Collections of Distinction

Making the private lives of our rare books public

by jmoschella

(Above): a current-day view of the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, in Florence, where our copy of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium lived during the 16th century (photo from wikimedia commons)

The record of ownership of a book, commonly referred to as its “provenance,” is one of the most exciting and important areas of research for rare books librarians. Though time consuming, this kind of work is a great chance to comb through centuries of bibliography, reconstructing the historic record and establishing important connections between different people and their exposure to different ideas. Over the past several months, we have been able to uncover many of these important connections within our own collections. Below are just a few examples.

The title page to our 1st ed. Copernicus showing multiple instances of provenance evidence

Our Copernicus’ title page

The BPL holds a copy of the first edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres)This is the book in which Copernicus laid out his heliocentric vision of the universe, and it remains one of the foundational texts in the history of modern science. Pictured on the right, our copy is in wonderful condition, with several distinguishing pieces of provenance evidence, including early marginalia, an ex-libris inscription, and a previously unidentified ink stamp.

In the process of cataloging this book, the Rare Books Department was able to identify the ink stamp as an ownership mark of the library of the Servite Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation in Florence, Italy (here you can see a view of the Basilica’s loggia displaying medallions with the same three lilies on a single stem). We also established that the crossed-out inscription is that of Michele Poccianti (1535-1576), a Florentine humanist, author, and Servite Friar.

Thus, by associating this book with just two previous owners in the very earliest years of its life, we can see examples of tangible connections between Copernicus’ work and the Catholic Church itself – a relationship that has been a topic of significant and enduring historical interest.


Mildmay Fane's inscribed motto (upper right and bottom), and portrait (upper left)

Mildmay Fanes’s inscribed motto in the BPL’s Grafton Book


In late October, we cataloged two of our copies of the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer. Also known as The Prayer Book of Edward VI, this early version of The Book of Common Prayer was first issued in several editions throughout the year 1549. We own the first of these editions, printed in March of 1549 by Edward Whitchurch, along with one of the other early issues, printed by Richard Grafton in June of the same year. Both copies contain well-preserved, early marginalia. However, a neatly written Latin motto at the head of the Grafton title page — “Solus Deus Protector meus. W:” — is particularly noteworthy, as it provides compelling evidence for the name of a previous owner. The phrase, loosely translated as “Only God is my protector, [signed,] W.” is the motto of Mildmay Fane (1602-1666), 2nd Earl of Westmoreland.

In addition to being a member of parliament, Mildmay Fane was a noted poet, a playwright, and both a friend of Charles I and a supporter of the Royalist cause during the English civil war. In this case, the motto is inscribed in what is likely the Earl’s own hand.


Also of interest to scholars are books with provenance evidence relating to publication. A wonderful example of just such a book – one of a great many in our collections – was cataloged in late November. Expositio regulae fratrum minorum ex varia multiplicique autorum lectione diligenter collecta – a compilation of the rules of the Franciscan order – was written by Antonio de Cordoba and published in Belgium in 1550. A very rare title on its own, our copy is also heavily annotated with marginal notes and edits. These edits range from the mundane (spelling, formatting), to the significant (whole sections struck out, sometimes replaced entirely), to the beautiful (multi-color, calligraphic tables of contents are bound-in at front).

Though the editor of this text remains anonymous, the volume and nature of the annotations suggest that they were written by an early scholar who wished to reissue the book, an early printer or bookseller who wished to do the same, or even the author himself, who might have been reviewing this early copy from the printer’s shop.

The binding, which is original, is itself a significant historical artifact. Made of limp vellum, this type of binding was usually intended as a cheap, temporary covering. This particular binding incorporates a recycled leaf of a medieval manuscript, which was used as a backing to strengthen the spine. The manuscript fragment – in a beautiful Gothic hand with red and blue initials – remains quite legible and is identifiable as a ca. 14th-century Italian copy of Pope Innocent III’s “Registrorum.”

(Above): a sample opening of the extensively edited and annotated text of the Expositio

(Above): a sample opening of the extensively edited and annotated text of the Expositio


(Above left): the original binding for the Expositio. (Right): part of he medieval manuscript fragment with which the spine is backed.

(Left): the BPL’s Expositio in its 16th-century binding. (Right): part of the medieval manuscript fragment with which the text block is backed.

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