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Tracking Incunables between Venice and Oxford

by on March 18, 2009

1574 die xii mensis septembris. Philippi [Basadone] d Francisci q. v. H. D. Philippi liber quem emit apud S. Marcum ad horologium pro solidis quadringentis paruorum

Inscription on Livy, Historiae Romanae decades, publ. Venice 1481, Bodleian Auct. Q inf. 2.21: 1574 die xii mensis septembris. Philippi d Francisci q. v. H. D. Philippi liber quem emit apud S. Marcum ad horologium pro solidis quadringentis paruorum


Dr. Cristina Dondi of the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) presented to the Seminar on the History of the Book at All Souls College a wealth of evidence on the provenance of copies of early printed Venetian books held at the Bodleian Library, together with an argument about their place in the wider history of the book trade.

Drawing on a sample of over 1400 books printed at Venice in the fifteenth century, Dr. Dondi called for book historians to engage with economic history, remarking that many economic histories of the book trade had been written without reference to the book itself.

Giving a detailed account of the formation of the Bodleian’s exceptional collection of incunabula over several centuries, she argued that provenance research should orient itself away from the history of collections as such, favouring instead a broader history of the book trade and of the demand for particular categories of books. Individual copies of some of the earliest printed books, produced in Europe’s greatest centre of print production, bore ‘stratified evidence of their history’ – in the form of bindings, decorations and manuscript annotations.

Her presentation moved from close reading of the marks of ownership of individual copies to tabulating the evidence as a whole, substituting ‘precise numbers for impressions and generalisations’. Books could be read as ‘archaeological specimens’ that bore witness to the distribution of books across Europe, and to the knowledges contained within them.

For example, provenance could reveal patterns in the degree of interest in books of laws, science or philosophy in various parts of Europe. Lastly, and in questions, Dr. Dondi called for copy-specific data to be added to bibliographic catalogues such as the multinational Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC), furthering the history of the book in its widest sense.  — Giles Bergel

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