Essays in librarianship and bibliography/Some book-hunters of the seventeenth century

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Essays in librarianship and bibliography by Richard Garnett
Some book-hunters of the seventeenth century


I feel that I owe an apology for presenting you with anything so scrappy and disconnected as the paper you are to hear to-night. Being unexpectedly called upon to fill a gap at a time when pressure of occupation prevented my writing anything requiring care or study, I bethought me of the story of the minister who, when about to officiate as a substitute for another, received at the same time a hint that the congregation were particular about quantity no less than quality, and that they would expect the length of his public exercises to attain the average of the regular incumbent. The absent gentleman was remarkable for fluency, the locum tenens was a man of few words. He did his best, but by-and-by found himself with a vacant quarter of an hour and a vacant head; when suddenly a happy thought flashed into the void, and he exclaimed, "And now, O Lord, I will relate an anecdote." I too in my emergency have taken refuge in anecdotage, and, in default of anything of my own, I am about to bore or entertain you with some anecdotes of book-collectors of the seventeenth century, borrowed from that illustrious gossip and anecdote monger, Nicius Erythræus, with a brief account of whom I will preface my paper.

I scarcely think that I shall underrate the amount of information respecting Nicius Erythraeus current at this time in this country by remarking that the name is probably best known as a pseudonym of Coleridge, under which his poem of "Lewti," a Circassian love-chant, was first given to the world, and most readers will have deemed his adoption of it a mere freak. I confess that I am myself unable to discover what Nicius Erythræus has to do with the Circassians, but it is not an imaginary name, being the Latinisation of that of Vittorio dé Rossi, an Italian Jesuit, who flourished during the last quarter of the sixteenth, and the first half of the seventeenth century, and, always writing in Latin, translated his vernacular appellation into that language. The circumstance of his having written in Latin is no doubt one principal reason why he is now so little remembered. He was one of the pioneers of a reviving form of literature, the anecdotic. Poggio Bracciolini had written a very popular book of anecdotes in the fifteenth century, but his tales are often mere Joe Millers, and not always authentic. Nicius's stories are bona-fide anecdotes or reminiscences of actual personages, with most of whom he had conversed. All roads, it is said, lead to Rome, and his position as an ecclesiastic about the Papal court, albeit a hungry and discontented one (he had sorely prejudiced himself by a romance, the "Eudemia," in which he had made too free with the characters of influential people), brought him into contact with every man of mark who resorted to it, whether a denizen of Rome or a foreign visitor. His gallery of portraits includes two persons of much interest to Britain, John Barclay, Scot by descent if French by birth, author of the "Argenis"; and Teresa, the fair Armenian, who wedded our countryman Sir Robert Sherley, in his adventurous Persian travels. In my opinion he is a most entertaining writer, lively and animated, with a bright descriptive touch; an elegant Latinist, and though much given to relating stories which the subjects of them would have wished to consign to oblivion, he is at bottom very good-natured. His principal work is his "Pinacotheca," or Portrait Gallery, in three parts, each containing a hundred sketches of contemporaries, all people of some note, if only for their eccentricities, and many of whom, but for him, would now be utterly unknown. He doubtless retails much gossip at second-hand, but I do not think that he has invented anything, and I believe that we see his contemporaries in his pages much as they really were. For proofs, authorities, pièces justificatives, you must look elsewhere, and Nicius shuns a date as if it were the number of the beast.

