Colloquium in Udine 2021

A conference will be organised on 16 and 17 September 2021 on the theme: Perdite e sopravvivenze del libro antico: il ruolo delle miscellaneeThe Survival and Destruction of Early Printed Books: the Role of Miscellanies.

Biblioteca Arcivescovile (or Patriarcale) of Udine

Organised in Udine by Sergio Cappello and Neil Harris of the Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici e del Patrimonio Culturale, the conference will explore the question of lost books and how Sammelbände influenced survival rates.

Early books, both manuscript and print, do not always travel alone. Solitude made them fragile, especially if they were small to begin with, and so, from an early date, owners and libraries often brought them together in the same binding, increasing their resistance by creating a more robust physical object; collecting books in this fashion also saved money, in a period when binding sometimes cost nearly as much as the purchase of the book itself, and it had the further advantage of uniting texts on the same theme in a convenient holder.

Catalogues and bibliographies, both ancient and modern, on the other hand have not always been kind to miscellanies, considering them a nuisance as far as the organisation of information is concerned, nor have they appreciated their intrinsic significance in the history of book conservation. In Umberto Eco’s Medieval whodunnit, The Name of the Rose (1980),the key to the plot and the seemingly inexplicable murders, a mysterious treatise by Aristotle on comedy, is placed in a miscellany and further concealed by being omitted from the catalogue, confirming the ancient dictum that the best place to hide a book is in a library. With the introduction of the pluteus system in Medieval libraries, where codexes were chained to the bench, space was at a premium and so substantial volumes – also as a means of compressing the parchment – with a plurality of individual texts were often created. Unfortunately, where they have survived, many of these in subsequent centuries have been broken up into their component parts and the witness to their original collective nature has been lost. The advent of print in the Renaissance meant instead the triumph of paper and smaller formats; miscellanies, however, were still frequently created to bring small items together in a single volume.

Traditional bibliographical research has largely ignored the significance of these collective bindings, while commercial interests have often ensured disbinding and the separation of the parts in order to obtain better prices. One proof of the fact is the lack of an appropriate terminology: miscellany in English, miscellanea in Italian, receuil factice in French, Sammelband in German, while in library cataloguing it is frequently impossible to understand which items are bound together without taking the book in hand. A recent shift in perspective has begun to emphasize the importance of the miscellany in the vexed issue of the survival and destruction of books, most often by reading. In many instances it can be shown that very rare, frequently unique, copies of early printed books remain only because at some time they were bound up together with other texts; it is not unusual for all the items contained in a Renaissance miscellany to be unica, which, if that particular volume had somehow been destroyed, would have been irredeemably lost. In other cases, which also come under the definition of miscellanies, broadsheets and other ephemeral material have survived due to being bound together with a much larger book. One important instance is the 1513 Aldine catalogue at the Biblioteca Civica “Vincenzo Joppi” in Udine, which included in the same volume as a copy of the same publisher’s edition of the Cornucopiae of Perotti from the same year. Another way in which traces of lost editions survive inside other books is through fragments of various sorts: these range from single leaves or bits of leaves hidden inside bindings to miscellaneous quires in hybrid volumes, often unrecognised as such in library catalogues.

The Udine meeting involves the international, polyglot and multicultural group of scholars, entitled Sammelband 15-16, which brings together book-history scholars, bibliographers, experts in historic bindings, and library conservators from many different fields and countries to examine the history and significance of miscellanies over the centuries, and which has previously held meetings at Utrecht and Lyon in the autumn and winter of 2019.


Malcolm Walsby

Professeur d'Histoire du livre, Enssib / Université de Lyon

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