Untraveled Persia

In 1633 the Benedictine Abbey of Muri, near Basel, was flourishing under Dom Johann Jodok Singisen. His abbacy (1594-1644) saw the creation of a library over the porch of the abbey church. Into that library came a little vellum volume, telling of a distant land, to warm the hands of a black-habitted monk:

Note the ownership inscription at the bottom: "Mn'rÿ Muren."

Johannes de Laet. Persia seu Regni Persici Status. Variaque Itinera in atque per Persiam: cum Aliquot Iconibus Incolarum. Leiden: Elzevir, 1633.

De Laet was one of the founding members of the Dutch West India Company, corollary to the more infamous East India Company; the WIC had dominion over West Africa and the Americas. De Laet never went to Persia, but his learning was wide. A student of Joseph Scaliger, he deciphered and published an early history of Brazil, published a book on gems modelled on Theophrastus’ and edited Pliny’s Natural History. In brief, he was one clever fellow, and he thought New York was swell, so we count him as a Friend of the Shop.

Persia is split into two parts: de Laet’s own musings on the country — its topography and climate, mores, history, κτλ. — and a compendium of eleven other travelers’ accounts. I’m now reading Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana — a gift to me from book-man plenipotentiary and Friend of the Shop, Thos. W- - - — and my mind’s eye is awash with visions of traceried mihrabs and minarets.

Imagine what the Benedictine monk at Muri must have thought when looking at the fantastical costumes he saw, reading of proskynesis and Mohammed and mosques. Heathenry! Or, perhaps, how lovely to wear feathers on one’s head. The engravings, executed by Cornelis Claeszoon Duysend, doubtless contributed to the publication of a second issue that same year; our copy, happily, belongs to the first issue.

Trimmed down to fit in the hand — our copy preserves a folded deckle-edge, giving a sense of the original sheet size

— one can imagine a monk slipping this into the fold of his habit and in his cell muttering the names of implausible places — Firusabad, Schiraz, Hispahan, Bestân, Ardshir — like inchoate prayers.

This book combines the two great genres of travel-writing, the arm-chair and the saddle-back, to arrive at a work of real erudition and insight. De Laet draws on the 1600 account of the Portuguese traveler Pedro Teixeira, which is itself a translation, more or less, of Mir Khwand’s 1497 Gardens of purity in the biography of the prophets, kings and caliphs, which is itself a compilation of… In short, we oughtn’t to malign De Laet’s work simply because he never went to Persia. By offering the autoptic accounts of others — from the mid-XVc Venetian traveler Giosafat Barbaro through to the Dutchman Nicholas Hem, whose journey was only published some ten years prior — he offers the reader both perspective and immediacy. His Latin is vigorous and clear, and he writes with the dispassion of a man who has no desire to travel thither.

Persia bellowsed the monks’ furnaces until the abbey at Muri was dissolved in 1841. Its library was dispersed, and this little volume found its way to the cantonal library of Aargau, where, most cruelly, it was stamped as a “Doublette” and, presumably, “de-accessioned,” as libraries getting rid of books wish to call it. Fortunatus et ego deos qui novi persicos.

Small octavo (4 5/16” x 2 1/4”, 111mm x 57mm). A-Aa^8 [$5]. 192 leaves, pp. 1-2 3-30 31 32 33 34 35 36-72 73 74-119 120-121 122-137 138-139 140-192 193-194 195-374, [8], 2 blanks.

Dante at Christmas

Now that it’s Advent, if you like, or the Christmas season (if you’re in marketing), one’s thoughts turn to family and the giving of tokens of affection. It’s easy to be cynical, as Tom Lehrer was in his Christmas Carol, but I prefer to be solemn and joyous, if I can muster it. If you’re not contemplating the Christ-child, you can at least take the time from work and contemplate, well, something else. It seems to me that, on balance, most old books have been gifts within families; this is quite significant. I have elsewhere outlined my theory of The Book’s Progress:

1. A book is loved and desired and bought.
2. A book is passed down, and loved for being loved by the donor.
3. A book is passed down and number of times, and becomes set-decoration, or, more optimistically, a hollowish token of beauty and erudition.

There are, of course, exceptions. Perverse as it may seem, I spend a little too much time thinking what I would rescue from the shop were there a fire. My answer isn’t our most valuable or the rarest or the most consequential, it is, though, the most constant and potent source of joy to my eye:

Dante Alighieri, ed. Baldassare Lombardi. La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri col comento del P. Baldassare Lombardi M.C. Ora nuovamente arrichito di molte illustrazioni edite ed inedite. Five volumes. Padua: Tipographia della Minerva, 1822.

Bound in contemporary vellum, stab-bound, the spines and covers are extra-gilt, with jolly red for title-piece and deep deep blue for number-piece. When we bought it, it was nearly coal-black, but with great timidity — perhaps temerity? — we cleaned it Elgin-marbles-style (i.e., with good sense), and now it truly glows.

Dante is, of course, a natural subject for Christmas (no in-laws–hell-fire jokes, please); so much of the narrative of descent and ascent is likened to birth and redemption. More poetically (than Dante?), I can see these volumes flickering in the light of a fireplace, their bow liquid at their heels.