Perhaps the most interesting of the particulars relating to library matters imparted by my author are those respecting a man second only to Grolier as a patron of fine binding, but of whose personal character and habits, were it not for Nicius, we should know nothing. Every one interested in the bibliopegic art is more or less acquainted with the beautiful bindings executed for Demetrius Canevarius, physician to Urban VII., elected Pope in 1590, but whom all his leech's skill could not keep alive upon the Papal throne for more than twelve days. This certainly does not seem to have been the fault of the physician, who was, Nicius tells us, a Genoese of noble family, who condescended to the medical profession in the hope of becoming rich. In this there is nothing to criticise; but unfortunately, avarice seems to have been his master passion, indeed his only passion, except the love of books, which has given him an honourable place in literary history. Having removed from Genoa to Rome, he soon obtained the confidence of many of the Cardinals, and became the most celebrated and opulent physician of his day. But his habits were most parsimonious; he never, in his own house, says Nicius, tasted fowl or fish, or anything that any sumptuary law could have forbidden in any age. He lived by himself; his meals, consisting of bread, soup, and a scrap of meat, were brought him by an old woman who never entered the house, and drawn up to the first floor in a basket. He bought his new clothes ready made, and his second-hand clothes from the Jews. As soon as he got any money, he put it out to interest, and when he got the interest upon that, he put it out again. The one exception to this parsimony was the expense to which he went in buying books. Dry as pumice, says Nicius, in every other respect, in this he was most liberal; if you look, that is, to the total sum he expended, and not to the prices he gave for individual books. For he beat the booksellers down unrelentingly, and would carry off their books at much lower prices than they asked, notwithstanding their lamentations and complaints. that they were going to be ruined. How could he achieve this? By the magic of ready money; the bibliopole found it better after all to part with the book at a small profit for money down than to keep it on his shelves till some one bought it and forgot to pay. Thus was Canevarius unknowingly a forerunner of the political economists, and an initiator of the principle of small profits and quick returns. Of the bindings which constitute his glory with posterity Nicius says nothing; but ascribes his prowess as a collector in great measure to a love of fame. No unworthy motive either, but it is likely that public spirit had quite as much to do with it; for Canevarius not merely collected the library which he expected to perpetuate his name with posterity, but bequeathed it to his native city of Genoa, and left by his will an annuity of two hundred crowns to a caretaker. It would be interesting to learn what became of the books and the pension; if the facts are not already upon record they ought to be investigated. From the preface to a posthumous work of Canevarius, published by his brother, it would almost seem that the family had some control over it, and if so they may have dilapidated it. If the library, when transmitted to Genoa, contained all the elaborate bindings which are now esteemed so precious, it was a bequest of more value than could have been supposed at the time. Though stingy and covetous in his life, Canevarius was a benefactor to many at his death. He left, Nicius says, such a multitude of legacies, and such a host of minute directions to be observed after his decease, that his will was as big as a book. The ruling passion of parsimony remained with him, and he gave a remarkable instance of it in his last illness. "When," says Nicius, "ten days before his death, an old woman who had come to nurse him gave him an egg to suck, and then took a new napkin from a cupboard to wipe his lips; 'What mean you,' cried he, 'by spoiling a new napkin? was there never a tattered one in the house? Depart to the infernal regions! ' ' Yet even here Canevarius emerges victorious, for the disparaging biographer is constrained to admit that he had a new napkin.

The next chapter of bibliographical anecdote which I propose to cite from Nicius Erythnæus is not derived from his Pinacotheca, but from his Epistles. It relates to persons of more importance than Demetrius Canevarius, to no less a man, indeed, than Cardinal Mazarin, and to the eminent French scholar Gabriel Naudé, then (1645) employed as his agent in collecting the first Mazarin Library, so unhappily destroyed and dispersed a few years afterwards by the hostile Parliament of Paris. Naudé has deplored the fate of the collection in a book devoted to it, and Nicius, his intimate friend and correspondent, powerfully confirms the loss which letters thus received by his description of Naudé' s exertions as a collector, in a letter he writes to Cardinal Chigi, Papal nuncio in Germany. After mentioning that Naudé had seventeen years before obtained great credit by a work "On the Formation of Public Libraries," and that Mazarin having laid the foundation of his library by buying that of a Canon of Limoges, consisting of six thousand volumes, Naudé had doubled this number by purchases within one year; he adds, "Finding nothing more to buy in Paris he went to Belgium, and there took the pick of the market; and this year has come to Italy, where the booksellers' shops seem devastated as by a whirlwind. He buys up everything, printed or manuscript, in all languages, leaves the shelves empty behind him, and sometimes comes down upon them with a rule, and insists upon taking their contents by the yard. Often, seeing masses of books accumulated together, he asks the price of the entire lot; it is named; differences ensue; but, by dint of urging, bullying, storming, our man gets his way, and often acquires excellent books among the heap, for less than if they had been pears or lemons. When the vendor comes to think over the matter, he concludes that he has been bewitched, and complains that he would have fared better with the butterman, or the grocer. Did you see our Naudé coming out of a bookseller's shop you could never help laughing, so covered from head to foot is he with cobwebs, and that learned dust which sticks to books, from which neither thumps nor brushes, it seems, would ever be able to free him. I have seen multitudes of Hebrew books in his bedroom, so stained and greasy and stinking, that one's nose seemed damaged irrecoverably; they must have been disinterred from Jewish kitchens, smelling as they did of smoke, soup, cheese, pickles, or rather of a mixture of each and all these aromas. If he gives them a place in his library, he will undoubtedly bring in the mice; they will flock in from Paris and the suburbs, hold their feasts, convoke their parliaments, and deliberate on the ways and means of resisting the cats, their capital enemies. But, without joking, Naudé means that Paris shall have the finest public library in Europe."

I need not dwell further on the sad fate of this magnificent collection, nor remind you that Mazarin formed a second which, especially for one book's sake, has endeared him to many who know little of him as a statesman, and that little not always to his advantage. After hearing of his munificence and indomitable spirit in the collection of books, we may feel more reconciled to the first book ever printed in Europe being popularly associated with his name, although "Gutenberg Bible" would still be the more appropriate designation.

