could know how they looked. Projects such as this depend on the quality and quantity of the surviving visual documentation. In the case of Boccioni’s sculptures, sufficient photographic material existed to make reconstruction feasible and worth pursuing. Roberto Longhi’s detailed 1914 essay Scultura Futurista Boccioni concerning Boccioni’s works also provided many important clues as to their appearance. It is crucial to note that the reconstruction process was not undertaken as a mere technical challenge; rather, it is hoped that the resulting pieces will offer new interpretative opportunities for both specialist art historians and the general public, providing fresh insights into Boccioni’s sculptural practice. In this particular instance, the project also represents a fusion of art and technology that would have doubtless appealed to the Futurists.

Images showing the reconstruction process of Synthesis of Human Dynamism 

Images showing the reconstruction process of Synthesis of Human Dynamism 

The reconstruction process went as follows:

1. High resolution photographs of Boccioni’s sculptures were scanned from books or acquired from different museums, publishers and institutions. In total, 21 photographs were used for the four reconstructions. Two books were primarily used:

Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni Pittore scultore futurista (Milan, 2006; awaiting shelfmark) and Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece, The Avant-garde in Milan and Paris.

2. Using image software, the contrast of the images was adjusted, and areas in shadow were lightened in order to bring out as much detail as possible.

3. Each of the sculptures was extracted from its surrounding space, effectively producing ‘cut-outs’ from different angles.

4. Using 3D sculpting software, these cut-outs were imported, then set as reference views.

5. The starting point of the 3D model was a ‘blob’ of digital clay which was moulded to fit the contours of the sculpture in all of the reference views. This semi-transparent form made it possible to trace the shapes of the underlying image, just as transparent paper can be used to copy a picture placed below it. The digital moulding tools mimic their real world counterparts and allow easy shaping of the ‘clay’.

6. By taking into account overlapping and receding forms, the time-consuming sculpting process eventually produced a form that was very close to how the actual sculpture must have looked. The mesh resolution was increased when all of the basic shapes were in place, and further enhanced with the addition of increasingly smaller details.

7. Light sources were adjusted in the rendering software to simulate the shadows cast in the original photographs as closely as possible. This helped to establish the size of the protruding and receding shapes, and the work’s overall proportions.

8. The finished 3D model was printed or milled.

Photograph showing visitors looking at the reconstructed statues shown at the Estorick Collection

The reconstructed statues shown at the Estorick Collection. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Estorick Collection)

The reconstructions can be seen at the Estorick Collection until 22 December, and you can see a video detailing the reconstruction process below:

Anders Rådén and Matt Smith, digital artists responsible for recreating four of Boccioni’s destroyed works

References/Further reading:

Umberto Boccioni, Pittura scultura futuriste: dinamismo plastico (Milan, 1914) 7859.de.1. (English translation by Richard Shane Agin and Maria Elena Versari, Futurist painting sculpture: plastic dynamism (Los Angeles, [2016]) YC.2017.b.2375)

Maurizio Calvesi, Alberto Dambruoso, Umberto Boccioni: catalogo generale delle opere; con la collaborazione di Sara De Chiara (Turin, 2016) LF.31.b.14033

John Golding, Boccioni: Unique forms of continuity in space (London, 1985) YV.1986.b.1014

07 November 2019

The Book as a Project: Giambattista Bodoni

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This is the first of a series of blogs dedicated to Italian typography.

It is not an easy task to write something brief about the Italian typographer Giambattista Bodoni. Bodoni the polyglot, Bodoni the artist, Bodoni who achieved rock-star fame during his lifetime. He made the Italian town of Parma world capital of printing from the second half of the 18th century, an obliged stop for intellectuals and bibliophiles during the Grand Tour. Rulers and princes would visit his workshop and he would dedicate books to them, in order to consolidate his prestige.

Bodoni shells

Illustration from Giuseppe Saverio Poli / Stefano Delle Chiaie, Testacea Utriusque Siciliæ Eorumque Historia Et Anatome Tabulis ... Illustrata, (Parma 1791). 458.g.11-13.

Trained in typography and ‘oriental’ languages in Rome, having unsuccessfully tried to come to London to learn new skills and perfect his technique, in 1768 Bodoni was called to Parma by Ferdinand of Bourbon, with the purpose of establishing and managing the government Royal Printing Office that he would be in charge of for the rest of his life.

Page from Britannia

Robert Hampden, Britannia; Lathmon, Villa Bromhamensis (Parma, 1792). G.10064.

