About Mitch Fraas

Mitch Fraas is a curator at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

One fewer frustrating book stamp

There’s nothing more frustrating to catalogers and bibliographers than a partially legible book inscription or stamp. While a completely smudged, faint, or illegible provenance marking might be disappointing it at least has an air of impossibility. Those that have some letters or words clearly rendered can suck hours of time. “So close! If only I could read those last few letters!” I’ve experienced this frustration too many times to count but the Penn Provenance Project has recently made the experience of finding a partial marking more exciting than exhausting.

A few weeks ago while reviewing the provenance records for all our codex manuscripts I came across one in a 16th century collection of Italian statutes that seemed tantalizing. The record read: “Illegible ex libris stamp: “Bibliotheca …”” Fortunately I could consult both the physical item and a new digital facsimile to try and reach my own conclusions.


Ink stamp in UPenn Ms. Codex 92. A 16th c. compilation of Florentine statutes.

I spent a few minutes squinting at the bottom part of the ink stamp, sure I could make out a dash and an ‘M’ but not really making much progress otherwise. I figured I’d head to the PPP site to try my luck. Though “Biblioteca” was sure to be dime a dozen on the stamps photographed in the project, it’s amazing how quickly one can scroll through a page of thumbnail images and so I got started:


Knowing that I was looking for an oval stamp with a hyphenated bottom word made a quick visual scan a cinch and in less than a minute I’d spotted the following mark:


Bookstamp of the Malvezzi-Medici Library in Bologna in a collection of printed Ferrara texts c.1600. Penn call# Folio IC6 F4122L C600

I saved this to one side for comparison and moved through the rest without finding any other likely suspects. Going back to compare the two I was pretty satisfied I’d found the right one, the stamp of the Biblioteca Malvezzi-Medici in Bologna. The library of the counts of Malvezzi de’Medici was housed in their grand palazzo, one of the stars of Bologna until its sale in 1931. It turns out in fact that the Penn libraries hold at least twelve titles in print and manuscript bearing the Malvezzi-Medici stamp, acquired from the antiquarian market in the years after the sale.


Photograph of one of the now empty libraries (the Biblioteca del Segretario Generale) in the Palazzo Malvezzi – Medici. Rivista mensile del Comune di Bologna 23.3 (March 1935), p. 16.

Without the Penn Provenance Project and an easily searchable visual database of bookstamps I can’t imagine I would have found a match. Now the record for UPenn Ms. Codex 92 has been changed to reflect the new information and knowing the shared origin of this manuscript with other titles in the library will help us in the library as well as  scholars of Italian cultural and literary history better understand the collecting practices and historical imagination of Italian elites like the Malvezi de’Medicis. As we expand the PPP I can’t wait to hear many more similar stories of matches and surprising finds!