Illuminated Incunabula

Most people are familiar with illumination, the beautiful colours and intricate elaborations of initials and margins in medieval manuscripts. But it is less common to come across illuminated printed books.

A four-volume incunabula set of the Bible with commentary, Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra, in Balliol Library is an example of this rarer illumination from the early days of the hand press.

This edition of the Vulgate Bible was published in Venice in 1481 by the master printer, Nicholas Jenson. The volumes were evidently owned by one Henry Clifford, though his signature appears to be 15th century.

‘Henricus Clifford me possidet’: inscription on first leaf of volume 1 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

One assumes that to own this set of books so soon after the invention of printing Clifford would have been a wealthy man. One candidate might be Henry Clifford, tenth Baron Clifford (1454–1523), who, the Dictionary of National Biography  notes, was ‘…not just literate but even bookish, owning volumes on law and medicine, and developing a taste for astronomy and alchemy’. However the books themselves have no other marks of ownership.

The illuminations are a reminder how much the printed book borrowed from the manuscript. It was usual for print fonts to emulate handwriting. Here, this additional characteristic of the manuscript is borrowed.

There is one striking feature of the pattern of illuminations: many are incomplete, some hardly started. While some glitter lavishly others are no more than the rough drafts in black ink.

Clearly there is a story contained in this set that we will never be privy to. Why break off halfway through? Was this some sort of practice set that was never intended to be finished? The more complete illuminations seem to have had too much trouble taken over them for that. Did the illuminator who took on the job simply die before he could finish? But then why did the owner not go to someone else to finish the job? Or was it the owner himself who died, the gospels being laid to one side in the craftsman’s workshop and ultimately forgotten?

We will never know. The rather rough and ready plain paper-covered boards, a dull purple familiar in Oxford college libraries, suggests that their later history was not as grand as it once had been.

Cover and binding of Biblia cum postillis Nicola de Lyra Vol 4 (Photo: Balliol College Library)

Balliol College Library shelfmark 595 c 1-4

By Jeremy Hinchliff

Hobbes’ Leviathan: editions in disguise

The head, the bear and ‘the ornaments’

Balliol’s copy of the first edition of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan has recently returned from conservation by the Oxford Conservation Consortium. The front board has been reattached and several leaves cleaned.

In addition to the iconic engraved title page, the first edition was issued with a letterpress title page. Three distinct editions would eventually appear with this imprint between 1651 and 1680.

The first edition of Leviathan had sold for a mere 8s 6d in 1651. By 1668, Pepys records that a secondhand copy ‘was mightily called for’, and was going for 24 shillings.

The second edition, printed by John Redmayne in 1670, copied the imprint of 1651. Noel Malcolm notes that it also contained text reprinted almost page-for-page from the first edition. After the Restoration and the 1662 Printing Act, powers of censorship were returned to the bishops. Charges of atheism against Hobbes led to the banning or suppression of many of his works.

Malcolm suggests that the 1670 edition may have been designed in this way to minimise attention to Leviathan’s republication.

The undertaking attracted attention nonetheless. Printed sheets were seized from Redmayne’s workshop on the orders of the Stationers’ Company in the autumn of 1670. They were taken away for ‘damasking’ (obliterating the text), although many sheets were probably salvaged and eventually issued.

The 'head' word cut ornament from the title page of the 1651 edition of Leviathan (Photo: Paris O'Donnell)

At first glance, the one obvious difference among the three ‘first editions’ is the printer’s ornament on the title page, above the imprint. The copy in Balliol library carries the woodcut ornament known as ‘the head’, while the 1670 edition carries ‘the bear’ and the 1680 edition ‘the ornaments’. This is how we know that ours is from the genuine first edition of 1651.

Balliol College Library shelfmark 30 d 139


Noel Malcolm, ‘The printing of the “Bear”’. In Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. ‘Thomas Hobbes’

Piranesi in Balliol

Works by Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778)

Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778) was arguably the finest intaglio printmaker of the 18th century. He worked essentially as an etcher, but also employed engraving and drypoint techniques, and experimented with the inking and printing of his plates to achieve the complex, multi-textured images he wanted. As a draughtsman his architectural training was rather overwhelmed by his flamboyant, romantic, exotic and at times chaotic imagination. His depictions of buildings are beautiful, but inaccurate, and peopled with ragged, miniature human beings (partly to emphasise the scale and grandeur of the architecture). Piranesi’s ‘archaeological’ works are a great deal more valuable as art than as archaeology.

