Colour Our Collections with Atalanta Fugiens

It’s Colour Our Collections week again (6-12 February), a week where Archives and Libraries make careful facsimiles of illustrations in their collections, medical, natural, whimsical, etc., and encourage people to get artistic with them! The facsimiles that is – colouring-in paraphernalia away from the originals, thanks!

Saying that, it seemed somehow appropriate to open up a copy of Atalanta Fugiens (shelf-mark: Ar-f.16) in our Ferguson collection earlier to discover it’s been given the colouring in treatment from a previous owner.

Illustrated Title page

Illustrated title page for Atalanta Fugiens which has been strikingly hand coloured.

Our copy of Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier is a 1618 printed reissue of the first 1617 edition, with corrections. It contains 50 Latin epigrams with German translation, the author’s native language, with accompanying illustration and, somewhat expansively for an emblem book, musical compositions in the form of fugues (meaning the flight of the voices from each other tying in with what the author saw as the alchemical overtones of the story of Atalanta, “Atalanta Fleeing”).

In his title page the author, Michael Maier, notes that the volume is “to be looked at, meditated, understood, weighed, sung, and listened to, not without a certain pleasure”. The text itself is very interesting, being such a mixed media affair with musical compositions, illustrations (attributed to the celebrated engraver Matthias Merian) and epigrams sitting side by side but this was also a text fascinated by alchemical subjects and processes. The author, Maier, was physician to Emperor Rudolph II and was elevated to the title Count Palatine. However, he was a man of different talents and while learned in medicine and philosophy, he produced several works in which he produced musical compositions, pieces of poetry and so on, which discussed and celebrated chemical and classical subjects side by side.

The sheer amount and variety of creativity springing from the pages of Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens at least seems to have inspired an early owner to adorn their copy with colour. Sometimes illustrated books were offered either in an uncoloured state or a coloured state with the coloured version being more costly. Comparisons with other copies available in our collection and online suggest that this title was not intended to be routinely coloured when sold. While hand colouring of printed illustrations within texts was quite common in the seventeenth century such treatment tended to be used on lavish items such as scientific works on natural history subjects. The usual method was to colour with watercolour paint, either freehand with a brush or sometimes using stencils. However the variance in quality of the colouring and the unfinished nature of our copy suggests this is the work of someone at home, entertaining themselves.

image showing emblem book

Emblem epigram in Latin and with German translation, illustration, and fugue presented side by side.

Various recipe books offered information and tips on preparing inks and paints and provided lessons in illuminating and ‘limming’, meaning to wash with paint. One beautiful, scrapbook-like, example of this is in our Stirling Maxwell collection, ‘A very proper treatise, wherein is briefly sett for the arte of limming…’ by Richard Tottill, published in 1573 (shelf-mark S.M. 1161). This beautiful volume sets out instructions for drawing, illuminating and painting and includes bound in examples of trials of these lessons.

Similar items were produced throughout the decades and the existence of these shows that there was an interest in adorning or colouring their books among collectors of the time, perhaps an amateur artist lurking in the hearts of some. It’s also true that a beautifully coloured volume would increase its desirability and value. However, our artist seems to have had a very creative approach to colour choice, or perhaps a limited choice of colours to choose from. For example, the sky is often coloured in rusty brown tones and where water appears this has been left blank where detail has been lavished on colouring in boots or clothing in blues, greens or oranges.

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Unfortunately our artist seems to have lost interest in colouring the illustrations by the time we reach epigram 11, with two plates after this showing only small details coloured in, such as a skirt or a pile of coins, and then no colour applied at all, except for epigram 40 which has been favoured with full colour. Yet, the unfinished nature is part of this item’s charm, as is the quality of the painting. It is interesting to reflect on who coloured this and what their motivation was. The fact that it remains unfinished and the unusual colour scheme in many of the plates does suggest that this wasn’t the work of a professional. Was this early owner colouring in the book to increase the value? Did they fancy themselves an artist, or was it merely to cure boredom?

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Colouring in for fun, or to practice mindfulness, is a popular activity at the moment. While any colouring in of our original items is absolutely not permitted we are charmed by the fun this early owner seems to have enjoyed with this book and in the same spirit we’ve created digital scans of some of the uncoloured illustrations for Colour Our Collections week.

Download your copy to colour them digitally or to print them off and colour the old fashioned way!

Colour Our Collections 2017 – Atalanta Fugiens


Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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