Thursday, February 7, 2019

More on vellum and fragments in bindings.

I have long been fascinated by the recycling of manuscripts and the use of vellum (especially recycled bits) in book-bindings. In the case of vellum pieces re-used after having been written on previously, such recycling attests to a moment in time where the value of the written text has become meaningless, and the physical strength of the vellum has become the primary value of the scrap, adding its strength to the newly bound book.
An Italian painted vellum
binding for the tourist trade, ca. 1910.
Note the title here seems to read
"The Lakes of Morthern Italy."
Of course, such a perspective oversimplifies matters. There is every chance that--at least at some times and places--the aesthetic qualities of the recycled manuscript have been valued. Many old charters (originally one sided documents) were recycled as vellum wrappers with the unwritten side facing outwards: in such cases we are probably right to think that the clear side was valued aesthetically over the written side.

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.
I have a couple books with this sort of binding, and I also recently came across a removable book cover probably produced about the same time. This one has a little poem (in Italian) on the front, and it could have been slipped onto the boards of any book of the proper size that the owner wanted to use it on. Presumably, the original owner was named Marion: tourists in Italy, one guesses, might have picked such things up as we might purchase key-chains or shot glasses with our names on them in tourist-trap shops today.

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:

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