My next anecdote relates to a book-hunter not less enthusiastic and determined than Mazarin or Naudé, but much less known to fame, unknown, in fact, were it not for our good Nicius Erythræus. Prosper Podianus, a Perugian, but living at Rome, cared, says Nicius, from his youth upwards but to find out who had written a book upon any subject, at what price it was to be had, and how he was to get it. His life was consequently spent in frequenting booksellers' shops and stalls, which latter seem to have become an established institution in Nicius's time, although, as would appear, the dealers were not always sufficiently civilised to have actual stalls, but merely strewed the books upon the ground. (It would be highly interesting could we ascertain when and where the art of printing first acquired sufficient development to make it practicable and profitable to set up a second-hand bookstall.) As Podianus really was a connoisseur, and knew well what he was about, he frequently picked up some precious volume for a trifle, and was far from imitating the conscientiousness of Giovenale Ancina, Bishop of Saluzzo. This excellent prelate, it is credibly reported, having observed a valuable book amid a pile heaped upon the ground, as above mentioned, on learning that it was to be had for a penny, turned short upon the bookseller, rated him soundly for his ignorance, and gave him a scudo. Different indeed from the conduct of a lady narrated to me the other day, who, seeing a copy of the first edition of George Meredith's Poems, commercially worth ten or twelve guineas, priced at two shillings, and knowing its value right well, marched with it into the shop and beat the bookseller down to eighteenpence. I know not whether I more admire or execrate that woman.

Podianus could hardly be expected to emulate the magnanimity of Bishop Ancina, considering that if he had often had to give scudi for his books, he would have been reduced to the necessity of stealing them. He was rich, however, in a thrifty wife, to whom her husband's goings-on were an enigma and an abomination. Finding that remonstrances availed nothing, whenever money for housekeeping was absolutely necessary, she would lay hold of a book, and pledge it with the butcher or baker or candlestick-maker, when Podianus would be necessitated to redeem it somehow. He himself rarely dined and did not always sleep at home, being sure of free quarters from other bibliophiles, who hoped that he would one day bequeath them his library. At length he was persuaded to make a donation of it in his lifetime, on condition that the books should remain in his possession until his death. Either oblivious of this, or wishing to secure other patrons, he made another prospective donation of the books to the fathers of a certain monastery, who inscribed the record of his benefaction upon a marble tablet, to be put up in their chapel after his death. When this event took place, they swooped down upon the prize, only to find a still more recent beneficiary in possession. In their mortification they effaced the laudatory inscription from the tablet, only leaving the initial letters D. O. M., which were commonly interpreted, Daturis Opes Majores—to those who shall leave us a more substantial legacy.

Nicius mentions one more mighty book-hunter, Cardinal Peranda, of whom, however, beyond the fact that he was enthusiastic and indefatigable in the pursuit, we learn nothing bibliographically memorable but his misadventure with a pet monkey, which, having got hold of the cotton stopper of the ink-bottle (for so I must render gossypium according to my present lights) saturated with ink, must needs employ it upon the most precious book in his whole library. An enemy of books this which has escaped the attention of Mr. Blades. I will conclude with an anecdote not strictly bibliographic or bibliopolic, but not unconnected with the special objects of our Association, inasmuch as it proves the use in Italy, early in the seventeenth century, of a minor invention serviceable to bookmen—blotting-paper. It is the story of Muzio Oddi, mathematician and engineer, who, though debarred from pen and ink, solaced his imprisonment at Pesaro by the composition of mathematical treatises, written on sheets of blotting-paper, at first by charcoal cut to a point, afterwards, having given more stability to his paper by pressing several sheets together, by a reed-pen dipped in ink made from charcoal and water, and kept in a walnut shell. Sir Edward Thompson has shown from an old record that blotting-paper was known in England in the middle of the fifteenth century; yet sand was in more common use to a comparatively recent date. It is a remarkable circumstance that sand was used instead of blotting-paper in the Reading Room of the British Museum as late as 1838, and was then only discontinued on the representation of Mr. Panizzi that it got into the books. If, however, Oddi was able to procure so many sheets of it when he could not get writing-paper, it must have been common in Italy at the period of his imprisonment, which would probably be about 1620. I must not omit to add that this ingenious man made the compasses he required out of twigs of olive wood, that the books he composed under such difficulties were actually published, and that he was eventually liberated, and died in wealth and honour.

These few anecdotes from a restricted field of human activity may afford some idea of the opulence of Nicius Erythræus in humorous, and at the same time urbane gossip. He was a quaint, pleasant man, something between Pepys and Aubrey, not of the highest intellectual powers, but a fair judge of other men, a good scholar and Latinist, and with quite sufficient sense to know when a story was worth repeating. He has preserved much that would have been lost without him, and has made a sunshine in that very shady place, the Rome of the seventeeth century. His main defect, ornate prolixity when simple brevity would have been more appropriate, is the besetting sin of most Jesuit prose writers. He seems just the sort of useful, entertaining, neglected writer, whom the presses of our Universities might advantageously reproduce, and the illustration of his text would afford congenial employment to an accomplished editor.

  1. Read before the Monthly Meeting of the Library Association, London, April 1898.