Collections of Distinction

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

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

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

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

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The Oldest Printed Bible in Boston

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

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Shakespeare Unauthorized: First Folio From London to Copley Square

Posted on October 9th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
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The BPL is home to one of the finest collections of Shakespearean rarities in the world. A selection of these books will be on display in the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition at the central library in Copley Square from October 14, 2016 through March 2017. 

In 1623, an unusual book began to appear in the shops of London. In the preface its editors — two aging actors — commended their text to a reading public that had never seen anything like it before. “Whatever you do,” they pleaded, “buy.”

Embedded within their plea was a justifiable note of concern. At over 900 pages and roughly the size of a modern encyclopedia, the book had been printed in an expansive (and expensive) format known as a “folio.” Books of such stature had typically been reserved for important scholarly or religious texts. But here was something altogether different: a collection of stage plays titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies Published According to the True Originall Copies. This, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, is now commonly known as the First Folio. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, it is widely considered to be one of the foundational books of English literature and culture and fetches enormous sums at auction. In 1623, however, it was an untested commodity that was by no means guaranteed to sell. 


The BPL’s copy of the First Folio (call no. G.174.1 FOLIO) was acquired by the library in 1873

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Boston’s Oldest Hamlets

Posted on October 7th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
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Beggarstaff “Hamlet” Paris: Lithograph, 1898 (BPL Rare Books Dept.)

The textual history of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is complex and interesting. Centuries of scholarly investigation into how the play came to be written and published have yielded as many questions as answers: what specific sources did Shakespeare draw on? If a single, original version of Hamlet ever existed, what did it look like? How, why, and by whom were the successive 17th-century editions altered and edited, and how (if at all) did readers and audiences perceive the discrepancies between different texts of the play?

The challenge of understanding the textual history of Hamlet begins, in part, with that fact that there are three distinct, early versions of the play, each of which is believed to originate from a different manuscript with a separate, though not entirely clear relationship to Shakespeare himself. These three versions were originally printed in 1603 (the first quarto), 1604/05 (the second quarto), and in the First Folio of 1623.

Subsequent 17th-century editions were primarily based on the texts of either the second quarto or the First Folio until the emergence of a new theatrical tradition created a significantly emended representation of the play, reflected in a series of so-called “players’ quartos” published between 1676 and 1718.1

Because multiple different, authoritative versions of the play’s text exist, editors and scholars who seek to present new editions of Hamlet to modern readers have to make difficult choices: when passages differ between versions (as they often do), which one is preferable, and why? Should the separate, early texts be conflated into a single edition, or should they remain separate?

To answer these kinds of questions, editors and scholars turn to those few surviving specimens of the earliest copies of Shakespeare’s plays. Handmade in every way (from ink and paper to typesetting, printing, and binding) each of these rare books is unique and each copy represents the textual equivalent of an archaeological dig site: the information that can be collected often sheds light on the processes through which the physical books and, in turn, their texts, were created.

The Boston Public Library holds copies of thirteen editions of Hamlet printed before 1709 — the year that Nicholas Rowe published the first modern, critical edition of the collected plays of William Shakespeare. A mixture of both folios and quartos, the BPL’s collection of Hamlets illustrates the vibrant and varied evolution of the play in the theaters and printing houses of 17th- and early 18th-century England, while facilitating an incredibly intimate glimpse into the world of Shakespeare’s texts as they appeared to his early readerships.

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