Ingenious Impressions

David Santamaria Legarda

Although we all spend a fair amount of time in the library, the books kept in level 12 at the department of Special Collections remain a mystery for most of us. That is why the opportunity the Hunterian Art Gallery gives us (until 21 June) to uncover some of the secrets of these volumes in its new exhibition is so exciting.  Ingenious Impression: The Coming of the Book features a selection of the University’s incunabula, those books printed during the 15th century, shortly after the invention of print.

The remarkable atmosphere of a room full of artefacts which are over 500 years old is felt immediately when entering the exhibition room, inside we find a dark atmosphere only broken by dim lamps that illuminate each volume individually. Near the entrance we are greeted by a full-size replica of a 15th century print, on loan from the University of Reading, and not very different from the one Gutenberg first used in Mainz in 1450. There is also a map of Europe that depicts the cities where the incunabula were printed: from Westminster in Britain, to the major sites like Cologne, Nuremberg or Venice, which produced more than a million incunabula.

The books are grouped according to different themes. These include the transition from hand-made manuscripts to massive printed editions or the difficulties that the pioneers of printing had to overcome. We see, for instance, how errors in calculating the amount of text that would fit in a page lead to books with large blank sections on their pages, how difficult it was to find an appropriate typeface for the Greek letters in classic volumes or to represent music accurately and how typos had to be corrected by hand after printing.

A thought that quickly fades after spending some time in the room is that printed copies were not as well-crafted as manuscripts. As an example you can have a look at two books printed in Italy during the incunabula period which are displayed side by side: Justin’s Epitome of Tragus’ Histories and Lactantius’ Works, you will probably struggle to tell which is a manuscript and which is printed, as both have an equally professional appearance. Indeed, the first printed books tried to resemble manuscripts as much as possible, many of the owners asked artists to include decorated initials, produce and colour illustrations or add their coats of arms to the books after printing. During this process the volumes were usually given to more than one artist. This is clearly seen in Gratian’s Decretum where the initials are coloured but no one has added colour to the illustrations sketched on the page. As production grew these procedures became inefficient and lead to the development of techniques which made the decoration of volumes cheaper. The main solutions were woodcuts, produced by an artist who designed the illustration and a specialist who carved it in wood. These were used repeatedly as movable types in printing until the blocks became useless.

However, the purpose of all the printed books was not to be embellished and contemplated and loads of them were used for teaching or research. The exhibition shows a variety of examples: from chiromancy (the art of reading someone’s future from her hands), music, algebra and military art to crazy anatomy volumes as Hans von Kircheim’s Fasciculus Medicinae. Many volumes include signs of their heavy usage, these can be seen in the Summa Perfectionis Magisterii were an early owner who tried to turn base metals into gold handwrote page numbers and a matching index.  Abuse was also common: old manuscripts were used to bind printed volumes and some of their illustrations were cut and pasted onto the new printed books to make things cheaper.

The exhibition also tells the stories of how the volumes were acquired, these being almost as interesting as those of the books themselves. The largest number of books comes from William Hunter (Professor of Anatomy whose collections established the museum that bears his name). His library was bequeathed to the University in 1807 and included more than 500 incunabula.  Another lot comes from Professor of Chemistry John Ferguson who was interested in alchemy and magic. Among his 119 incunabula we find twenty editions of the Liber physiognomia devoted to divination from the reading of people´s appearances.

Looking to understand these books better I take a tour with Catherine O’Neill. She is a graduate student in placement at Special Collections and has helped setting the exhibition up. She shows me some of Ingenious Impression’s highlights, like the Rudimentum Novitiorum which includes a wonderful map of the Holy Land. The map was produced from two large woodcuts and coloured by hand, it is considered to be the first printed map that goes beyond mere diagrams. She also points out her favourites: three books printed by Erhard Ratdolt in Venice, including a textbook in astronomy and a treatise in rhetoric featuring a visual alphabet, the most striking and innovative is Johannes Regiomontanus’ Calendar which incorporates two moving paper wheels, or volvelles, showing the movement of the moon.

We now move to another of the jewels of the exhibition: the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili which narrates Poliphilo’s dreamed adventures and features a labyrinth of twisted and mysterious plots. The volume includes 172 woodcuts and features a double page design with roman typeface and the text on each page has the shape of a cup and several asterisks. All of this contributes to the deep artistic effect. We also have a look at the most expensive book in the exhibition: Jenson’s eye catching Breviary. It includes nine fully painted pages; this being the most decorated copy of the 46 known to survive from the 1478 edition.

O’Neill also mentions that the exhibition only features a small selection of the more than 1000 incunabula hold by the University, the biggest collection in Scotland and one of the most important in the UK. The exhibition showcases the Glasgow Incunabula Project has run for 6 years and, lead by honorary research fellow Jack Baldwin, aims to attract more research  to these books as well as bringing them to a wider audience. The flagship of the project is its website which is available from the library site and contains a catalogue of all the incunabula with a great number of scanned pages. The books can be sorted according to different classifications ranging from author, printer or date to prices, woodcuts, illustrations, bindings and other categories.

One of the major strengths of the exhibition is showing how the incunabula are not just a collection of remarkable books with a long and exciting history. Indeed, the study of their topics, owners, innovative printing techniques and of the relationships with their manuscript counterparts greatly illuminates the history of the 15th century.

If you want to know more about incunabula bear in mind that the Hunterian runs lunchtime talks about the exhibition on Thursdays and volunteer students, the MUSE, hold daily tours of the exhibition explaining further details of the books. This exhibition is of great interest for everyone and, being on the middle of campus, students have no excuse to miss it!


Share this story

Follow us online