Decorated incunabula

As we mentioned in our last post, the incunabula being digitized by the Bodleian have been divided into two categories: the more valuable, fragile, or decorated books being photographed using the Grazer conservation cradle, and the smaller, undecorated ones being photographed on the more efficient Atiz cradle. Today we will be focusing on some of our recently digitized Grazer items.


Incunabula are designated for the Atiz or the Grazer on a case-by-case basis, with input from curators, conservators, and imaging staff. A number of different factors are considered in each case, including age, condition, material, and value. The most visually obvious criterion, however, is decoration. All books with painted, gilt, or elaborately inked pages automatically go to the Grazer, with the result that our growing online collection of Grazer incunabula offers a gratifyingly high concentration of beautiful books. Most of them are Latin Bibles, as few other books were considered valuable enough to warrant such expensive decor




For those who would rather not page through a whole Bible, the thumbnail option in our online viewer (accessible from our list of digitized shelfmarks) offers an easy way to skip to the decorated pages, and our zoom function allows you to focus in on every penstroke and every flake of gold leaf. Where possible, we have also linked to each book's entry in the Bodleian's online incunable catalogue, which provides detailed descriptions of contents, collation, decoration, and provenance.



Auct. M 1.8 is the first volume of a Latin Bible printed in Strasbourg c.1468. The first recto is decorated in gold leaf and red, blue and green paint, and the principal initials later in the volume are decorated with intricately painted flowers. 



Perhaps most interesting, however, is the full-page initial I that begins Genesis, done in punch-dotted gold leaf with painted embellishments. Where most decorated initials occupy a place that has been left for them by the printer, this one fills the entire space between and above the columns of text, giving a striking impression of size and power. We have also digitized the second volume of this Bible, Auct. M 1.9. Here, the decoration is lighter (perhaps unfinished), with red and blue principal initials and delicate pen-flourishing in the margins.



Auct. M 2.5 is another Latin Bible, this one printed in Vicenza in 1476. The initials of the Prologue and Genesis are column-width, painted and gilt, but possibly more interesting are the initials of subsequent chapters. These are also column-width, but they are painted only in red and sparingly embellished. It is rare for undecorated initials to be given so much space, and the graceful shapes of these letters make them particularly beautiful.



Auct. Y 3.5 and Auct. Y 3.6 make up another Latin Bible, also from Strasbourg. A number of factors make these volumes particularly Auct. Y 3.5interesting. First, they feature elaborately decorated initials in a wide range of colours, so it's worth paging all the way through (or clicking through the thumbnails looking for decoration, if you're pressed for time). Second, pink leather markers have been attached to the leaves to indicate the beginning of each chapter. (This is not uncommon among 15th-century Bibles, but the markers aren't usually pink.) 




Third, the first volume is heavily annotated throughout in an unusually legible hand. And finally, both volumes are still in their contemporary binding. Many incunabula were rebound in the 18th or 19th century, but in this case the original clasps and tooled leather have been preserved, and it is possible for online viewers to get a sense of the heft and value of the original books.



Our last featured incunable is Auct. P inf. 1.3, which is the second volume of a Venetian printing of the works of Aristoteles. The volume features beautifully drawn red and blue capitals throughout, but its primary visual interest is the beautiful painted border on fol. A1. The Bodleian's incunable catalogue describes this page as follows: "On A1r elaborate border incorporating a ten-line initial is supplied in azure with foliate scrolling on a burnished gold ground with punch-dotting, within a segmented frame of red and green; floral border, predominantly in green, red, and blue including a huntsman, a dog, a hare, a stag, a donkey, and various birds; some gold dotting. In the centre of the border, a circular portion which presumably bore a coat of arms has been cut out and replaced by blank paper. A different artist has supplied a coat of arms in black, red, and grey at the head of the left column: gules, a hound rampant argent, with one spot sable; crest, the same between two horns."