Genealogie et descente, de la tres-illustre maison de Croy. Par m. Iean Scohier beaumontois
National Gallery of Art Library, David K. E. Bruce Fund
I can only imagine what someone would think if they found one of my textbooks or books from a class in the future. My notes in a Greek or Roman book such as The Odyssey or The History of Rome would show some interesting interpretations, math textbooks would display horrendously ugly doodles, and Shakespeare’s Richard III might show some intelligence while a biology textbook would just show stupidity. Clearly my books are not helping anyone in the future, but with today’s technology that doesn’t really matter. Things can be added, updated, saved and stored for basically as long as electricity still exists. This was not always the case though. Sometimes a margin note or handwritten picture in an old book illuminates some piece of information we would not otherwise have. Maybe it gives context to something from someone that was actually there, maybe it pictures something described by words in the text but lost to time. Maybe it’s just funny.
Tucked away in the East Building of The National Gallery of Art is a very small but very cool little collection of old books. The books themselves, ranging from around 40 to 500 years old, are not particularly unique themselves but what the previous owners have done to them (more specifically: in them) really is.
One author on display, John Rewald, marked his own books. He wrote between the 1930s-1970s on art history and also marked his personal copies of those books. He shows us the progression of his own thought processes throughout his writing career. Updates or notes in the margins for the next editions show us that scholarship is a lifelong journey, always evolving and changing. A few of these books had the names, dates and locations of previous owners written in them. This would allow us to analyze how different people may have used that book, trace genealogy over an extended time period through things like a family bible and help to give us insight into personal experiences, specific time periods and surroundings.
Other books were marked clearly out of necessity. Two of the books on display where genealogical, which of course change over the years. Owners of one genealogy, written in 1710, updated the various family trees in both the 18th and 19th centuries. Another genealogical book had the various families’ coats of arms drawn, in color, into them. We cannot underestimate the importance of these illustrations because that type of information could get lost with time. Art gets destroyed, families get exiled or dissolve, and a whole host of other events could lead to losing their history. There may be some families that we would know nothing about if it were not for the owner’s meticulous records.
T. Livii Patavini Latinae historiae principis Decades tres cum dimidiae
National Gallery of Art Library, C. Wesley and Jacqueline Peebles Fund
My favorite markings can be seen in a book of Livy’s on Roman History, owned by Nicholas Udall. In it, Udall drew depictions of the texts in the margins. While these drawings were extremely detailed and fit into the tiny margins, his style makes them almost seem like they belong in a comic book. By the way, Nicholas Udall is considered to have written the first comedy in English. Rather surprisingly is that these men were not always serious in their efforts to preserve history. One book of architectural engravings had its owner’s doodles in the margins. There is even evidence that he may have used some of the pages to clean his brush!
Hieronymus Cock, born c. 1510
Scenographiae, sive perspectivae . . . pulcherrimae viginti selectissimarum fabricarum
National Gallery of Art Library, J. Paul Getty Fund in honor of Franklin Murphy