Collections of Distinction

Anton Koberger at the BPL

by jmoschella

Die so nöthig als nützliche Buchdruckerkunst und Schriftgiessereij, mit ihren Schriften

An engraved portrait of Anton Koberger published in 1745.

Anton Koberger (ca. 1440-1513) was a printer, bookseller, and publisher from Nuremberg. A major figure in the history of book production, he played a central role in the dissemination of modern literary culture during the earliest decades of printing.

Like Gutenberg, Koberger had been a goldsmith before turning his attentions to the printing press. But whereas Gutenberg was an innovator of process in the world of printing, Koberger’s major contributions to the art came via his development of a highly sophisticated, vertically-integrated business model for book production and distribution.

Today, Koberger is most widely known as the printer of both the Nuremberg Chronicle and the so-called Ninth German Bible. But he also either printed or published over 230 other books, including numerous histories, theological treatises, hagiographies, and works by the likes of Boethius, Bede, and many of the church fathers. At its height, Koberger’s firm was a massive operation — the largest of its kind in the world. He owned paper mills to supply as many as 24 presses at his Nuremberg workshop, where he employed over 100 workmen, and his business relationships in the major commercial centers of Europe allowed him to exploit foreign markets hungry for new books.

A view of Anton Koberger's Nuremberg Workshop from a 17th century engraving. The site was destroyed during the second world war.

A view of Anton Koberger’s Nuremberg Workshop from a 17th century engraving. The two buildings on the left, beyond the one with the sun dial, were part of Koberger’s print works.

Koberger, like many early printers, acted in several different capacities with respect to the production of books. Sometimes he worked solely as a printer under contract from other parties. The Nuremberg Chronicle is an example of a book produced through such an arrangement. At other times, Koberger assumed a role akin to that of a modern publisher, providing the financial backing for a book while farming out production work to other printers. He also sometimes acted as a retailer and/or wholesaler, with no role in production. In many cases, however, Koberger took on a combination of the three roles, the size and versatility of his firm dictating the level of financial risk assumed. It was this versatility, in part, that allowed Koberger to adapt to changing commercial environments as needed and to thrive, over the long term, where other printers and publishers had failed.

Editions from Koberger’s presses are known today for their crisp printing and well-balanced, highly sophisticated design that often incorporated vivid illustration and technically innovative page layouts. The firm also offered certain editions with varying levels of decoration: for a price, buyers could obtain copies that had been embellished by hand, with painted woodcuts, gilt initials, and rubricated text. Circumstantial evidence based on the examination of extant copies also suggests that the firm may have issued certain books in elaborate bindings — an uncommon practice during the incunable period.

The BPL holds 14 different books either printed or published by Koberger: De vita & moribus philosophorum, 1473  ∗  Summa Theologia (Antoninus), 1477  ∗  Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, 1480  ∗  Vitae Pontificum, 1481  ∗  Biblia Germanica (Ninth German Bible), 1483 (highly embellished version and less embellished version)  ∗  Fortalitium Fidei, 1485  ∗  Legenda Aurea, 1488  ∗  Schatzbehalter, 1491  ∗  The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 (Latin and German editions)  ∗  Epistoli Marsilii Ficini Florentini, 1497  ∗  Revelationes sancte Birgitte, 1500  ∗  Hortulus Anime, 1513.

 

 Below are images from several of these books. Click on the thumbnails for details.

Biblia Germanica (Ninth German Bible), 1483

According to W.A. Copinger, Koberger printed a total of sixteen distinct editions of the Bible, fifteen of which were in Latin. This edition is the only one that Koberger issued in German and it is the ninth German edition of the Bible to appear in print. Koberger issued it in three states: highly embellished, with finely-painted woodcuts and illuminations on some pages; hand-painted, with no illumination; and plain black-and-white, as printed. The BPL has two copies, one of which belongs to the first group, and one to the second.

 

Revelationes sancte Birgitte, 1500

Koberger printed the Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden in 1500. The woodcut illustrations — or at least the designs for the woodcuts — are widely thought to have been executed by Albrecht Dürer himself.

 

Nuremberg chronicle (German edition), 1493

An extraordinarily laborious undertaking, the Nuremberg Chronicle contains over 1800 illustrations. Note the complex page layouts and the interplay between woodcuts and type. Perhaps the most lavishly illustrated book of the 15th century, the Nuremberg Chronicle is also important for the glimpse it provides into the world of early book production. The original contracts between Koberger, the publishers, the illustrators, and the author still exist, as do the manuscript exemplars used to plan out the printed book.

 

Fortalitium fidei, 1485

Koberger printed this work of Christian apologetics by Alphonso de Espina in 1485. The BPL’s copy is in an exceptional early binding of blind-tooled calfskin with brass clasps, original paper labels, and evidence of a now-missing book chain. The spine is lined with a leaf from a medieval manuscript gradual. Cannibalizing vellum manuscripts to use in bindings was a common practice throughout the early years of book production.

 

Schatzbehalter, 1491

A book of meditations on the life of Christ, the Schatzbehalter is lavishly illustrated with woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut and his assistant, Wilhelm Pleydenwurf. Like the BPL’s copy of Alphonso’s Fortalitium, this copy of the Schatzbehalter is in an exquisite, likely original binding. The tooling matches that of workshop w002518 in the Einbanddatenbank and the design motifs, along with the use of a leaf of printer’s waste from the text of the book, suggests that the binding was executed in Koberger’s shop.

 

The BPL’s collection of books printed by Anton Koberger have recently been recataloged and many of the volumes are presently being conserved. Both the cataloging and conservation of these treasures have been made possible by the generous support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library. To see any of these books in person, please contact the Rare Books Department by phone or email, or visit the rare books reading room on the third floor of the Johnson Building.

*The portrait of Koberger in this blog is taken from Hager, Johann Georg. Die so nöthig als nützliche Buchdruckerkunst und Schriftgiessereij. Lepizig: Christian Friedrich Gessner, 1740-1745. Vol. 4, p. 192.
**The image of Koberger’s print works is taken from a 1682 engraving by Johann Ulrich Kraus.
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