Rare Early Books
Let’s give some historical perspective to an exhibit of early printed books at the University of South Carolina Libraries:
• The earliest book in the display was printed in Latin in 1471 — 19 years before Columbus sailed in search of the New World.
• Another book, the Nuremberg Chronicle, described as “by far the most elaborate and heavily illustrated book of the 15th century,” was on press in the spring of 1493 as the triumphant Columbus was sailing home.
The exhibition, Our First Century: Early Printed Books, 1471-1571, is free and open to the public in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had all of our 15th century books out at one time,” said Jeffrey Makala, the curator of the exhibit. Many of the books have been in the USC collection since before the Civil War.
That earliest volume on display was actually printed as two works of theology and then bound together. That was a fairly common practice at the time, Makala explained, when bookbinding was a separate trade from printing.
The books on display were printed using moveable type, which had been perfected in the mid-1450s by Johannes Gutenberg. One case shows a page from the library’s Breslauer Bible, hand-written in 1240, along with a printed version from the 15th century, demonstrating how early printers modeled their texts on such earlier manuscript forms.
Many of the books in the 15 display cases are religious texts or on civil and canon law, but works on rhetoric, the art of printing and science are all represented. There is even a book on tennis, written by an Italian priest and with an illustration of the royal court at the Louvre palace in France.
Book criticism could be pretty severe in those days. An exhibit card notes that Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and physician who wrote one of the books on display, ran afoul of Reformation leader John Calvin and was burned at the stake for heresy in 1553 along with the last copy of a theological book he wrote.
An hour spent browsing through the display cases offers an interesting look at the development of the printed book and some insight into the role that printing played in intellectual and social development.
The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Enter USC’s Thomas Cooper Library and walk straight back on the main floor, cross the bridge into the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library and turn right. Makala says the early print exhibition will be open until at least May 17.
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