This week one of the books to cross my desk was a very lovely copy of Antonio de Roselli’s Monarchia, sive Tractatus de Potestate Imperatoris Ac Papae (Venice: Herman Liechtenstein, 23 June 1487). (ISTC No. ir00327000. BMC V 357 (IB 21984). Bod-inc R-140. Goff R-327. IGI 8441. Harvard/Walsh 2050. BSB-Ink R-268)

The phrase I hear a lot to describe books like this is that it “ticks all of the boxes”: Incunable, well margined, annotated, with contemporary binding (quarter leather over wooden boards, with an interesting/weird blind stamp of a dragon in a rhombus), a great big old bookplate from the Elector of Bavaria’s library, rubricated throughout, and a very pretty first spread with an illuminated initial and a strange but sweet drawing of a Moor’s head at the foot of the page (if anyone can tell me more about these I’d love to know).

And the contents of the book have their own claims to infamy: Antonio Roselli of Arezzo, Italy (1381 – 1466) was a prominent lawyer and mediator during the second half of the Council of Constance, which addressed threats to Papal authority caused by break-away groups in Avignon and Pisa, initially posed by the Great Schism. Roselli’s detailed exposition of the extent of Papal primacy here, was very much part of his work as adviser to Martin V, who was elected Pope at Constance, and his successor Pope Eugenius IV. In line with Jean Gerson, Roselli maintains the primacy of Papal authority while at the same time arguing for a moderate conciliar approach: that in extraordinary circumstances, the power of the Pope could be circumscribed by that of a general council. This theory of limited Papal supremacy accepted at Constance fell out of favour from Eugenius onward, until it was totally condemned by the first Lateran Council. The shift towards what later generations would call Ultramontanism is clear by 1491, when Roselli’s tract enjoyed the distinction of becoming the first book condemned by the Church along with Pico della Mirandola’s 900 Theses. Niccolo Franco, Bishop of Treviso, condemned all copies to be burned at St. Mark’s, the principal Church of Venice where he was Papal legate.

But as far as incunables go, I found on ISTC that loads of libraries have copies of the book. The last time it was up for auction it was the Friedlaender copy (it went for $15,000) and it had a Spanish provenance which resulted in very nice illumination– nicer than what is here. It’s especially available in Germany– this copy had the DVPLVM stamp of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (where the Elector of Bavaria’s library was accessioned), and no wonder it was eventually de-accessioned– they have four other copies at the moment, and during wartime the library had to cut back, especially before the entirety of its contents were shipped out of town to prevent damage.

There’s the bookplate – designed by Rafael Sadeler for Emperoer Maximillian I around 1623. You may recognize it from the smaller variation which Maxmillian pasted into the books pillaged from the Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg and sent as a gift to Pope Gregory XV during the Thirty Years War.

But while I was spending my first moments with the book, what I call ‘the socializing process’ (like they do with dogs at kennels) wherein I basically prod and leaf and sniff around without really reading anything, I noticed that the top quarter of the bookplate wasn’t pasted down. So I turned it over without any resistance or damage and blamo:

Was that the Hartmann Schedel? Of Nuremberg Chronicle fame? Luckily in our reference collection (which I am in the process of cataloguing on LibraryThing) we have a copy of Adrian Wilson’s Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle and it includes several samples of Schedel’s rounded handwriting. The Ex libris as well as the annotations throughout were a perfect match. Wilson writes a nice section on Schedel’s extensive and important library in the introduction:

It was his grandson, Melchior, the last of the family, who in 1552 sold Hartmann Schedel’s remarkable library to Johann Jakob Fugger of Augsburg…He was later actually bankrupted by his passion for books, and was forced to sell his ample library to Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in 1571. It is because of this that Schedel’s books are today among the most precious collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. About 370 manuscripts and some 600 printed works, the latter in 389 individual bindings, are preserved there.

[…]With a particular passion he collected the writings of the Italian Renaissance and of German Humanism. Richard Stauber, in Die Schedelsche Bibliothek, showed that a considerable part of the Italian texts came from his cousin Hermann’s library. […] His interest in new printed books is documented by several book orders carefully glued into his incunabula or manuscripts. Friends of his, travelling to Venice or Florence, were kept busy purchasing for him the latest available books. The earliest trustworthy source for prices of incunabula is his list of the costs of books printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz in Rome. There is a letter from Koberger in one of the volumes and in another an order sent to Koberger at the Frankfurt Fair. Into his volumes he not only inscribed page numbers, but entered remarks, short biographies of the authors and painted his coat of arms. He also repaired the bindings and glues in designs, miniatures, block prints, copper-plate en-gravings and other pictures. The most splendid example of his bibliomania is the hand-colored copy of his own Liber Chronicarum into which are inserted many extra pages including nine broadsides, all rarities, among them a copy of the Chronicle’s advertisement. (p 25-26).