A gift-inscription on the first free end-paper of each volume reads:

Margaret Lindsay
from her Affectionate
Grandmama — 
Rome 31st December
1838 — 

What a delightful gift to have received on one’s Grand Tour. But who was this Margaret Lindsay, and who her Affectionate Grandmama? Margaret Lindsay was born 31 December 1824 (what a fourteenth birthday present!), and received this set from her maternal grandmother, Lady Trotter (Margaret (née Gordon), wife of Sir Coutts Trotter, 1st Bt.); her paternal grandmother (the Hon. Mrs. Robert Lindsay (Elizabeth, née Dick)) had died in 1835. In 1846 Lindsay married her cousin Alexander Lindsay, who would in 1869 become the 25th Earl of Crawford and 8th Earl of Balcarres. The Earldom of Crawford is among the oldest in the United Kingdom. The 25th Earl and his son together built up the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, which at the turn of the twentieth century was one of the foremost private libraries in Europe. The present item does not bear a bookplate of the Lindesiana, perhaps because it remained in the personal collection of the countess. There are pressed flowers in the middle volume.

It is not hard to imagine why the countess held these books close, perhaps passing them to one of her daughters.

In the face of all the Tickle-Me-Elmi and Ex-boxes, let us all hope to receive books of beauty, and to give them to our daughters and granddaughters.

What's your oldest book?

It is a question we get asked by about thirty per-cent of people who come into the shop. It’s certainly a question I thought to ask even though I ended up buying A Chart of Oxford Printing 1468-1900 the first time I came in (it’s a gem). Still, I like the question; it shows a healthy curiosity in beginnings, in origins. The answer, man; stop babbling and answer. It’s a 1505 edition-with-commentary of Seneca's tragedies. It’s nearly identical to a 1498 edition of the same, so in my book it’s a “quasincunable”, very nearly made in the infancy of printing in Europe. It’s really lovely: bound in vellum with a stab-binding (the thread punched through the spine-edge of the text block top-and-bottom is still visible), hand-written title – everything a Very Old Book should look like, really.

The text is presented in the manner of manuscript commentaries: the plays's text is closest to the spine, and the commentaries (there are two) surround the text. The two (Daniele’s and Bernardino’s) were initially brought together in a Venice edition of 1493 (printed by Matteo Capcasa of Parma). The direct antecedent of the current item was a 1498 edition by Giovanni Tacuino (Ioannes Tridinus de Cirreto alias Tacuinus, working in Venice at the same time as Aldus Manutius), and the 1505 edition aims to be identical (the 1498 edition has identical mis-numberings of the leaves [except that leaf CXXXV was in the 1498 edition headed CXXV but has in the 1505 edition been corrected]; the woodcuts are different or missing in the 1505 edition, and some spellings change [e.g., lachrimis becomes lachrymis]). Some fifteen years after Andreas Gallicus’ editio princeps, these twin commentaries were part of a florescence of interest and scholarship on the Stoic, whose plays, despite being exceptionally dense and challenging, were incorporated into curricula across Europe. 

(Gellio) Bernard(in)o Marmitta (Padua, 1440-1497) was a professor of Humanities, probably in Parma; his commentary was initially published in 1491. Daniele Gaetani (Cremona, 1461-1528) was a professor of literature (in Cremona?); his commentary was initially published in 1493. Bernardino’s is decidedly the fuller commentary, but Daniele has the better Greek (or at least prints it), and so provides more context of Seneca’s models and antecedents; the two work together very nicely. An early owner of the current item was also a scholar; a great many of his emendations and conjectures (mostly on Hercules Furens, Medea and Agamemnon) are those accepted by modern editors (who have, as the owner or editor did not, the benefit of understanding Senecan scansion).

Having spent a little time learning from two very fine Senecan textual critics (Dr. Heyworth and Professor Reinhardt), I have some small appreciation of the challenges of the transmission. This early attempt – more than an attempt; a rich success! – is a delight to hold.


Folio in 6s (11 5/8” x 7 7/8”, 299mm x 202mm). Binder’s blank, A4 (±A1) a-z6 &8, binder’s blank [$3; –A1, A3; +&4; A2 signed A ii]; 150 leaves (leaves numbered I-LIIII, LIIII LV, LVII-LXXVIII, LXXVIII LXXIX LXXX LXXXI LXXXII LXXXIII, LXXXV-CXLV, CXVI); pp. [8], [291], blank; A1r pasted title (2 3/4” x 1 1/4”; woven paper?); A1v blank; A2r-v dedication to Leonardo Mocenigo (1445-1534, ambassador and minor humanist; son of Giovanni Mocenigo, Doge 1478-1485); A3r poem in defense of “Polydori Comitis Cabaliati” (i.e., Polidoro Sforza, son of Francesco, Duke of Milan); A3v dedication to Guillaume de Rochefort (Lord Chancellor of France, 1483-1492); A4r-v interpretive analysis of the tragedies of Seneca, addressed to same; a1r -&5v text and commentary; &6r registration; &6v blank.

The binding; note the hand-written title and the visible binding thread.

An example of the format (i1v).

An aside — the title-page would at first glance appear to have been mutilated — a rectangle cut from an original sheet and mounted on a new one. But, in collating our copy with other institutional copies, it now appear that this is in fact how the book was issued by the publisher; anything was possible this early in the history of printing!

Seneca title-page.jpg