Provenance research in book history is a relatively new, but growing area of study for librarians, historians, book collectors and regular readers alike. Being able to trace the itinerary of a book that travelled through centuries and countries (not to mention various owners’ hands) can be a challenging, but rewarding activity. In most cases, what is required is attention to detail and a willingness to look for clues or traces of material evidence. The clues can be found in the books themselves: on their covers (the style of the binding can indicate a particular period or country) or within (in the form of ownership inscriptions, bookplates, stamps, annotations, etc.). By following these pieces of material evidence, the librarian or book historian is able to piece together the story of a book’s history of ownership and use. Some histories are more puzzling than others, either because the former owners are difficult to trace, or simply because there aren’t enough clues left behind. A good example of a book with an interesting ownership history can be found in the special collections of the Trinity Hall Old Library in Cambridge, England.
Vitruvius iterum et Frontinus (classmark E*.7.16) is the title of the 1513 combined edition of Vitruvius’ treatise De architectura and Frontinus’ De aqueductibus. The volume was printed in Florence by Filippo Giunta, a renowned publisher of classical texts and humanist works in Latin and in Italian. It is a beautiful edition, printed in an elegant italic typeface, and adorned with numerous woodcut illustrations throughout. But a closer examination of the volume reveals an interesting detail: although printed in Italy, the book is bound in what appears to be a German blind-stamped pigskin binding (Fig. 1).
The front and back boards are decorated with three concentric panels, the exterior one depicting a hunting scene: a stag being chased by a hunter with a long spear and by a hound (Fig. 2). Further research into the design of this roll confirmed its German origins; Ernst Kyriss, a leading authority on continental bindings identified this hunting roll as the “Jagd-Rolle I” and assigned it to a bindery in Tübingen, active between 1486 and 1539.
What this means is that the book travelled to Germany unbound, and there it was presumably sent to the binding shop in Tübingen by its new owner. Unfortunately, the identity of this first owner remains elusive, because the clues that could have provided information about him have been removed: two manuscript inscriptions, written in what appears to be early handwriting, are visibly erased from the inside of the front cover.
There are, however other pieces of material evidence that allow us to trace the book’s later itinerary. A bookplate affixed to the front pastedown and bearing the name of the German doctor Georg Franz Burkhard Kloss (1787-1854), suggests that the volume was bought by him sometime in the early 19th century.
Georg Kloss was a physician practising in Frankfurt, who developed an avid interest in book collecting, purchasing entire collections of manuscripts and early printed books. His interests however, seemed to have changed with time, because in May 1835 Kloss put his entire library for sale at Sotheby’s in London, and spent the rest of his life writing a history of freemasonry.
From London, the book probably travelled to Cambridgeshire, together with its new owner Samuel Horatio Banks (1798-1882), the Vicar of Dullingham, Cambs and Cowlinge. We know Banks bought the book because he left a manuscript inscription on the front pastedown reading: “S.H. Banks, Feb. 1839”. A Cambridge graduate with two law degrees from Trinity Hall (LL.B in 1821 and LL.D in 1841), Reverend Samuel Banks must have been a man of diverse intellectual interests, as suggested by his purchase of Vitruvius’ book on Roman architecture. Banks died unmarried in 1882 and, given his association with Trinity Hall, and the presence of a 19th century college bookplate on the front pastedown, it is fair to assume he either donated or bequeathed the volume to his old Alma Mater in Cambridge.
Today, the 1513 edition of Vitruvius’ De architectura is resting quietly on the shelves of the Old Library at Trinity Hall, waiting to be picked up by readers, so that it can reveal to them the story of its wandering past.