Collections of Distinction

Posts Tagged ‘incunabula’

Digitizing the BPL’s Earliest Printed Books

Posted on February 27th, 2017 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

Thanks in large part to the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, cataloging, conservation, and digitization of the BPL’s 550+ incunables continues to move forward. In recent months, copies of many rare, early, and critically important editions have been digitized and made freely available online.

Listed below are a few recent highlights:


Higden, Ranulf. Policronicon
Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1495
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

The Policronicon was compiled by the English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364). A historical chronicle divided into seven books, the Policronicon recounts the history of the world from Creation through Higden’s lifetime. One of many early chronicles in the BPL’s collections, the Policronicon, takes a special interest in Anglo-Saxon history. This edition is also noteworthy for the fact that it contains, on leaf 101, what is believed to be the earliest piece of music printed in England.


The small woodcut on fol. 101 of the 1495 Policronicon is the first piece of music printed in England (Q.404.21 FOLIO)



Only at the BPL: Fadrique de Basilea’s anonymous Passion

Posted on January 1st, 2017 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

The survival rates of early printed books can vary widely. Some, like the first Latin edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, survive in great numbers. Others have vanished altogether. The majority of early books, however, survive in one copy only.1 These lonely exemplars are critical, if endangered witnesses to the early history of printing and to the various nascent economies that sprang up around the production and dissemination of books in early modern Europe.

In 1940, the BPL purchased just such an artifact: the last surviving copy of a book printed anonymously and without a date in northern Spain during the final years of the 15th century.2 A curious book, the main body of the text is excerpted from Jean Gerson’s Monotessaron and contains a version of the Passion of Jesus Christdrawn together from the four gospels and illustrated with a series of highly stylized woodcuts.


The frontispiece of Biel’s 1493 edition of the Passion is a distinctly stylized woodcut showing the crucifixion flanked by the four symbols of the evangelists. The distinctive woodcut initial on the opposite page appears in other editions by Biel.


Up for auction: S.L.M. Barlow’s early Americana at the BPL

Posted on December 19th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

Image courtesy of: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.

On Monday, February 3rd, 1890, the personal library of Samuel Latham Mitchill Barlow came up for auction in New York City. One of the major American book sales of the late 19th century, the auction of Barlow’s collection was also a watershed moment in the history of the Boston Public Library.

During his lifetime, Barlow had been one of the most successful corporate attorneys in the United States. Already a wealthy man before the age of 30, he went on to amass a tremendous fortune brokering transactions and settling disputes between major interests ranging from railroad companies, to mining ventures, to newspapers, to national governments. Over time, Barlow used his fortune to build a substantial collection of art and books, assembling one of the finest privately held libraries of early and rare Americana in the country. Thus, the sale of Barlow’s books at auction the year after his death drew interest from institutions and individual collectors around the world.

As it happened, the BPL, with its rare books collection then in a growing, but still nascent state, was particularly interested in the Barlow sale. Though exceedingly strong in certain areas, the library’s collections were still somewhat deficient when it came to rare and early Americana. Partially as a point of pride, then, the Board of Trustees saw the sale of Barlow’s books as an opportunity to both build the BPL’s collections and to bolster the library’s reputation at a single stroke.


The Oldest Printed Bible in Boston

Posted on December 5th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

The first page of the BPL’s copy of Mentelin’s Latin Bible (Q.400a.5 FOLIO)

The Boston Public Library recently cataloged, conserved, and digitized one of the most important books in its collection: a Latin Bible printed in Strasbourg ca. 1460 by Johann Mentelin. 29 copies of this Bible are known to survive, only four of which are held in institutions outside of Europe.1

Beyond the fact of its scarcity, Mentelin’s Latin Bible occupies a distinct place in the history of early printing: it’s the first modern typographic book printed outside of Mainz, where Gutenberg had produced the 42-line Bible just a few years earlier. Mentelin’s Latin Bible is also the second bible printed with moveable type, and only the fourth or fifth substantial book produced via modern typographic printing overall.2

The advent and subsequent spread of the printing technologies developed by Gutenburg in the 1440s and 1450s ushered in a period of profound transformation in communication and cultural exchange. As the earliest surviving products of one of the very earliest presses in Europe, the few extant copies of Mentelin’s Latin Bible bear direct witness to the evolution of modern printing processes, including punchcutting, typesetting, imposition, and new formulations for inks, among other then-recent advances. The paper used to print the books, the manner in which individual copies were decorated, and the evidence of early readership preserved within each copy can also shed light on both the early publishing industry and the emerging market for printed books throughout Europe. To that end, the accrued layers of historical features preserved in the BPL copy are particularly illuminating.


Early bindings at the BPL

Posted on July 2nd, 2015 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

Distributed throughout the many distinct collections in  our  stacks are thousands of early bookbinding specimens. Pictured below are a few representative examples, pulled at the request of a visiting researcher.