20 October 2007


I concluded the last Boccaccio entry by mentioning the connection of the divine Diana to the Decameron. The copy that sold in 1812 for the gigantic sum of £2260 was bought by the Marquis of Blandford (another name from the tabloids.) It seems to have passed into the hands of Lord Spencer--Lady Diana's great, great grandfather. In the 1878 'Notes & Queries' it is noted: 'When the members of the British Association visited Althorp last September they inspected, amongst other unique specimens of early printing, the "lion of Althorp," the celebrated 'II Decamerone' of Boccaccio, printed in 1471 by Valdarfer...' It is probable that the young Diana (who described herself as 'thick as a brick') may have been shown the 'Lion of Althorp' or seen her father displaying it. The book is no longer mentioned amongst the glories of Althorp and may have been 'deacquisitioned' or, in our post literate age is not worth mentioning any more.

The Decameron is often cited as the first great work in the humanist tradition; it's publication coming at a time of intense religiosity, Godbothering and repression was viewed very dimly by the church. There is some suggestion that copies of early editions were burnt in Florence on the orders of Savonarola which may account for their great rarity. They may have also been burnt by his followers in the 'bonfire of the vanities.' The excellent Via Libri which searches the world's major library databases reveals 4 copies--the British Library has a rather defective one, also Manchester, Paris (imperfect) and Milan. Jackson (below) notes that there is one at the Vatican and another in the Magliabecchi at Florence. Possibly there is one in America. The anonymous scholar at N & Q goes on:-
Although this is the earliest known edition of the ' Decamerone' bearing a date (1471), it is by no means certain that it is actually the " editio princeps," the date of the "Deo Gratias " edition (so called from these words appearing in the colophon) being as yet unknown, the question remaining just as it was left by Dibdin, who at first thought it was printed in 1472, but on further and more careful examination inclined to the belief that it was printed in 1470.

In June, 1819 the library at White' Knights, formed by the Marquis of Blandford, then the Duke of Blenheim, was dispersed, and the ' Decameron' again came into the auction room. This time Lord Spencer (who had underbid the book in 1812) stopped at £700 and the dealer Longman obtained the prize for £750. They sold it again for £750 to Lord Spencer. Holbrook Jackson in his monumental work 'Anatomy of Bibliomania' (1928) discusses the whole thing as a supreme manifestation of the disease of bibliomania. 'Anatomy' is a weighty, slight OTT book -a pastiche of Robert Burton's 'Melancholy' masterpiece-- but if Burton is, say, Lennon then Jackson is Meatloaf. I think this analogy works. Basically it is a good mix of Dibdin, a large dose of Andrew Lang (the finest of all writers on book collecting) a splash of Leigh Hunt, Lord de Tabley, Richard de Bury, Rosenbach, Isaac D'Israeli, Gellius and a couple of shelves of books on book collecting, bibliomaniacs and rare books. Book collecting books were quite prevalent at the turn of the century with emotive titles such a "Shadows of the Old Booksellers' and 'Books in Bottles and 'Enemies of Books.'

Jackson writes:
Bibliomania scorns all that is cheap, except to hope that it may become dear. They are like those reprehended by Seneca, who loathed the very light because it was free, and who are offended with the sun's heat, and those cool blasts, because we buy them not. They gloat on prices, and nothing pleases them but what is expensive. If one appraises a shabby but rare little pamphlet of no intrinsic value at a high price, they will covet it for that reason alone: it's value is wholly a scarcity value; but it is the same with books of nobler status, as those rare edition of classical works which no one heeds until someone bids high for them.

Take, for example, the story of the copy of the First Edition of Il Decamerone di Boccaccio, 1471, which was sold by auction at the dispersal of the Roxburghe Library, in 1812, for £2,260, which up to that time was the highest sum of money ever given for a book. The copy had long been coveted by bookmen, both sane and insane; it was perhaps the most notorious volume in existence; and Nicol, in his Preface to the Sale Catalogue of the Library, described it as one of the scarcest, if not the scarcest book in existence, for it had preserved its uniquity for over three hundred years; it had been a bone of contention among collectors in the reign of the first two Georges: Lord Sunderland and Lord Oxford had both coveted it, but it became the property of the Duke of Roxburghe, for the gallant price of 100 guineas; which Marchand, in his Histoire de L' Imprimerie (1740) notes among the excessive prices up to then given for rare books. When the record price of 1812 was known among collectors, a craze for the books set in; bookmen were afflicted with a desire for copies as thought they had been stricken by some infectious disease: every man pretending to some information about books was set-a-hunting for it: from the half-ruined mansion on the summit of the Vosges to the castellated heights along the Rhine, a search was made; some supposed copies might lurk in Swiss chalets, and Berne, Basle, and Zurich were examined with the sedulous pertinacity of an excise officer; Italy was ransacked; all the cradle-towns of the art of printing were explored; a copy might still be lurking in the Subiaco monastery; Perugia, Brescia, and Bologna, places then rarely visited by Englishmen, were minutely examined, in vain; and the only result of all this mighty hunting was a glimpse of the copies in the Magliabecchi at Florence and the Vaticano at Rome, which were public property, and could not be removed.

That this craze was irrational cannot be denied; these hunters had no desire to read Boccaccio in the First Edition, or to study its bibliographical or typographical parts: they were moved by its high price, and such pleasure as they might have procured from the discovery of another copy would have been related to its monetary rather than its literary value. Aldous Huxley argues, a picture may give aesthetic pleasure, and in buying a picture one buys the unique right to feel that pleasure; with a book it is different; nobody, he says, can pretend that 'Venus and Adonis' is more delightful when read in a fifteen thousand pound unique copy than in a volume costing one shilling; on the whole, the shilling edition is the better, so he concludes that the purchaser of the fabulously expensive old book is satisfying only his possessive instinct, and, doubtless, I would add, his vanity.
There are many italicised passages in this piece that I haven't the time to put in, but the above should give a flavour of HJ's highflown, not to say overblown, style.

VALUE? Surely several millions of dollars. A 1494 Decameron with many minor faults and a leaf missing made $375,000 in 1994. The 1471 first printing is one of the most valuable books in the world, potentially superior in value to a decent Shakespeare First Folio or even a 'Canterbury Tales' [Westminster: William Caxton, c.1478]. Chaucer of course translated Boccaccio's 'Palamon and Arcite' for part of the 'Knight's Tale.'

Fashions in collecting have greatly changed since 1812 and fashion is, according to Jackson, the great determiner of prices. Boccaccio's name does not excite in the way it might have done 200 years ago and the taste for continental literature may have become slightly flaccid. A Bay Psalm Book might make more money because it is American and America is still the richest country.

The only places these books will show up unrecognised are very old houses--you need the family to have been there about 500 years. There are a surprising amount still standing - mostly in unravaged parts of Europe. Come to think of it there is one that I drive by occasionally in Old Suffolk. Next time I might cross the moat and hand them my card ('Vast Libraries Purchased.')

The British Library seems to have a copy but from the description it sounds incomplete--presumably it can be ordered up. It lacks the leaves 1, 8, 9, 109, 110, and 241. The illustration above shows Boccaccio pointing to the goddess Fortune who stands beside a wheel upon which her victims rise and fall. It is miniature from Boccaccio, De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, trans. Laurent de Premierfait (Paris, 1467). (Reproduced from Glasgow University Library Special Collections. Many thanks.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a feast of erudition in the forgotten byways of book collecting...shadows of the old booksellers. May you find a Deo Gratias edition. Chumba