Despite never leaving Parma, Bodoni managed to be known internationally, by choosing his patrons (Napoleon and his family, the monarchs of Spain, Italian rulers), by printing in many languages and scripts, and by setting his much-imitated typographic style. In his own words, he ‘shook the old typographic conventions’, introducing harmony and proportion in the frontispieces, showing neo-classicist taste in his bare, epigraphic compositions. The sense of perspective and the balance between space and font offer optimal readability to his pages. The series of crisp and neat ‘bodonian’ typefaces that he designed in the late 1780s are still very popular today, appreciated for the clear contrast between the thickness of strokes and the thinness of rules and serifs.

Title page from The Castle of Otranto

Horace Walpole. The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story. Sixth edition (Parma, 1791). 682.f.22

A lot was printed in his Greek typefaces, and many of his books were in foreign languages, including English. The most celebrated of his works in English were Walpole’s 1791 edition of The Castle of Otranto, on behalf of the London bookseller Edwards, and the 1792 Britannia by Lord Hampden. Of Britannia, the British Library owns the only copy printed on vellum (G.10064.), from the splendid library of Marshal Junot, sold by auction in London in June 1816 and purchased by Thomas Grenville for his rich collection of rare books, which are now part of the British Library.

Page from Britannia

Robert Hampden, Britannia; Lathmon, Villa Bromhamensis.

Constantly in competition with his fellow typographers (notably with the Didot brothers in France, known for the rigour of their editions), Bodoni liked to re-edit books published by others, trying to make them better. A case in point is the Oratio Dominica (a polyglot edition of the Lord’s Prayer), which Bodoni was invited to produce by Pope Pius VI when he stopped to see him in Parma. The Pope said that, during his recent visit to Paris for the coronation of Napoleon, in December 1804, he was gifted with a copy of the Oratio Dominica in 150 languages, by Jean-Joseph Marcel, director of the Imprimerie Nationale, and he challenged Bodoni to produce something finer and in more languages, to prove his skills.

In less than a year, Bodoni put together an acclaimed Oratio Dominica, in 155 languages, using 215 typescripts (including Phoenician, Tibetan, and Etruscan), some of which were missing from the French edition.

Pages from Oratio Dominica

Oratio Dominica in CLV. Linguas Versa Et Exoticis Characteribus Plerumque Expressa (Parma, 1806). Cup.652.m.4.

However, Bodoni’s masterpiece was certainly printed after his death, in 1813. Having produced his own types since 1771, in 1788 he published the first manual Manuale tipografico containing a hundred Roman type alphabets, 50 italics and 28 Greek alphabets. His alphabets were improved during the course of his career, and this project was accomplished by his widow, Margherita Dall’Aglio, with the posthumous publication of the final Manuale Tipografico in 1818.

The fruit of more than 40 years of work, this manual in two volumes was composed of 265 pages with roman types, capital letters, Greek and oriental types, borders, ornaments, numbers, and musical examples.

Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico established high standards for typography. It offers an overview of the uniformity of design, neatness and good taste that made him famous and inspired generations of typographers up to the present day. But, this is a topic for my next blog…

Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Further Reading

Of the over 1400 ‘Edizioni Bodoniane’ (listed by H C Brook’s Compendiosa Bibliografia delle Edizioni Bodoniane) printed while Bodoni’s presses were active, in 1834, the BL collections has over 200, of which 38 are available digitally 

Giovanni Battista Bodoni, Manuale Tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968). L.R.413.h.17.

Franco Maria Ricci, Bodoni, 1740-1813 (Parma, 2013) LF.31.b.11849

Andrea De Pasquale / Massimo Dradi, B Come Bodoni: i Caratteri di Bodoni a Brera e nella Grafica Contemporanea (Milan, 2013). YF.2014.a.22184

Hugh Cecil Brooks, Compendiosa Bibliografia di Edizioni Bodoniane (Floerence, 1927) 2704.bp.2.

01 November 2019

Franco Arminio: Poetry and Paesology

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The attempt to reanimate poetry requires great courage, especially considering the Italian literary landscape of the last 30-40 years, a time during which poetry’s trend transitioned from “a sea of subjectivity” in the 1970’s (as Maria Borio puts it in his 2018 study Poetiche e individui: la poesia italiana dal 1970 al 2000) to the never-ending postmodern turning towards itself.

Poetry needed Franco Arminio’s kiss of life.

This meant somehow going back to the glorious times of 20th-century poetry (Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Pasolini), taking the risk of sounding rhetorical, or even banal. Arminio is not afraid of taking that risk: his poems have recently reached a wide audience through his books and through social media.

Born and living in Bisaccia, a small town in the region of Campania, which borders with Basilicata and Puglia, where he works as a primary school teacher, Franco Arminio coined the word ‘Paesologia’, from ‘paese’ (meaning: countryside town or village) and calls himself ‘paesologo’. His tours and talks are recorded and scheduled in La Casa della Paesologia.

