Valuable Books from the 15th-19th Century from Librairie Thomas-Scheler
By Michael Stillman
We are not sure when a catalogue transforms itself into a book, but when it reaches 3/4" thick, is in an 8 1/2 x 12 format, and comes with a hard cover, it is no longer an ordinary catalogue. This is where the catalogue becomes a collectible itself. Bernard and Stephane Clavreuil's Librairie Thomas-Scheler of Paris has released such a magnificent catalogue cum book with the title Livres Precieux du XVe au XIXe siecle (Valuable Books from the 15th to the 19th century). Naturally, one would only expect valuable books in a presentation on this level. The catalogue has been broken down into various sections: Literature, Music and Art; Philosophy and Political Economics; Bindings; Medicine; Science; Natural History; and Voyages. A total of 102 items are offered, with most containing thorough descriptions and illustrations (the page count of 215 for 102 items hints at just how thorough the presentation is). This is a fantastic collection of rare and antiquarian books primarily of European origin.
A note of caution now for English speakers: this catalogue is mostly written in French, so some knowledge of the language is required to understand the descriptions. None is necessary to appreciate the illustrations.
We will start with item 64, one of the most important science books ever written: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, by Nicolaus Copernicus. This is a 1543 first edition of the work that introduced the revolutionary concept of a heliocentric universe, that is, one in which the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. This was a concept that ran against common sense and religious doctrine, and yet this, along with the idea that the Earth rotates on its axis, mathematically explained the movements of heavenly bodies. An anonymous introduction by minister Andreas Osiander, added without Copernicus' knowledge, stated that his theory could be considered valuable as a calculating device without it having to be a description of reality. It is not known how Copernicus reacted to this late addition (he died during the year in which it was published), though others objected. However, this caveat may have saved Copernicus and his theory from the condemnation and trial Galileo would face in the next century for expressing similar ideas.
Item 41 is the greatest work of Cardinal Bessarion, Adversus calumniatorem Platonis - Correctio liborum Platonis de legibus Georgio Trapezuntio interprete. Cardinal Bessarion was born around 1400 and was actively involved in promoting the Crusades and reunification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. His success in these endeavors was limited, but he is better remembered for his promotion of the revival of ancient Greek learning. He built a substantial library (later given to, and still held by, St. Mark's National Library in Venice) and translated classic Greek works from philosophers such as Plato. During this period, there were raging arguments between the Platonists and Aristotelians. While a follower of Plato, he believed the two could be reconciled, and this work is a critique of a 1458 work by Trebizonde that was less moderate. Bessarion was almost elected Pope in 1455, and remained an important figure in the Church until his death in 1472. This work is undated but was published in 1469.