Glasgow Incunabula Project update (3/6/14)

On the 18th of September 1469, the Collegio of Venice granted a five year exclusive privilege to ‘ingenious master’ Johannes de Spira to print books. Johannes was a goldsmith from Mainz, no doubt attracted to try his hand at the new business of printing in Venice on account of its well established mercantile networks and the protection it offered immigrants. A large and beautifully produced edition of Pliny’s Natural History was Johannes’ third book.



The verse colophon that records Johannes’ work has been rather delightfully translated by Alfred W. Pollard*, as follows:

I, erst so rare few bookmen could afford me,
And erst so blurred that buyers’ eyes would fail –
To Venice now ‘t was John of Speier restored me,
And made recording brass unfold my tale.
Let rest the tired hand, let rest the reed:
Mere toil to zealous wits the prize must cede.

Rubrication and epigraphic initial

Rubrication and epigraphic initial

In this copy not all the work can be credited to “recording brass”, however. The hand (tired or otherwise) of a professional scribe has supplied a colourful 17-line epigraphic initial “L” at the beginning of the prefatory letter. Typical of Italian Renaissance book decoration, it is set upon a background of white vine-stem decoration. Red headings have also been given in manuscript by a rubricator.

Johannes died suddenly while printing his next work (an edition of Augustine, completed by his brother, Vindelinus). His Venetian monopoly to print died with him, and the way was left open for a host of other entrepreneurial printers to set up shop(s). Venice thus became the printing capital of the 15th century, going on to produce about an eighth of all books printed during the incunabula period.

Diced russia binding

Diced russia binding

As well as being an exceptionally well executed and handsome volume, our copy of the Pliny presents us with another Hunterian Library puzzle.

We know that this volume at one time belonged to Richard Mead (1673-1754) because it still bears his shelfmark “D,5,,21.” in ink on the flyleaf; as recorded in our annotated Mead sale catalogue of 1754, it was then sold as lot 165 for £11.11.0 to the King of France. According to the surviving correspondence between William Hunter and his book agent  Jean-Baptiste Dessain, Hunter purchased a copy of this Spira 1469 edition of Pliny for 749 livres 19 sous at the sale of the library of Louis Jean Gaignat (1697-1768). Gaignat, of course, was Secretary to King Louis XV of France.  However, the binding of that copy is described by De Bure’s in the Gaignat sale catalogue as “m. c.” (i.e. maroquin citron), whereas this present copy is diced russia (described in Mead sale catalogue as “C. R.” i.e. corio russico). Is this a mistake  by De Bure in the sale catalogue description, or did Hunter actually acquire  a second copy of this work at the Gaignat sale? In which case, the former Gaignat copy would appear to be a duplicate which is no longer in the Hunterian Library (perhaps another mystery that Hunter’s fabled duplicate sale catalogue – if it exists – could clear up) ; and if this is not the Gaignat copy, where did Hunter acquire it?

Scribal initial and illumination

A professional scribe completes the page

*Alfred W. Pollard: An essay on colophons with specimens and translations Chicago: The Caxton club, 1905

The latest ten records added to the project website for your perusal are:


Categories: Special Collections

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