Ursus Rare Books has issued their Catalogue 351. 50 Rare Illustrated Books. Since rare does not necessarily mean important, we will add that these are significant books, their rarity in part being attributable to their advanced age. Not only weren't you around when these were published, neither were your great grandparents. There is a sizable number of books from China and Japan in this collection, though the majority are European. You may want to brush up on your Latin. These are a few selections from what is to be found in these fifty rarities.
Since this is a catalogue of rarities, we will start with one of the rarest of all, Coloritto: or, the Harmony of Colouring in Painting, by Jacques-Christophe Le Blon, published circa 1720s. You know it's rare when described as a “black tulip.” Ursus calls this “a fine copy of the black tulip of colour printing, a book of legendary rarity.” It is believed to have been published in only about 20 copies, around half of which are still in existence. As for its importance, Ursus says, “this little book is considered THE key work in the history of colour printing.” It precedes the early use of practical color printing by a century, which is why so few copies were printed. He devised the three-color method of printing by overprinting three times on the same page, each using one of the three primary colors. The difficulty in accomplishing this goal can be summed up in one word - “registration.” With care, he got it right, which is why many consider Le Blon the developer of modern color printing. The book was published with bilingual texts, French and English (Le Blon was French but the book was published in London). This copy contains five mezotints and the hand-colored folding plate of the artist's palette showing a range of colors (see cover image), but does not have the appendix which was offered in some copies. Item 27. Priced at $50,000.
This is another early, rare book of importance to printing. Ursus describes this as a “first edition of one of the earliest model books intended to aid painters, designers, engravers, and printers – of the greatest rarity.” OCLC records only two copies, both with issues. The title is Enchiridion artis pingendi, fingendi & sculpendi, which translates to “manual of fine arts, creativity and sculpting.” The author was Jost Amman, a 16th century Swiss woodcut artist. This work was published in 1578. Ursus says “the woodcuts elegantly depict figures from antique mythology, costume designs, tournaments with swords and spears, horses, armorial escutcheons, Turkish soldiers, dancing couples, allegorical characters, contemporary scenes from literature and/or theater, and superb 'models' intended to aide painters, designers, engravers and copyists of the day.” Ursus explains the rarity and survivors being defective because it was heavily used in its day. Item 1. $27,500.
This is a copy of an uncommon book that makes the most of illustration. That might not be expected for what is generally a fairly simple type of work, an alphabet book. Giovanni Battista Betti took that concept to different level. A' Dilettanti delle Bell'Arti (to amateurs of fine art), published in 1779, places each letter within Greek or Roman allegorical features, with pastoral landscape backgrounds. These images are spectacular, what one might expect of Renaissance paintings of ancient Gods and the like. This is not a book to give to the children for learning their ABCs. Item 6. $12,500.
Here is one of the works on China, written by the Jesuit polymath who has been referred to as the “last Renaissance man.” The topics on which Anathasius Kircher wrote are extensive. Many are scientific, and those books tend to be a combination of new discoveries and fantastical speculation. He visited the volcano at Vesuvius and correctly attributed it to escaping fire from the earth, but then went on to speculate about a world and its strange inhabitants down below. He translated ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but mostly got his translations wrong. He wrote about gravity, eclipses, fossils, meteorology, mining, alchemy, insects, herbs, astrology, medicine, technology, poisons, the list goes on. This is one of his non-fantastical works. It is about China, which Ursus describes as “a detailed and accurate exposition of Chinese art and culture, costume, history and government, geography, idolatry, architecture and language, flora and fauna.” Kircher never went to China. His application to go there with other Jesuits was denied. However, he compiled his book from letters and journals of other Jesuits and visitors who did go to China. The result was a scholarly description of a land that at the time was virtually unknown to Europeans. Item 25. $15,000.
Giovanni Battista della Porta was another polymath, a man who dabbled in various sciences, sometimes scientifically, other times speculatively, or from an occult viewpoint. This one is not so scientific. The title is De Humana Physiognomia Libri IIII, published in 1586. Once considered scientific, physiognomy is the theory that one can tell a person's inner character based on his outward appearance. What he has done is compared certain human facial types to those of animals it purportedly resembles. From there, you supposedly can determine things about their character and morals. The caricatures of human faces are a bit exaggerated in some of these drawings to establish their resemblance to animals, such as the lion, ox, dog, cat, monkey, hog, crow, owl, ostrich, bull, rooster, eagle, horse and others. Della Porta also wrote another book about plants wherein their resemblance to certain body parts indicated they had beneficial medicinal properties with respect to those organs. Item 42. $9,750.