When making a trip to the North Pole, you may have better luck hitching a sleigh ride with a mysterious old man cloaked in red, rather than traveling with arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall. His expedition to the North Pole in 1871 via the sailing ship Polaris ended in disaster due to harsh weather and an unruly crew. Hall’s arctic adventure and many others are chronicled by Alexander Hyde in The Frozen Zone and Its Explorers (Hartford, Conn., 1874) / Travel Collection G620 .H9. Wherever you are headed this time of year, the Rare Book Collection wishes you safe travels and a good read. Happy Holidays!
Lisa Fagin Davis’s popular virtual road trip has reached the Carolinas. Enjoy learning about some of UNC’s great medieval treasures, including one of its oldest Western manuscripts, a detail of which is shown above. Go to the lively blog and read the entry for this week, Carolina on My Mind.
During a recent visit to Belgium, I stepped back in time to the world of Renaissance printing at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. The museum, honored in 2005 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserves the printing workshops, office, and private living quarters of the great printer-publisher Christophe Plantin and his son-and-law and successor Jan Moretus, just as they were in the 16th century, when the Officina Plantiniana was arguably the most important press in Europe.
The museum’s website boasts:
It is just as if after 440 years the working day is about to begin for the type founders, compositors, printers and proofreaders in the world-famous printing works. The oldest printing presses in the world are there, intact and ready to roll. The offices and shop echo with conversations between Christoffel Plantijn and aristocratic and scholarly clients from all over the world.
This correspondent found that description entirely true. The dark-paneled workroom with its row of venerable ancient printing presses and the rows on rows of type in dozens of fonts in oak cases fired the imagination to reconstruct the hustle and bustle of a workday in Plantin’s busy shop. As a sometime-proofreader for Rare Book Collection publications, I felt a special sense of solidarity with Plantin’s invisible proofreaders, seeing their massive wooden desks under the sixteenth century windows, imagining them piled high with stacks of proofs waiting to be corrected.
The Museum also includes the living quarters of the Plantin family: the damask-and-tapestry-draped drawing rooms with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Plantin’s almost-contemporary and fellow Antwerp citizen; the Plantin’s handsome private library; and several rooms hung with costly Spanish gilt leather. The lushness of these spaces, in contrast to the brisk practicality of the offices and workrooms, is an invitation to imagine the private life of a man who was at once eminently learned and humane, invested in the philosophical and religious discourse of his times, but also a shrewd capitalist and entrepreneur. Plantin rose from relatively obscure beginnings to become, in today’s terms, a multimillionaire, exemplifying his personal motto labore et constantia (“by labor and constancy”) in his business life.
A Frenchman by birth, Christophe Plantin settled in Antwerp at the age of about 28 or 29 with his wife Jeanne Rivié and their young daughter after learning bookbinding and the bookselling trade in Normandy. A few years later, while walking alone at night, he was attacked by a gang of men who mistook him for someone else; they inflicted a wound to his arm. Unable to continue work as a binder, Plantin turned to publishing, becoming known for the excellent typography of his editions. He cemented his reputation with the publication of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible, a printing masterpiece and landmark scholarly effort bringing together Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac biblical texts, a handsome copy of which is on display in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.
The Rare Book Collection’s holdings in early printing include several volumes by Plantin, notable among which is his 1568 imprint Carmina novem illustriumfeminarum, “Songs of Nine Illustrious Women,” an anthology compiled by Plantin of songs and lyric, elegiac, and bucolic poetry by Greek poetesses, including Sappho, and commentary on these poems from Latin authors. The volume illustrates not only Plantin’s erudition and devotion to the classics, but also his skill in employing beautiful typefaces, for example, this Greek one designed by Robert Granjon.
This past week was UNC’s Spring break, and most of our students have been away, at their families’ homes or traveling. No doubt, they’ve all had with them electronic devices: smartphones, iPads, laptops, and Kindles. And maybe some made their journeys with a paperback or two.
