|An Italian painted vellum|
binding for the tourist trade, ca. 1910.
Note the title here seems to read
"The Lakes of Morthern Italy."
But when, around the end of the nineteenth century, painted Italian vellum bindings like the one shown to the left became popular, it was probably the case that they were themselves an extension or echo of the older practice of using recycled leaves. But the new style was beautified and regularized, replacing the random serendipity of a true medieval fragment with a carefully painted decoration in the medieval mode.
|Vellum book cover, with painted embellishments, ca. 1900.|
If these new-style painted vellum covers intentionally echoed an older binding style, however, we might ask how late into the nineteenth century manuscripts were recycled in bindings. A couple years ago, I gave a conference paper suggesting that, in the early nineteenth century, many schoolbooks and textbooks were bound in older (seventeenth- and eighteenth-century) vellum documents, and I have a handful of French-language New Testaments from the 1830s bound in similar documents. I wondered in the paper if the use on schoolbooks meant that such vellum bindings were among the cheapest binding options available, and that clear unwritten vellum or leather would have been more expensive.
|Dickens, Le Mystère D'Edwin Drood,|
(Paris: Hachette, 1887).
One of the latest examples of a vellum manuscript biding I've come across, however, is the one shown to the right, on a copy of the French translation of Dickens's Edwin Drood, printed in 1887. There's no reason to suspect that this is a publisher's binding, I think: possibly this edition was issued in paper wraps and this was simply an independent binder's cheap version of a hardcover replacement binding.
This vellum piece is, as one might guess, a vellum document recording a financial transaction of some sort, and it appears to be clearly dated in 1779. I can't help wondering if a hundred years was generally understood as the lifespan of such a document, and that once a pile of such sheets had reached that age, they were shipped off to binders.
Regardless, it is striking to me to see that only 20 or 25 years (or less) separate the Drood example and the Lakes of Northern Italy example. The one is a contemporary expression of a bookbinding practice that was utterly traditional, and the other is a conscious appropriation of the feel and look of a luxurious medieval manuscript designed to appeal to tourists. It is difficult not to suspect, too, that recycled vellum pieces--especially medieval examples--were no longer as readily available around 1900 as they had been in previous centuries: these Italian examples made good on the scarcity of handsome manuscript examples by constructing themselves as appealing substitutes or simulacra.
Here's some more pictures of these three items: