A unique copy of the Gutenberg Bible – Europe’s first printed book using moveable type – is to go on display in a spectacular exhibition charting how books were simultaneously cherished and embellished, mistreated and even vandalised in the first century of the printed age.
Private Lives of Print: The use and abuse of books 1450-1550 opens at Cambridge University Library on October 24. It examines how the earliest owners of books produced with the new technology of print interacted with their books, and features some of the University Library’s most lavish printed treasures, many never before displayed.
The hand-coloured copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, the most heavily illustrated book of the 15th century, sits alongside a Book of Hours annotated by Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, and an exceptional copy of the Book of St Albans, the first colour printed book in English.
The Book of St Albans, printed in St Albans in the mid-1480s and attributed to the prioress of nearby Sopwell, is a gentleman’s guide to heraldry, hawking and hunting. It is one of the most famous and collectable books in the history of English printing. An early owner of the Cambridge copy was oblivious to its future value; at the foot of an otherwise untarnished page is a rough pencil sketch of a passionate couple in flagrante delicto.
Annotations elsewhere indicate a more scholarly interaction between reader and book. Also on display is Cambridge’s copy of the Hypnerotomachia poliphili, an eccentric romance poem, considered by many to be the most beautifully designed book of the Renaissance. In 1518 a 16-year-old owner was moved by the Hypnerotomachia to compose his own poem in the front of the Cambridge University Library copy of the book.
Alongside this 16th-century composition is displayed the text of a poem specially composed for the Library by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who was inspired by a visit to the Library to study the Hypnerotomachia. An extract of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, which is being published for the first time in a new Library publication celebrating its early printed treasures, Emprynted in thys manere, reads:
that evening in the emptying Library, the human chain,
from Venice 1499 to here and now, joined warm and open palms to yours, a living link around the precious charm of a book. Woodcutter to printer; ink’s solemn vow to page; word and image in their beautiful Renaissance dance.”
Embellishment and decoration form another strand of the exhibition. Early printers mimicked the products of the flourishing manuscript trade and consequently many early printed books were painstakingly decorated by hand. The exhibition features striking illuminations from some of the leading Italian artists of the period, including the Master of the London Pliny. Initials decorated in gold, red, blue and green are as vivid today as when they were originally executed for religious houses and members of the nobility and royal houses of Europe, some 500 years ago.
All of the 54 exhibits going on display demonstrate the differing relationships between the earliest printed books and their owners. From marginal drawings of plants and animals and sketches of classical architecture, to the clumsy reader who in 1482 confessed to spilling red ink on his clean page, visitors to the exhibition will find the work of careful hands as well as careless ones.
Exhibition curator Ed Potten said: “We tend to assume that books of this age and importance have always been treasured items treated with the utmost respect and care – but we forget that books were constantly being read, handed down, sold and scribbled upon. Many of the early printed books owned by the Library have every spare space covered with notes and scribbles.
“There is a temptation to view these marginalia and doodles as diminishing and devaluing the books, but it’s precisely these features that make them a joy to study. They offer rare and fascinating insights into the private lives of books – glimpses of the many ways in which books were received and subsequently used by the first generations of printed book owners.”
In parallel with the exhibition, the University Library is launching its latest print publication, Emprynted in thys manere: Early printed treasures from Cambridge University Library. Published to celebrate the conclusion of a five-year research project to catalogue Cambridge’s world-class collections of 15th-century books, it comprises essays by 60 contributors. Copies of this publication are available for purchase from the Reader Services Desk in the University Library's Entrance Hall for £10, and can be purchased online from the University's central e-sales service here.
For more information about this exhibition, click here.Tweet
Cambridge University Library is once again taking part in the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which offers a series of engaging and thought-provoking events that celebrate the arts, humanities and social sciences.
A £1.1m campaign by Cambridge University Library to secure one of the most important New Testament manuscripts – the seventh-century Codex Zacynthius – has been a success.
The University Library and the Department of Architecture have revealed the shortlist for a design competition to attract bold re-imaginings of the open spaces and environment of the iconic Giles Gilbert Scott building.
Siegfried Sassoon’s First World War diaries – some bearing traces of mud from the Somme – are among 4,100 pages from his personal archive being made freely available online from today, almost 100 years since Britain declared war on Germany.
Photographic albums uncovered at the University Library (UL) offer a unique view of the huge removal job which 80 years ago this week saw one million items successfully moved to their new home.
A 600-year-old astronomical document is now moving into the modern era, with a symposium at the Whipple Museum to mark its digitisation.
Cambridge University Library is delighted to have received the Stanley Sadie Archive as a gift from his widow Julie Anne.
Seventy years after Hitler’s soldiers were driven from Paris, Cambridge University Library is staging the first-ever exhibition to examine the outpouring of literary works that followed the German retreat from French soil.
A tenth century Greek manuscript, one of the latest additions to the Digital Library, shows how the transmission and reinterpretation of written knowledge over the centuries still continues in today’s digital age.
A 13th-century manuscript of Arthurian legend once owned by the Knights Templar is one of the star attractions of a new exhibition opening at Cambridge University Library today (January 22).