Ed Potten, Head of Rare Books at Cambridge University Library, tells us about their recent project to catalogue their internationally renowned incunabula collection.
In October 2009 Cambridge University Library launched a cataloguing project which will make records for its collection of 4,650 incunabula available and searchable online for the first time. The incunabula collection is internationally renowned and includes 134 unique items. The project aims to create a specialist record for each incunable in the Library’s online catalogue, Newton, with special emphasis on copy-specific information such as anomalies, rubrication, decoration and illumination, annotations, binding, marks of ownership and provenance. This will enhance and update the short-title catalogue published by J.C.T. Oates in 1954, and will include the 276 items acquired by the Library since that date. The project has been generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for five years.
Between October 2009 and November 2012, the project team, comprising Dott. Laura Nuvoloni, and William Hale, has catalogued a remarkable 2604 incunabula. New discoveries continue to be made every week. Recent highlights include variants and corrections in the Cambridge University Library copy of the Aldine edition of De Aetna, now identified as in the hand of the author of the text, the learned Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), and manuscript captions in the Library’s copy of Valturio’s De re militari librum by Felice Feliciano (1433-ca. 1480), the “antiquarius”, humanist, scribe, artist, binder, alchemist, goldsmith, and typographer from Verona, one of the most eccentric and inventive protagonists of the Italian Renaissance.
The cataloguing project has been accompanied by a suite of events, seminars and new electronic resources, all of which increase access to the Library’s earliest printed holdings. News of recent discoveries can be read on the Incunabula Project Blog, which includes articles from the project staff alongside contributions from major scholars in the field. Alongside the blog sits a hyperlinked and illustrated version of the history of Cambridge University Library’s incunabula collection, originally published as the introduction to J.C.T. Oates’s monumental printed Catalogue of the fifteenth-century printed books in the University Library Cambridge(Cambridge, 1954), and now made freely available and searchable for the first time.
Ownership information amassed as part of the cataloguing project has been used to produce two on-line provenance indexes, detailing former owners of incunabula in the Library’s collections. The first lists personal ownership, the second institutional ownership. Owners are listed alphabetically, followed by brief details of the volumes associated with them. Clicking on the links will extract the full bibliographical record for each item from Newton, the Library’s on-line catalogue. The indexes will be updated daily throughout the project, and it is hoped that in the future it will prove possible to link in images of marks of ownership to aid identification elsewhere.
In March, members of the Project Team co-organised an extremely successful one-day conference with the Early Illustrated Books Research Initiative Project, Keio University, Japan. Incunabula on the move: the production, circulation and collection of early printed books featured papers on all things incunable, from the rubrication of Caxton’s early English books and the printing of Ulrich Zel, to the historic exchanges of incunabula between The British Museum and Cambridge University Library and the movement of copies of the Gutenberg Bible in England between 1789 and 1834. The proceedings are currently being edited for publication as a special issue of the Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society and further collaborative ventures are under discussion with Keio University.
The Library’s ongoing series of Incunabula Masterclasses continues to be extremely popular, with all sessions over-subscribed. In November 2011 Professor David McKitterick led a session entitled ‘Mix and match: making up incunabula’, followed in February by a class by Peter Jones of King’s College, Cambridge on medical incunabula and their readers. Cristina Dondi of the University of Oxford lectured in May, on fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century prices found in Cambridge incunabula, placing these in context with other contemporary book prices, whilst Roger Gaskell gave sessions on the earliest illustrated printed books. Future sessions are scheduled with: William Sherman, Professor of Renaissance/Early Modern Studies and Director of the Centre for Renaissance & Early Modern Studies at York University, Lillian Armstrong, Professor of Art at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, David Pearson, Director of the Guildhall Library and Falk Eisermann, Director of the Incunabula Division at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin.
Finally, with the launch of the Cambridge Digital Library the University Library is able to supplement the detailed catalogue records being produced by the project with free access for all to high-quality, full-colour digital facsimiles of some of the most significant items from the incunabula collections, accompanied by interpretative text and navigational aids. The Library’s copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, for example, amongst the most iconic of early illustrated books, is one of only a handful of copies bearing contemporary decoration. It has a fine pedigree, donated in 1574 with around 100 other early printed books and manuscripts by Matthew Parker (1504–1575), Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I. The Chronicle can now be viewed in all its glory through the Digital Library.
The Cambridge Project is constantly unearthing hitherto unknown provenances, rare variants and editions and fine bindings and illuminations – to keep up with the latest discoveries follow the Incunabula Project Blog.
Head of Rare Books
Cambridge University Library