52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings, Week 36: a 16th century Frankenstein-esque binding

Wednesday 15 February 2012

This week’s binding feature is indeed a bit of a Frankenstein. I came across this item while working through the large folio incunabula shelves and was caught a bit off-guard.

The opening page of Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea (TypGU.A78ZJ).

TypGU.A78ZJ is the late 15th century Johannes Zainer (Ulm) printing of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea. This is one of the five copies of this work known to exist in the UK, and the only recorded in Scotland. Its binding was a bit of a puzzle to work out.

The back (lower) cover of TypGU.A78ZJ, showing the original covering material and decoration, and the holes of the now-lost bosses.

The book seems to have been originally bound in near contemporary calf on wooden boards. It was decorated with blind double fillets used around the board edges as well as in a central panel design, of which the frame looks to have been cross-hatched with a blind tool. There is also evidence of four corner bosses and one central boss, probably on both boards. This original style can still be seen on the back (lower) cover, where the decoration is still exposed and where the holes for the bosses are visible.

The front (upper) cover of TypGU.A78ZJ, with the later-added vellum covering material, having been cut down and reused from a smaller book.

The front (upper) cover is where the mystery begins: it has been covered at a later time (probably 16th century) in two pieces of blind tooled vellum taken from a whole octavo volume cut down and reused.  These pieces would have formed the front and back cover of a smaller book, and what would have been the spine material has been excised.  These later vellum panels had been heavily decorated with a blind, floral designed, roll-stamp within triple blind fillets.

Detail of the spine, showing the blending of the join made between the older calf binding and the newer vellum material.

This later covering was probably done at the time that the five bosses on each board were removed, the front board having been damaged enough to merit a recovering. The craftsmanship in blending the new binding into the old is quite good and at first glance had me fooled. If one examines the spine carefully enough you can see where the join of the new material and the old was made, the stain used on the vellum, however, is a very close match to the original material making a clean blend.

Detail of the two vellum and brass clasps, probably mid-16th century.

This book also has two very nice brass and vellum clasps that were probably added at the time of this repair. This book is a relatively new incunabula, having been added to our collection in 1955. This solid binding has kept the textblock in immaculate shape for hundreds of years, and will hopefully continue to do so for many more!


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2 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings, Week 36: a 16th century Frankenstein-esque binding"

  • 52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings: reflections and index « Echoes from the Vault
    Friday 15 June 2012, 9.01am

    [...] bindings have been the most popular in the thread. My favourite post of the thread was probably week 36, a gnarly, stitched-together 16th century binding found on one of our incunabula: a great puzzle to [...]

  • belinda
    Saturday 23 May 2015, 10.41pm

    I recently bought paper dolls from eBay and I was making something to place them in before I got them but nothing seemed right. When I got them I noticed the colors and costumes and they looked very 16th century so I thought ok i raided the scrapbook ing section of a variety store and made a folio style book for them in red and green with ribbon as the binders looking at this book makes me think I wasn't far off the mark.


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