Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
“Revolution and the Antiquarian Book”

Book enthusiasts who would like to learn more about book collecting should take notice of the recent Cambridge University Press title, Revolution and the Antiquarian Book: Reshaping the Past, 1780-1815, available since February 2011.

The author, Kristian Jensen, surveys the field of antiquarianism in England, France, and the Low Countries in the late 18th century, just as European countries were re-shuffling their perceived sense of power acquired either by commerce or colonialism. Not surprisingly, libraries were built according to similar methods. While the French acquired most of their National Library’s holdings by massive requisitions of conquered countries, English collectors were buying entire libraries imported from France and Italy, in a frenzy that has come to be known as “bibliomania.” Jensen discusses the various personalities who monopolized the field and their strategies in book collecting as well as the relationship of antiquarianism to Enlightenment during that period of vast intellectual change in Europe.

What caught my attention was Earl Spencer’s passion for collecting books that he turned into “luxury objects” by having them rebound and by completing imperfect copies with leaves from other copies or with facsimiles. The craft of rebinding acquired a new status among bibliophiles and it was essential partly because of vanity and partly of necessity. What Jensen explains is that “[i]ncunabula in leather over wooden boards fitted with brass bosses and corner pieces had originally been kept in chests or on the sloping tops of desks. If ranged upright, they damaged the books next to them when taken off the shelf.”

Today, we value copies for their integrity, a concept that, according to Jensen, is a modern one.  For those of you who own early editions not as “pure” as you would wish them to be, remember that monetary value changes over time and adjusts to universal aesthetic principles. This should not deprive you from the joy of owning your “luxury object,” even if in a less than perfect condition. The purity of modernism that has prevailed in the twentieth century to the present day is just one way of looking at things.

©Thomaï Serdari