Well, if they’d lived two centuries earlier, their portable reading matter might have had more style. The traveling library above, which the Rare Book Collection acquired last fall, is an early example of its kind, the volumes bearing dates from 1802 to 1815. The whole is complete, with all 49 miniature books present, corresponding to the engraved contents list (above left), pasted to the inside of the original book-shaped box.
Each volume is 3-1/2 inches high, the pages comparable in size to a smartphone’s screen. Titles include classics by French authors such as Molière, Racine, and Voltaire, as well as the works of other writers less known to Anglophones today.
Certainly, this traveling library is limited in content and more cumbersome than recent inventions, but what an elegant way to read on the go. Lore has it Napoleon even owned one.
A month ago, this blogger found herself in the spectacular landscape of Armenia, deep in the Trans-Caucasus, skirting the borders of Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
Armenia is well known for being the first country to establish Christianity as its official religion, having certainly done so before 314 AD. Unsurprisingly, the nation has a rich architectural heritage of ancient Christian churches and monasteries, such as Spitakavor (left). It also has a remarkable scribal tradition, which produced tens of thousands of manuscript books.
In 405 AD, a unique alphabet was invented for the Armenian language, which constitutes its own distinctive branch of the Indo-European language family. The alphabet consisted of thirty-six letters, and it is still in use today, with the addition of three more letters for a total of thirty-nine. The monk Mesrop Mashtots is credited with the invention, which was promptly employed to write Armenian translations of the holy scriptures.
Located at the end of Mesrop Mashtots Avenue in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, is the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts and the Matenadaran, or “manuscripts repository.” This public building houses over 17,300 manuscripts, 450,000 archival documents, and 3,000 printed books. Most of the manuscripts are in Armenian, although there are also examples written in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Old Slavonic, and other languages.
An impressive selection of that large collection is on display. Many are beautifully illuminated and illustrated, including a number of medicinal manuscripts. The one below, a veterinary text, was particularly arresting, even though–or perhaps, because–I could not read a single word of it.
When seeing books while traveling, I always think about the Rare Book Collection. Regrettably, we have no ancient Armenian manuscripts. But Armenian-language texts do lurk in RBC, among its fine Byron Collection, one of our British Romantic author collections (along with Keats and Wordsworth).
While resident in Venice, Lord Byron sought out the company of the Mekhitarist fathers on the island of San Lazzaro. The Mekhitarists were a Roman Catholic order founded in the early 18th century by an Armenian monk who had left the Armenian Apostolic Church. Byron was fascinated by Armenian culture and boated across the Venetian lagoon to learn the language at the monastery.
Note the reproduction at left of Byron’s English and Armenian signatures in a bilingual book, Beauties of English Poets = Tsaghkakʻagh kʻyrtʻoghatsʻ Angilyatsʻwotsʻ, published by the press on the island after the author’s death. This volume features mainly Byron’s own poetry, but also his translations of Alexander Pope, John Milton, and Thomas Gray. See below the latter’s “Elegy in a Country Church-Yard.”
The San Lazzaro connection led to Byron becoming one of the most widely read English poets among Armenians. The island monastery published other Byron writings in the 19th century, including Armenian Exercises, which contains his English translations of Armenian historical and biblical writings, as well as anonymous Armenian translations of Byron’s letters and poetry, accompanied by their original English texts. The RBC holds the 1870 edition of this work.
Armenian travels, Armenian exercises. On the road, all roads lead home–even the Silk Road–to the Rare Book Collection.
Some of us have been traveling of late, and we thought you might enjoy a few pictures from our journeys.
This blogger ended up at the easternmost end of Turkey. There she visited the amazing Ishak Pasha Palace on the Silk Road, below Mt. Ararat. Built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and currently being restored, the extensive complex included a grand dining hall, a mosque, and a harem. I, of course, was particularly taken with its library rooms (yes, if I understood correctly, those recesses are for books).
The Ishak Pasha Palace follows a plan related to that of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. There, at the opposite end of Turkey, I saw the serene library pavilion of Sultan Ahmed III. Again, it was without books, the manuscripts having been moved to the new Topkapi Palace Library in 1966.
One can only imagine what wondrous spaces these libraries were centuries ago, when animated by both books and readers.