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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Exploring a Renaissance Rarity in the Dibner Library

In the auspicious year of 1543, a book in German, Evangelien vnd Epistlen des Neϋwen Testaments (The Gospels and Letters of the New Testament; qBS239 1543 SCDIRB) was printed in the ancient Alsatian town of Colmar. Compiled by one Ambrosius Kempff, the work contains almost all of the New Testament and some of the Old Testament arranged in the order of the days of the Church calendar. As in a typical Roman Catholic lectionary, each selection was to be read on a certain day of the year. While the Dibner Library is primarily known for its history of science collections, it also contains several Bibles and other religious works, and we were pleased to be given this example on several accounts.

It is indeed a rare volume, with no other recorded copies in the United States and only a handful in European collections. Evangelien vnd Epistlen des Neϋwen Testaments appears in none of the standard reference works. It does get a mention in John M. Frymire’s The Primacy of the Postils (2010) which states it is written “Catholic” in the tradition of Erasmian humanism.

The Bewitched Groom

Interspersed among the 269 leaves of Fraktur letterpress are over a hundred woodcut illustrations by various artists, some of intriguing quality. This work could prove to be a rich source of analysis by an art historian as some of the woodcuts are by that most gifted and strange student of Albrecht Dürer’s, Hans Baldung, called Grien (d. 1545). Known as a painter—one familiar work is Three Ages of Woman and Death (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1510)—he was also a printmaker with a preoccupation with mortality and sorcery. One of Grien’s best known prints is the erotically charged The Bewitched Groom (1544).

The 1540s were a dynamic period for publishing: not only were significant works related to the Protestant Reformation printed but also announcements of new strides in the field of science. The year 1543 in particular is a major milestone in history of science literature, marked with exceptionally significant publications. In the field of astronomy, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) produced De revolutionibusorbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in Nuremberg, providing arguments, based entirely on mathematical calculations, for the heliocentric universe. In mathematics, the first modern European language edition of Euclid's Elements appeared in Venice, translated into Italian by Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia (d. 1557). And in medicine, Andreas Vesalius's Dehumani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) was edited and printed in Basel by Johannes Oporinus (1507-1568). The profusely illustrated volume transformed the science of human anatomy by promoting direct observation in addition to (or many times countering) classical medical knowledge. These books of 1543 foreshadowed a new scientific era, the Scientific Revolution in the same year when Evangelien vnd Epistlen manifested the rich new religious literature.

This donation contained a pleasant surprise: it has a 19th-century armorial bookplate although without an accompanying name. However, thanks to online resources, notably the Ex Libris Chronicle of the American Society of Bookplate Collectors (formed in Washington, D.C. in 1922), the previous owner could be quickly identified by the motto and coat-of-arms. Evangelien vnd Epistlen des Neϋwen Testaments once belonged to a great bibliophile, Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843). He was the sixth son (of fifteen children) of King George III. His vast library of some 50,000 volumes was housed in Kensington Palace, where some members of the Royal family still live. The Duke’s librarian happened to also be his surgeon, Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, who produced catalogues of the collection as well as books on other topics. Pettigrew’s Medical Portrait Gallery (London, [1838?-1840]; R134 .P52 1838 SCDIRB) is on the Dibner shelves. Alas, the Duke had amassed huge debts (in no small part because of his collecting habits) so soon after his death the books and manuscripts were sold at auction and the library’s contents scattered. This volume is the only one in the Smithsonian Libraries identified with this provenance.

The manuscript inscription and armorial bookplate
But there was more interesting history to uncover in this one book. A handwritten inscription above the Duke’s bookplate seemed matter-of-fact at first glance: Jacob A. Westervelt to his daughter Eliza M. Westervelt / 1864. The names did not appear in either the Smithsonian Libraries online catalog nor in the Library of Congress or the Virtual International Authority File. However, one very good Wikipedia entry pinpointed the identities of these two:  Jacob Westervelt (1800-1879) was a famous shipbuilder whose long career included constructing 247 vessels, and who also served as mayor of New York City, from 1853 to 1855. One of his accomplishments was placing the police force, against great resistance, in uniforms for the first time. An 1885 portrait of Westervelt by Edward Ludlow Mooney is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Eliza Mariette (1841-1891) was the youngest of his eight children. 

The donor of the Evangelien vnd Epistlen is Mr. Theron Patrick, Commander United States Coast Guard (Retired) who recently visited the Dibner Library and the Book Conservation Laboratory of the Smithsonian Libraries. We very much appreciate his interest in our collections and we thank him for donating such a fascinating volume.

with the help of Diane Shaw, Special Collections Librarians, Smithsonian Libraries

The illustration of The Bewitched Groom is from Wikimedia Commons, all others are from the Lectionary, Evangelien vnd Epistlen.

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