Rabbits in art, now and then. Left: Extracted image from the film “Gas,” showing Private Snafu meeting Bugs Bunny (1944). Made for US Government, in the public domain; courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Right: “Madonna del Coniglio” (Madonna of the Rabbit) by Titian (ca. 1525-1530), Musée du Louvre. Photograph by Sailko (CC-BY-3.0) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Thanks to Bugs Bunny, collateral descendant of the trickster hares of African and Native American folklore, the “wascally wabbit” is probably the primary trope associated with this animal in the western mind. Even the generous Easter Bunny hides eggs for/from children all over the yard! But in the art and emblem books of the European Renaissance, the rabbit—or hare; as Herbert Friedmann notes, “[I]n art they are impossible to distinguish, and their symbolic meanings are common to both” (288)—has a milder aspect:
Rabbits or hares … generally represented fertility, chastity or/and love. They were commonly adopted … as a symbol of the virgin birth. This association stems from the myth that this animal could procreate without a mate. It likewise represented fecundity and conception … [T]he rabbit … because it was a hunted animal (in actual practice and in art) came to represent the gentile [sic] and innocent victim … As he was constantly threatened by the pursuit of wild beasts (both the two and the four-legged species) the rabbit was also associated with alertness and vigilance. Other connotations in Renaissance iconography include lust (a by-product of fecundity), sensuality and the sanguine temperament. (Cohen 82-83)
Tortoise with sail emblem of Cosimo de’ Medici (Fresco by Lorenzo Sabatini, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). Photograph by Sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
When seventeen-year-old Cosimo de’ Medici was elected to rule Florence in 1537 after the assassination of his distant kinsman Duke Alessandro, the city’s elites “hoped that he would become an absent duke who would leave the real business of running the state to the senate” (Murry 4). What they got instead was an energetic, cultured, savvy despot who sidelined the senate and “presented himself … as the unique persona who might usher in a golden age of peace underwritten by his own personal power” (Murry 6). Prominent among his emblems was “the tortoise with sail … the impresa (Festina lente) Cosimo borrowed from Augustus and Charles V” to express the ideal of swift action taken following careful consideration (Veen 24). Three decades after Cosimo’s accession, another ambitious young Florentine, the printer Bartolomeo Sermartelli, adopted the same device and motto to tout a modus operandi that paid commercial as well as political dividends—not least the patronage of the regime it flattered by imitation.
Books are probably not the first thing to come to mind when one hears the phrase “Elephant and Castle.” It certainly isn’t the first result in a Google search—that honor belongs to the London district named after the eighteenth-century coaching inn located there, which in turn has spawned dozens of “Elephant and Castle” pubs and restaurants in the English-speaking world. Long before travelers enjoyed their pints between stages on the mail, however, soldiers mounted on elephants made a lasting impression on the battlefields of Asia and Europe. “References to the use of elephants in war are numerous,” asserts George C. Druce, citing Lucretius, Pliny, and Aelian, as well as the Apocrypha: “The popularity of the elephant with the castle may have been enhanced in the ecclesiastical mind by the account of the battle recorded in the first book of Maccabees (ch. vi, 34-37 and 43-46), in which the Jewish patriot Eleazar lost his life” attacking an armored elephant (25-26). Medieval bestiaries transmuted classical and Biblical lore into allegory: “[T]he elephant always symbolizes virtue, is beloved of God, and may even be an emblem of the Church itself … Elephants will tolerate everything except evil, and they crush the symbols of evil in their trunks or under their feet” (Lach 140-141). Little wonder, then, that “[i]llustrations of elephants are fairly numerous in medieval manuscripts, especially the bestiaries and manuscripts of Alexander’s Romance; and they occur freely in ecclesiastical carving and heraldry. The preference is given to the elephant with the castle on its back, which is perhaps natural in view of the frequent references in early writers to the use of elephants in war, and the general popularity of this form” (Druce 1-2). That popularity continued into the Renaissance, when printers such as François Regnault (d. 1540) and Giorgio de Cavalli (active 1564-1570) used the elephant and castle in their devices to convey both power and piety.
