Monday, February 23, 2009

The aura of the original

I got to do one of the coolest things in my life today. Right now it is definitely in the current top ten. I was given access to the Liber Chronicarum by Hermann Shedel. This work is also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle in honor of the town in Germany where it was printed. The work is best known by that name today. It's first printing was in Latin and was published on July 12, 1493. 1493; one year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Only 50 years after printing was born. After the work was printed an individual called the rubricator went through the index and most of the work highlighting the important words and where to take breaths indicated by a red paint stroke on the correct letter. The entire index is treated like this and in the "L's" where there are approximate 10-15 "L's" in a single-spaced sequence the rubricator treats them all with a single slash.
Please note the same brush strokes made by the rubricator in 1493 was the same ones that I was able to touch/see today. The book that I had the distinct privelege of spending two quality hours with was the original as published on July 12, 1493, according to the colophon on the last page. The BU library staff left me alone in the room with this magnificent work. Not that I was going to do anything untoward with it but the sheer weight of the historical value of the moment seemed to assume greater security than was being applied.
I was also given access to a German facsimile of the work published about 10 years later. Schedel meant to publish his work in German but in 1496 Augsburg printer Johann Schonsperger, pirated the whole work, publishing a German edition in small folio format marketed at a lower price. Unsuprisingly the cheaper version captured the market and Schedel lost out on a decent chunk of change.
This work is historic for several reasons. One reason is the sheer amount of illustrations. Another important reason is how well the work balances the incredibly high number of illustrations (woodcuts) with the text. Modern day readers assume that the text will bend/frame the illustrations but for early movable type printers, this was a big deal. Previous to the actual printing of the Chronicle was a work called the Examplar which was basically a rough draft/working copy of the Chronicle and allowed the wood cutters wohlgemut, Pleydenwurff and most likely Dürer (who looks a bit like DFW) who was serving as Wohlgemut' s apprentice at the time.
As an object the bound work is brilliant. The font is Italian Rotunda and the spacing closely resembles our own current use of spacing so the words flow quite nicely together. While my knowledge of Latin could be contained in a child's thimble, I can definitely pick up alliteration and was able to track what cities and people the author was talking about.
The Chronicle is a vast compilation of information, mainly Biblical and mythical, and illustrated with people in period costume. Thus Samson is strutting about with two doors over his right shoulder and clothed in what seesm to be the clothes of a burghermeister or other some such fairly well-dressed nobelman. This is another very important aspect of this work. While it is a poor representation of the dress of what Samson would have really worn, it is an excellent record of what the people of that time wore, not disimilar to the musically decorative work of the Santiago de Compostela. Of course, 53 woodcuts of cities/countires were used to depict 101 different places and 96 blocks of emperors, kings and popes were used 598 times or an average of six times each. This was a common practice

Nuremberg Chronicle at Morse Library, Beliot College
If you select the Book Contents link, you can seem the digital scans of the entire work. It's worth checking out.

Wilson, Adrian. The Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. A. Asher & Co. Amsterdam, 1976. 253 p.
This is the definitive work on the Nuremberg Chronicle and is really well-written and very well-researched.

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