Franco Arminio Portrait

Franco Arminio with a slogan reading ‘do yourself a favour – read poetry’ (Reproduced by kind permission of Franco Arminio)

In his ‘Introduction to Paesology’ Arminio explains, “The paesologist isn’t a local erudite who knows the name of all the petty lords who have dominated a paese or who knows all the proverbs. It’s someone who studies the inner-working of the peculiar organisms that paesi are. The work of the paesologist takes place in situ. There are very few books about paesi, because most writers live in cities, and those who live in the paesi continue to think that life remains in cities.” (translation by Patrick Barron)

The poetry in Arminio’s writing, be it in prose or in verse, embeds his paesology and serves to frame with a certain sacredness even the lowliest moments that living in a remote village sometimes involves:

Wander around where nobody goes, be the tourists of mercy, be the travellers who not only seek beauty, harmony, sunshine, but also the loneliest and most disconsolate places – places waiting for someone to look at them, to recognize them before they become bereft of their history as well as their geography. (Franco Arminio, ‘On Places and Looking’. Translation by Serenella Iovino)

Franco Arminio Cartoline dai morti

Cover of Franco Arminio, Cartoline dai morti 2007-2017 (Milan, 2017) Awaiting shelfmark

The “inner-working of the peculiar organisms that paesi are” is expressed through his prose (Nevica e ho le prove, 2009; Cartoline dai morti, 2010) and poems (Cedi la strada agli alberi, 2017; Resteranno i canti (2018). Arminio’s work takes the reader through a journey inside the life of people living (and dying) in the small villages of southern Italy with their daily struggles, loneliness, hypochondria. Cartoline dai morti (‘Postcards from the dead’), as the title suggests, are cards written by dead people, and even though it recalls the model of Spoon River Anthology, the protagonists of the epitaphs are remote, rural people with no historical reference.

Nessuno mi aveva spiegato niente.
Ho dovuto fare tutto da solo: rimanere fermo e muto,
raffreddarmi, iniziare a decompormi.

Nobody explained anything to me.
I had to manage all by myself: staying still and silent,
getting cold, beginning to decompose (My translation)

Arminio strips his texts of any kind of trend, the trend which, by definition, is subject to, and demands a superseding: light, short, calming even when intense, distilled and powerful.

Mi sono sempre sentito affannato e fuori posto nella vita.
Adesso finalmente riposo tranquillo e in pace nella tomba vicino alla mia.

I have always felt filled with anxiety and out of place in life.
I can finally rest now in tranquillity and peace in the grave next to mine. (My translation)

Franco Arminio Resteranno i canti

Cover of Franco Arminio, Resteranno i canti (Florence, 2018) YF.2019.a.10782

In Resteranno i canti Arminio’s paesology touches upon the issue of emigration from the south and the sense of loss for those who remain.

Nessuno pensa più alla vita di tutti,                                            
figuriamoci a quella dei luoghi.                                                    
Se esco stasera                                                                                 
trovo ragazzi che non conosco                                                      
in un bar che una volta                                                                   
era un consorzio agrario.                                                               
Di fronte a casa mia c’era Enza                                                    
e nella curva il pasticciere                                                             
e zio Giovanni,                                                                                 
in fondo eravamo pochi anche allora                                          
ma sembravamo tanti

Nobody thinks about the life of everybody any longer,
let alone that of places.
If I go out this evening
I find boys I don’t know
in a bar which once
was an agricultural consortium.
In front of my house there was Enza
and in the curve the baker
and uncle Giovanni,
we were few even back then after all 
but it felt like we were many (My translation)                                                                     

Franco Arminio reading

Franco Arminio (centre) reading aloud to a group on a guided ‘paesological walk’. (Reproduced by kind permission of Franco Arminio)

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions South Support Manager

References/ Further reading

Maria Borio, Poetiche e individui: La poesia italian dal 1970 al 2000 (Venice, 2018) YF.2018.A.15763

Franco Arminio, ‘Introduction to Paesology’, in Gianni Celati, Towards the river’s mouth, introduction by Patrick Barron; edited and translated by Patrick Barron. (Lanham, 2019) ELD.DS.360506

Franco Arminio, ‘On Places and Looking: Italy’s Silent Epiphanies’ (Translated by Serenella Iovino) in Italy and Environmental Humanities: Landscapes, Natures, Ecologies. (London, 2018) YC. 2018.a.16407

Franco Arminio, Nevica e ho le prove: cronache dal paese della cicuta (Rome, 2009) YF.2010.a.19442.

Franco Arminio, Circo dell’ipocondria (Florence, 2006) Awaiting shelfmark