And the Catholic Encyclopedia as well notes that Schedel’s library contains many books which have survived no where else: “Schedel’s activity in tracing out, collecting and copying MSS produced results of much value even to-day. Many an important monument has been preserved only in his copy” ( XIII p. 525). So how could such a significant provenance, that significantly had marked up the book (every page, and an additional 3 pp in the back)?

Even the auctioneers didn’t notice – and if you’re curious any incunabula up for auction in the EU needs an export license, just in case, so in theory this book should have been very carefully inspected.

I don’t think it’s anything more than an oversight, but one which happens to impact what is otherwise considered one of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek’s most important special collections, and probably a reserve price. But it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination that things slip through the cracks from time to time.

Schedel’s case relates in a strange way to what I spoke about in my last post, and more recently Sarah Werner’s latest post on ‘the serendipity of the unexpected’.

Something that lurks deep at the heart of digitization debates is, I think, the idea that if we phase out books (not necessarily ‘rare’ books or special collections), we phase out many people. And you don’t have to look far to see how this is happening, how many public libraries are currently in deep trouble – how many jobs are at stake. But here, the example of Schedel’s book or Robert Burton’s library (which I have talked about at greater length) are strange because they focus on moments of human failure to argue for continued human attention.

Speculatively this book could have been a casualty of war, but more concretely it was a casualty of day to day administration. It’s the kind of error only human intervention can fix – not something we can detect with computers. Only an actual human with the actual book in their hand can do it. I needed to really socialize with this book before I noticed that detail, the implications of which add a lengthy and vivid historical context the book, a real wonder and awe factor, a name to a face, which otherwise would have been lacking (and in practical cataloging terms, this added an entire paragraph extra to my description…). It’s mistakes like these that add a kind of vitality into the role of cataloguers or more fundamentally, readers.

It’s also about what can be hidden from us if we are not looking carefully at books even before we think about digitization!  It gives a historical lineage to the anxieties over what is potentially lost from digital editions. As long as books have been made, they’ve been read, misread, misrepresented, burned, drowned, forgotten, rediscovered, shelved, ad hoc and ad nauseum. Libraries play a necessary, and occasionally notorious, role in preserving our cultural heritage, and we’ve always needed to be mindful of a margin of error involved in any ambitious task of collection. By pointing out moments where big mistakes are made, our weaknesses really do become points of advocacy for paying more attention to our books – and preserving them as books to pay attention to.

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  1. “As long as books have been made, they’ve been read, misread, misrepresented, burned, drowned, forgotten, rediscovered, shelved, ad hoc and ad nauseum.” : a marvellously polished summa; the contingency of reading you might say.

  2. Nice piece, Brooke–thanks for sharing! I do agree that the biggest challenge in all of our work, whether with physical books or digital surrogates, is the numbness of day-to-day activities. Taking the time to question and to look at something with new eyes is so key, and yet so hard to maintain.

  3. Sarah, thanks for commenting! As I hope you know I am a fan/avid reader (and I think we share a certain Penn connection, one with a very uniquely hearty laugh?) and your latest posts have provided very useful exercises at plugging the minutiae of books into a much broader picture…it’s a good thing especially when your life tends toward exalting the singular & the arcane (this sounds like a name for a soap opera about special collections?).

  4. Great post! Some fine books seem to reach your desk! Of course, I agree with your intelligent remarks on digitization. Many people seem to forget that there is a significant difference between books and texts. Books are three-dimensional objects and have many features which can’t be digitized.
    Bay the way, there is a nice book on the collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliohtek: “Kulturkosmos der Renaissance” (Wiesbaden, 2008). It includes an interesting chapter on Schedel’s library.

  5. Steven, thank you so much for writing and for the reference – I’ll check it out asap!

    I agree with you about books having a certain something that can’t be digitized and I wonder what is the best way to communicate that. One idea is to create a ‘digital book app’ that is really terrible and results in a lot of ‘404 error: file not found’ when you try to do things like look at the binding, watermark, etc. Okay maybe this idea would make a better practical joke…

  6. Thanks so much for your comment!

    I’ve long felt giddy seeing some of the beauties on display at your blog; it makes me all the more excited to be visiting your library in November around the USTC launch!


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