The birthday in 1801 of Karl Baedeker just passed, and the literary website LitHub noted the occasion by publishing a photo of the foldout maps that were seen as an innovation when Baedeker’s celebrated guidebooks first appeared. I chuckled, since last week I enjoyed the enormous privilege of visiting the rare book collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library, where I carefully unfolded the world’s actual first printed foldout maps. In the 1480s, a canon of the Mainz cathedral chapter, Bernard Breydenbach, set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and Erhart Reuwich illustrated and printed his account, replete with fabulous foldout maps. Five hundred years later they are a bit scuffed and torn, but still open to three or four times the width of the book–pieced together, a true feat of early pressmanship and binding. The images themselves, cut in wood (above left, Rome) are incredibly gorgeous.
I had never laid eyes–or fingers–on many of the greatest works of early printing which I researched as I was learning about the life of Peter Schoeffer. So with the kind assistance of John Overholt, a curator at the Houghton, I spent a blissful Cambridge afternoon immersed in the smell and touch of 500-year-old paper and vellum. I marveled at the beauty of Nicholas Jenson’s red printer’s mark, reproduced below, on an edition of Duns Scotus; at the pounding impression used by Ulrich Zell in Cologne just a few decades after the invention by Gutenberg and crew; and at the exquisite workmanship of Regiomontanus’s 1482 calendar printed by Erhard Ratdolt in Venice, with its amazing waxing and waning moons. Perhaps the most special, though, was a single leaf from the 36-line Bible, which Gutenberg is believed to have had printed by Heinrich Keffer for the Bishop of Bamberg after the 42-line “Gutenberg” bible. I got a little dizzy, too, turning the four pages that Harvard owns of the 1462 Vulgate Bible printed by Schoeffer and Fust — these were the actual pages they set and printed.
Book people have as much to love in the Boston area as we do in London. I was especially impressed by the Boston Athenaeum, where I gave a talk on the making of the Gutenberg Bible. Atop Beacon Hill, it’s a gorgeous building filled with gorgeous books, a membership temple to the book much like my beloved London Library. Curator Stanley Cushing trotted me through it, stopping with understandable pride at George Washington’s own set of the first American encyclopedia. Truly, books are more than containers for texts. Libraries are the temples where our world is preserved. Volume by volume, the printers of the past encoded the cultural DNA of our species.