Books of Beauty

Two books hold down the end of my desk. One is a beautiful book, the other is a breathtaking volume about beautiful books. One is based on a copy of the Vulgate illuminated for Duke Federigo di Montefeltro (1422-1482) of Urbino in 1478, with the Latin text replaced by the King James version. The other describes some of the surviving works from King Matthias Corvinus’s library, now in the National Széchény Library in Budapest. They are pure luxuries. One followed me home from the Hungarian National Museum, the other jumped into my hands at the regional Barnes and Noble. You see, I am a sucker for beautiful books.

It started with my parents’ facsimile of the Tres Riches Heures of the Dukes of Berry. Sib and I could look at it, but only under adult supervision, sitting on the couch, and after we’d washed our hands (also under adult supervision).

Mom and Dad also had a copy of the Book of Kells and I spent a goodly amount of time looking at the “carpet” pages, trying to trace the lines and patterns. Over time my parents traveled to many of the great museums in Europe, and catalogues, artist’s books, and other tomes joined the family collection. I came to enjoy looking at books as art, as well as art books.

In the Renaissance, beautiful books carried meanings beyond their contents. To have a personal library showed that 1) you had excellent taste, 2) you had wealth, and 3) you were an educated man, knowledgable in the ways of the world (both ancient and modern). Hunyadi Mátyás, better known as Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490), established a royal library in the palace in Buda to show his connections to the broader world of humane letters and of power. His books, bound in red or purple velvet or tooled leather accented with gold, included sacred and secular texts. At its peak the library may have included 500 and more works, some created in Hungary but many commissioned (or just purchased) in northern Italy, from Florence. Probably from the same workshop that did the Duke of Urbino’s Bible, as a glance at the marginal decorations suggests. The archivists at the National Széchény library have tracked down fifty of the volumes, which they call “corvinas,” to libraries as far away as Spain. I suspect a few more survivors hide in Sweden, and a few in private collections. Later owners scratched out the identifying marks and added their own, and had the books rebound. Other volumes succumbed to age, water, insects, fire, and all the fates books in fought-over lands suffer.

An illuminated book is a thing of beauty, especially one that has, somehow, survived through the centuries. The colors sing, and you can spend hours looking at the detail in the paintings and tracery. Books of Hours, illuminated Gospels, histories, they all give clues about what life was like for the few who could commission (or buy) the volumes, and about what the people of the time thought heaven, hell, and the past were like. Scholars have used the Very Rich Hours of the Dukes of Berry to identify castles now lost or modified beyond recognition, to reconstruct agricultural practices of medieval France, as a guide to military technology of the time, and as patterns for examples of period clothing.

I just like looking at them, turning the heavy pages, enjoying the singing colors. Some of King Matthias books have blue ink made from ground lapis, green of powdered malachite, and other semi-precious stones for colors. The gilding remains beautiful, although the silver has not aged as well. Modern technology has made reproducing such books far more inexpensive than it used to be. When my parents bought their copy of the Tres Riches Hours, it cost $90. That was in 1971, when Dad made $350/month, including an overseas duty bonus. The book about the corvinas cost around $40, which includes a twenty percent tax (at least). The illuminated Bible was $12.50 (clearance). The contents are fascinating, both the Latin texts and the illuminations.

It is very easy to take information for granted these days. I’m glad we have access to so many things, so many books, printed and electronic. I have resources at my fingertips that earlier generations of historians would probably kill for (in some cases literally). If I want a copy of J. Agricola’s “De Res Metallica” (which I needed for the next Colplatschki book), I go to Project Gutenberg, find the Latin and English versions, for free, and suck them into my computer as PDFs. Books are common, cheap, and specialized. For which I am very, very grateful. But they are rarely beautiful.

No, I do not want to go back to the days of all books being rare, and access to them being limited to the rich or religious. But there’s a wonder in the old tomes that my research library lacks. And so I sit, paging through pictures from five hundred years ago. After I’ve washed my hands.

(For those who are keeping score, yes, the books will appear in Blackbird.)