He was also a great controversialist, and engaged in bitter disputes with several contemporary historians and potential patrons, some of which gave rise to publications in defence of his (often quite untenable) position. Visitors to Rome, including British grand tourists, would often stop at Piranesi’s shop and buy a selection of his etchings or, if they could afford it, a complete set of what was then available. Piranesi’s works were expensive in their own time, and have long been regarded as high points among plate books, with good and complete copies commanding high prices.

Detail from Piranesi print

The ‘set’ of Piranesi’s works at Balliol is substantially complete for the period in which it was collected. The provenance is uncertain, but the ten physical volumes containing 18 separate works date from the same approximate period and were probably acquired together in Rome around 1770. A few of the works are in earlier states, datable to the earlier 1760s, but it is likely that all were acquired at the same time. There is a full set of the archaeological works of the period, including an excellent early example of Le antichita Romane (4 vols, 1757). Piranesi’s two great imaginative works, the Carcere d’invenzione and `Grotteschi’, are also present in contemporary states, and his earliest plates are represented by copies of Antichita Romane de’tempi della Republica (dated 1748) and the Opere varie di architettura prospettive grotteschi antichità (first published in 1750).

Among his works on interior design and decoration, there is a fine copy of Diverse maniere d’adornare i camini (1769) and an interesting set of eighteen plates from Vasi, candelabri …, which probably represents the state of this work at the time the plates were acquired (the Vasi was an open-ended series, not completed until after Piranesi’s death in 1778). Also present is the artist’s Osservazioni di Gio. Battista Piranesi sopra la lettre de M. Mariette aux auteurs de la Gazette littraire de l’Europe (1762), one of his controversial publications, in this case attacking Pierre-Jean Mariette.

The only major work of this period not found in Balliol is the Vedute di Roma, a group of large views published as an open-ended series from around 1748 (and completed after the artist’s death by his son Francesco; the series ultimately consisted of 137 plates). Also absent are two later works, the Trofeo o sia magnifica colonna coclide di marmo … fatte da Traiano (1774) and Differentes vues de quelques restes … de Pesto (1778). The Vedute may never have been present in this set, or it may have been broken up and the individual plates framed (as was sometimes the fate of copies of this work in the nineteenth century). The Balliol set was uniformly bound in half calf, probably in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The final volume in this set (925 a 10) is damp-stained, but the rest of the set is in excellent condition.

Paul W. Nash, 2011

The Balliol ‘set’ of Piranesi’s works

  • 925 a 1-4 Le antichita Romane (1757). 4 vols. Third/second state of 1760s?
  • 925 a 5(1) Le rovine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia (1761). Roman edition. Probably an early copy
  • 925 a 5(2) Carcere d’invenzione. Roman edition, early state, probably of around 1762/1763
  • 925 a 5(3) Guercino. Raccolta di alcuni disegni del Barberi da Cento detto il Guercino (1764). Includes one plate by Piranesi, and was probably sold by him as part of his `works’
  • 925 a 5(4) Opere varie di architettura prospettive grotteschi antichità. Roman edition, probably of 1760s
  • 925 a 5(5) [Grotteschi]. Roman edition, probably of 1760s
  • 925 a 6(1) Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo (1764). Early state, probably datable to between 1764 and 1766
  • 925 a 6(2) Descrizione a disegno dell’ emissario del Lago Albano (1762). Probably an issue of around 1765
  • 925 a 6(3) Di due spelonche ornate dagli antichiemissario del Lago Albano (1762). Probably an issue of around 1765
  • 925 a 7 Diverse maniere d’adornare i camini (1769). Roman edition. An early state, with incomplete plate-numbering
  • 925 a 8 Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii … Campus Martius antiquae urbis (1762). Probably an issue of the 1760s or 1770s
  • 925 a 9(1) Della magnificenza ed architettura de’ Romani (1762). Probably an issue of the 1760s or 1770s
  • 925 a 9(2) Osservazioni di Gio. Battista Piranesi sopra la lettre de M. Mariette aux auteurs de la Gazette littraire de l’Europe (1762). An issue of around 1770, with the additional plates but unnumbered
  • 925 a 10(1) Trofei di Ottaviano Augusto. Roman edition of between 1767 and 1778.
  • 925 a 10(2) [Vasi, candelabri …]. Roman edition of 18 plates, all in early states, issued by Piranesi during the late 1760s of early 1770s
  • 925 a 10(3) Antichita Romane de’tempi della Republica (1748). Roman impression of around 1770
  • 925 a 10(4) Lapides Capitolini (1762). Roman issue of around 1770?
  • 925 a 10(5) Anthichità di Cora (1764). Roman issue of around 1770?