July 31, 2015

"To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me..."

"... I particularly adored Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium (1551), richly illustrated (it had Albrecht Dürer’s famous drawing of a rhinoceros), and there, too, that I fell in love with all the works of Sir Thomas Browne— his Religio Medici, his Hydriotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (The Quincunciall Lozenge). It was in the stacks that I saw all of Darwin’s works in their original editions. How absurd some of these were, but how magnificent the language! And if Browne’s classical magniloquence became too much at times, one could switch to the lapidary cut and thrust of Swift, all of whose works, of course, were there in their original editions."

Writes Oliver Sacks, in his memoir "On the Move: A Life," which I'm reading in Kindle form, and,  reading on my iPad, I can Google my way into things that jump out, like that rhinoceros. There's a whole Wikipedia article, "Dürer's Rhinoceros":
The image was based on a written description and brief sketch by an unknown artist of an Indian rhinoceros that had arrived in Lisbon earlier that year. Dürer never saw the actual rhinoceros, which was the first living example seen in Europe since Roman times... Dürer's... depicts an animal with hard plates that cover its body like sheets of armour, with a gorget at the throat, a solid-looking breastplate, and rivets along the seams. He places a small twisted horn on its back, and gives it scaly legs and saw-like rear quarters... Despite its anatomical inaccuracies, Dürer's woodcut became very popular in Europe and was copied many times in the following three centuries. It was regarded by Westerners as a true representation of a rhinoceros into the late 18th century.


I'm also fascinated by that word "incunabula," which the OED defines as "1. The earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything" and "2. Books produced in the infancy of the art of printing; spec. those printed before 1500." The literal original meaning is: swaddling-clothes.

13 comments:

rehajm said...

This is part of the student experience at Williams College.

Michael K said...

My daughter worked at the Huntington Library for a few years when she was in college and she told me that one day she was in the stacks of the research collection and there on the shelf was a copy of "De Revolutionibus."

There are about 400 copies in existence and the last copy in private hands sold about 15 years ago for million dollars. An excellent book about that book is The book that nobody read. by astronomer Owen Gingrich. It is a fascinating read.

sydney said...

What library was Sacks describing?

The Godfather said...

The Pope's Rhinoceros is available from Amazon through the Althouse link http://www.amazon.com/The-Popes-Rhinoceros-Lawrence-Norfolk/dp/0802139884 and is well worth the modest price. Really. Read it and tell me I'm wrong. This offer doesn't apply to garage or lazlo.

Original Mike said...

" The book that nobody read. by astronomer Owen Gingrich. It is a fascinating read."

Thanks for the recommendation.

Ann Althouse said...

He's describing the library at Queen's College at Oxford.

Quaestor said...

What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The armed rhinoceros, or th' Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble. Or be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword.
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow!
Unreal mockery, hence!
Macbeth Act 3, Scene 4

Surely the historical Macbeth never saw a rhino, or had an inkling what one looked like, but Shakespeare describes its as "armed," which in his day meant "equipped for war," the defenses as well as the weapons. So did the Bard see that engraving?

Gahrie said...

There is good news and bad news for book lovers. The bad news is that books are an endangered species among the broader public. Digital is inevitable. However the good news is that when books return to being a luxury, they will be printed at a much higher quality. Today's books are printed in very poor quality, and most will not last even 100 years. In the future, they will use paper, inks and bindings designed to last for centuries instead of decades.

walter said...

"I'm also fascinated by that word "incunabula," which the OED defines as "1. The earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything"

Others void of Altparse would define it as redundant here.
But sho' feels smarty pants...(channeling a little Southern tour Hillary affect)

Bill said...

After the description, you elided "None of these features are present in a real rhinoceros.[4][5]"
I love the way there are two citations for that.

Janette Kok said...

I first came across the word "incunabula" in Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series. Lord Peter collects incunabula.

Sammy Finkelman said...

E-Mail messages, the contents of usenet newsgroups, and BBS posts from before 1990 are incunabula.

Zach said...

The Meissen pottery factory has a porcelain rhinoceros that looks exactly like that.

Sure enough
http://www.dw.com/en/london-exhibition-aims-to-alter-germanys-image/a-17997670
it was modeled after the Duerer drawing.