Books and cats have a long history together. Whether they’re keeping the mice in check for medieval scriptoria or acting as ambassadors for modern public libraries, cats have earned the praise of book-loving humans. “So in peace our task we ply, / Pangur Bán, my cat, and I,” effuses a ninth-century Irish scholar of his companion (as translated by Robin Flower). “In our arts we find our bliss, / I have mine and he has his” (link). Of course, they’ve also earned their share of human ire for inky tracks left across pages and worse. “Here is nothing missing,” grumbles a fifteenth-century scribe in explanation of a blank column in his manuscript, “but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come” (link). Like bears and frogs, cats feature in the heraldry of early modern printing with all their associations, negative as well as positive: “The cat hunting a mouse found on an extended banner held by Fortune in the device of [Paduan printers] Christoforo Griffio and Lorenzo Pasquat probably alluded to the popular saying that fortune plays with men as cats play with mice, or possibly to the notion of the cat as the bearer of good fortune common among sailors” (Svoljšak and Kocjan 95). The Sessa family of Venice, too, adopted the cat as their device in some forty-odd variations over four generations of printing and publishing from the end of the fifteenth to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts is well-supplied with examples of the Sessas’ marks, some of which I am pleased to share in this post.
Toponyms are a common source of European surnames, whether derived from a place with its own name (Genovese, Krakowski, London) or merely a significant feature (Del Río, Dupont, Hill). My own surname, Broadwell, may indicate an English ancestor who lived in Broadwell, Warwickshire (or Oxford- or Gloucestershire) or perhaps just near a notably brād wella, a wide spring or stream. An even more evocative toponymic surname, Froschauer (man from the frog meadow), provides matter for a set of canting printer’s marks used by two Swiss bookmen of that family, uncle and nephew Christoph Froschauer, examples of which devices can be seen in the books they printed which are held by the Penn Libraries.
As a teenager haunting the local bookstore, I would scan the science fiction section for books with the Del Rey logo, knowing that many authors I enjoyed were published under that imprint. As a rare books cataloger at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, my eye is drawn to the far more elaborate early modern devices “applied to books by the thousands not only to authenticate their provenance from a particular printer or publisher, but also to say something about the self-image, the beliefs and the cultural affinities of those printers and publishers” (Wolkenhauer and Scholz vii). Many are charming visual puns on the printer’s name, as exemplified by the bear-and-bees device of the Swiss printer Mathias Apiarius (ca. 1500-1554) which we can see in three works held in the Penn Libraries Culture Class Collection.
Printer’s devices of Mathias Apiarius from title leaf (left) and last printed page (right) of Bartolomeo Ricci’s “Apparatus Latinae Locutionis” (Strasbourg, 1535). Courtesy Provenance Online Project.
Title leaf of the Penn Libraries copy of an octavo Bible printed by Geronimo Paganini (Venice, 1497)
“Books,” opines Sir William Temple, champion of the Ancients, “like Proverbs, receive their Chief Value from the Stamp and Esteem of Ages through which they have passed” (4)—and that can be as true of books as objects as it is of them as literature, especially when such esteem takes physical form. Consider the incunable Vulgate Bible (call number Inc B-601; ISTC ib00601000) presented to the Penn Libraries by Gordon A. Block, Jr. (1914-1973), as part of the Block Bible Collection. According to its colophon, it was printed on 7 September 1497 “in the fortunate city of the Venetians through the funds and skill of Geronimo Paganini” [in felici Venetorum ciuitate sumptibus et arte Hieronymi de Paganinis]. The volume, a median octavo, is not large: the leaves of Penn’s copy are just shy of 17 centimeters tall and 11 centimeters wide. Paganini (active 1492-1497) is the second printer known to have issued an octavo Latin Bible and this is his second surviving edition in that format.¹ Like the first, it was edited “by the most learned baccalaureate in sacred letters Pierangelo da Montolmo of the Order of Minorites of Seraphic Francis” [per doctissimum in sacris litteris baccalaurium Petrumangelum de Monte Vlmi Ordinis Minorum Seraphici Francisci] and includes a tabula alphabetica, an alphabetical table of contents, compiled by Pierangelo’s fellow friar, Gabriello Bruno. The book also incorporates another pioneering feature of its predecessor, an illustrated title page embellished with a woodcut of the apostle Peter holding a pair of massive keys with the motto “Tu es Petrus” (“You are Peter” from Matthew 16:18) above his head.