The prolific printer Anton Koberger has already featured in a number of blogs. Our copy of his magnificent 1483 German Bible was the arresting opener to our exhibition Ingenious Impressions, and I wrote about this book back in May.
As explained then, this Bible – formerly known as Sp Coll BD19-b.2 – was previously assigned to the collection of William Euing. However, research on its provenance showed that it was actually acquired by the University in 1914 (forty years after Euing’s bequest). To prevent any future confusion, this book has been reclassified as Sp Coll Euing Add. f52 and is now fully indexed as such in this current batch of records.
This batch also includes our two copies of one of the most successful books of the incunabula period: the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed by Koberger in 1493. This famous history of the world and its people was first produced in Latin, with a German version quickly following. Both our copies are in Latin (the Liber Chronicarum).
The work was planned and financed by two Nuremberg merchants, Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, who commissioned the best craftsmen of the day to produce the book. As well as employing Koberger to undertake the printing, they contracted the book’s extensive programme of illustrations to the city’s leading artist, Michael Wolgemut. He produced the woodcuts over a period of years with his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff; during this time, Albrecht Durer was apprenticed to Wolgemut’s workshop, so it is also traditional to suppose that he had a hand in some of the designs. Durer, incidentally, was Koberger’s godson.
Certainly, it is the ambitious scheme and exceptional number of woodcut illustrations in the work that make this one of the most prized of early illustrated printed books. The statistics are quite astonishing, comprising as it does of 1809 illustrations from 645 different blocks. Of course, this overall tally of illustrations does include a number of repetitions (1164 in all). Large double page topographical cuts of different cities are used only once, for instance, but 22 other large cuts of cities and countries represent 69 different subjects; meanwhile, for depictions of emperors, kings and popes, 96 blocks were used to cover 598 subjects (in other words, they were used on average half a dozen times each). Although this may call into question any attempt at accuracy throughout, this is still a phenomenal achievement.
Irrespective of repetitions, this production is of the highest quality. And although it is understandable to linger on the gobsmacking lavishness of its illustrations, we should not forget to applaud the achievement of the author, Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514). A learned Nuremberg physician and humanist who studied at the Universities of Leipzig and Padua, he compiled his chronicle from a large number of sources; he himself was also an avid book collector, and 370 manuscripts and 460 printed books from his collection survive in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich today. Schedel’s collection was the subject of an exhibition at the library earlier this year, and its accompanying catalogue (Worlds of learning) is a fascinating read if you want to find out more about Schedel and his involvement in the Nuremberg Chronicle.
Produced in a large print run of probably around 2000 copies, the book was quickly distributed around Europe. Of these, it is estimated that around 1700 survive to this day. It is perhaps a little glib to say that everyone has got one, but this is an astonishing survival – such has been the work’s renown and cultural value, it has evidently been subject to careful preservation from generation to generation. Many of these surviving copies are handsomely illuminated and hand coloured (none more so than Schedel’s very own copy, which is still held amongst his library of books in the BSM).
Our copies, in comparison, are both on the plain side. As usual, however, as soon as we delve deeper, we uncover interesting nuggets of information relating to their histories. The Hunterian copy (Bv.1.12), for instance, once belonged to the neo-Latin poet and politician Nicholas Hardinge (1699-1758), as shown by the engraved armorial bookplate on its front pastedown; like many 15th century books, it has been subject to post Reformation censorship in the routine defacement of the word ‘papa’ and illustrations of the popes. The Euing copy (and this book really did belong to Euing, unlike the Bible above …) also has an interesting provenance: we know that it belonged to a Danish owner in the 16th century from the evidence of a repeated ownership inscription (“Denne Bog hør meg Hans Jenssen”), while a century later another (presumably Danish) reader betrays an interest (or anxiety?) about a medieval outbreak of the plague – referred to in the text as the ‘pestis lugubris’ of 1348 – in a marginal annotation taken from Magnus Matthias, ‘Regum Daniae’ series (printed in Holger Rordam, ‘Monumenta Historiae Danicae: Historiske Kildeskrifter’ (Kjøbenhavn: 1887) 132).
The cataloguing of the Nuremberg Chronicle now brings the number of copies (including duplicates) of Koberger books in our collection to a total of 24. If you would like to explore these further, please use the printer’s index. Other illustrated books can be traced by interrogating the woodcuts index.
The latest ten books to be added to the project website are:
- Euclides: Elementa geometriae Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 25 May 1482 [second copy added]
- Biblia [German] Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 17 Feb. 1483
- Fichetus, Guillermus: Rhetorica [Paris: Ulrich Gering, Martin Crantz and Michael Friburger, July 1471]
- Rolewinck, Werner: Fasciculus temporum [Cologne]: Conrad Winters, de Homborch, 8 Nov. 1476
- Rolewinck, Werner: Fasciculus temporum Louvain: Johann Veldener, 29 Dec. 
- Biblia latina Rome: Conradus Sweynheym and Arnoldus Pannartz, [not before 15 Mar.] 1471
- Schedel, Hartmann: Liber chronicarum Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, for Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, 12 July 1493 [two copies]
- Gregorius IX, Pont. Max.: Decretales, cum glossa Mainz: Peter Schoeffer, 23 Nov. 1473
- Anonymous: Thesaurus Cornu copiae et Horti Adonidis [Greek and Latin] Venice: Aldus Manutius, Romanus, Aug. 1496
Categories: Special Collections