Rare Book Highlights: Like a Boss

Clavius, Christoph. Gnomonices libri octo. Rome, 1581.

In 1581, Christopher Clavius, a German Jesuit mathematician and astronomer, published what has been called the most comprehensive work on sundials of the period, Gnomonices libri octo. Clavius is most famous for his involvement in the development of the Gregorian calendar, which is the modern Western calendar in use today. The work is full of impressive tables and diagrams, but what I really want to focus on is the binding of the particular copy in our collection.

Cover of book in light-colored leather with metal pieces in the corners

Cover of Clavius’ Gnomonices Libri Octo

Our copy of Gnomonices is a first edition, published in 1581. Books printed at that early date, and continuing until the 19th century, were typically sold unbound. That means that the book was sold as a block of pages sewn together and covered in plain paper covers or boards, and the purchaser would take the book to a bookbinder to have a custom binding created for it. Often purchasers would have all the books in his library bound in the same style. That means that copies of early books could have vastly different types of binding. Our copy of Gnomonices is interesting because it has a fairly elegant binding with lots of hardware.

Close up of hole in leather showing wooden board underneath

Close up of hole in leather showing wooden board underneath (click for larger image)

Geometrical patterns stamped onto leather

Close up of blind tooling (click for larger image)

The binding material is blind-tooled pigskin over wooden boards. Let’s break that down. Pigskin is a type of tanned leather that was popular in Germanic and Scandinavian countries, made from pigs, as the name suggests. Tooling refers to the designs pressed into the leather made with metal hand-tools. If you are crafty, you might have done some leather tooling yourself. Blind-tooled simply means that the impressions are made directly into the leather, making an impression on the surface. Alternatively, the binding could have gold tooling, in which gold leaf is applied to the surface of the leather, leaving a gold pattern on the surface of the leather.

The binding also features a number of metal objects. Attached to the corners are bosses, metal knobs that slightly elevate the book from the table surface, protecting the leather from wear. These were features of medieval bookbinding, but they were also used later as decorative features. The book also shows evidence of clasps, which have come off the book over the years.

Metal corner on edge of book featuring an upraised knob in center

Close-up of boss

Clasps were another medieval bookbinding feature and were designed to protect the integrity of the binding, keeping the book closed during movement and thus easing the strain on the joints, where the boards were attached to the block of pages. These books were large, heavy objects!

Close-up of clasp remains

Close-up of clasp remains

What does it mean that this book was bound the way it was? By the 16th century the use of bosses and clasps were fading away as books were becoming more affordable through Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the spread of the printing press throughout Europe. Their use in this case then is primarily decorative. The bosses and stamps, as well as the tooled leather, suggest that this was the purchase of a particularly wealthy individual or institution. Was it bound as it was to join an illustrious library of many generations containing medieval manuscripts? Was it the prized possession of an individual and bound to enhance the prestige of the owner? What do you think?

One thought on “Rare Book Highlights: Like a Boss

  1. Pingback: Rare Book Highlights: the oldest book | Cardinal Tales

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