² Blank spaces (some with guide letters) are left for manuscript initials to be added to the printed text; Penn’s copy features a large blue and white majescule F with red, green, and blue penwork extensions to begin the first word (“Frater“) of the general prologue (Saint Jerome’s epistle 53), but the remaining initials are supplied in red only, along with red capital strokes, paragraph marks, and underlines.³ Its small size, paucity of apparatus (apart Bruno’s table, only an index of Hebrew names is provided), and relative lack of adornment earmark Paganini’s octavo Bible for the popular rather than the institutional or luxury market, a “poor man’s Bible,” as Darlow and Moule put it (II, 918). Even Fra Girolamo Savonarola, scourge of the vanities, did not scruple to annotate a copy of the first edition. Continue reading →
Printing in color is as old as the hand press, but until relatively recently it was an expensive process reserved for luxury items. The hand-colorist, descendant of the medieval illuminator, had an indispensable role in publishing until some time after the invention of chromolithography in 1837. The four hundred and thirty-five life-size illustrations comprising John James Audubon‘s Birds of America (issued in parts 1827-1838), for example, were all professionally hand-colored to the highest standard. But readers, too, got into the act, adding color to the black-and-white woodcuts and engravings of their books with varying amounts of attention and skill. The owner of a copy of volume 2 of Thomas Nuttall’s Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada recently acquired by the Penn Libraries was more skilled than most, and his or her beautifully hand-colored illustrations are well worth a look. Continue reading →
Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron, a collection of tales told by a group of people self-quarantining in Fiesole during an outbreak of plague, was probably his best known work even before the pandemic of 2020 brought it back to popular consciousness.* But as Virginia Brown points out, it “is by no means typical of his writings. In fact, the Decameron is almost an unicum among Boccaccio’s works” (xi). In his ardent youth he wrote vernacular lyrics and romances; in his scholarly maturity, Latin compendia of useful knowledge. De Mulieribus Claris (“On Famous Women”), composed 1360-1374, belongs to the latter group. A companion piece to Petrarch‘s De Viris Illustribus (“On Illustrious Men”), it is intended “to record for posterity the stories of women who were renowned for any sort of great deed” (Brown xii), good or ill, from Eve to Joanna I of Naples. Boccaccio’s capsule biographies of heroines and harridans became an immediate hit with Renaissance readers. Brown writes that “the work survives in more than a hundred manuscripts, an unusually high number, even in the last age of the hand-produced book. Another indication of the popularity of the work is the various vernacular renderings that appeared almost immediately after the Latin version began to circulate” (xix). Among those translations in the following century is a German version by the humanist Heinrich Steinhöwel (1412-1482), a copy of whose editio princeps is held by the Penn Libraries. Its tales of wit and foolishness, charity and mayhem, illustrated with rough but lively hand-colored woodcuts, offer their own advice for surviving plague times, some of which I present here. Continue reading →
Souvenir chromolithograph, exposition of the Holy Coat of Trier (1891)
A splash of color against a black and white background is always visually arresting, whether it’s the world of Oz outside a Kansas farmhouse door or a nineteenth-century chromolithograph tucked inside a sixteenth-century Bible. This brilliant commemorative print issued during the 1891 exposition of the Heilige Rock (Holy Coat) of Trier fairly leaped out at me from between the leaves of a 1573 French edition of the Vulgate presented to the Penn Libraries as part of the Peter Way Collection of Early Modern Texts. The Heilige Rock, which has been identified with the seamless robe (Greek χιτών) of Jesus Christ described in the gospel of John (19:23), is one of the Christian relics reportedly discovered by Saint Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, during her pilgrimage to Palestine in 326-328. Medieval Trier, following a tradition first recorded in the ninth century, claimed Saint Helena as one of its own—indigena civitatis Trevericae, in the words of the twelfth-century Inventio S. Mathiae (quoted in Pohlsander 120)—and the seamless robe of Christ as her gift.¹