The Fine Schøyen Copy of the 1479 Wenssler and Richel "City of God"

DE CIVITATE DEI.

(Basel: Michael Wenssler [and Bernhard Richel], 25 March 1479). 498 x 335 mm. (19 1/2 x 13 1/4"). Textually Complete. 247 leaves (of 248, without initial blank). Double column, 56 lines of text, 73 lines of commentary, gothic type. At end of commentary, 28th quire (6 leaves) bound before 27th quire (8 leaves).Commentary by Thomas Waleys and Nicolaus Trivet. Third Edition with this Commentary.

Contemporary German blind-stamped calf over wooden boards, boards with two frames featuring lily, stag, and rosette tools enclosing a central panel divided by diagonal rules into quadrants decorated with stag, hound, rose, lily, and rosette stamps, contemporary vellum title label lettered in red and black at head of front board, spine panels with central lily stamp surrounded by rosettes, brass corner guards, original brass catch plates and clasps, straps renewed, rear board with leather patch where chain attachment once was, inner covers with wooden boards and cords exposed, rear board with remnants of paper manuscript pastedown and the wood retaining traces of its ink writing in red and black. Capitals struck with red, paragraph marks and headlines written in red ink, numerous one- to eight-line initials in red. Printed in red and black. Front inside cover with small bookplate of the Schøyen Collection. BMC III, 726; Goff A-1241; ISTC ia01241000. The Schøyen Collection sale, Sotheby's New York, 12 December 1991, lot 3 (this copy). Joints worn away for the most part, with bands exposed where they meet the spine, the leather with other general minor wear, but the contemporary binding pleasing, still holding together on intact cords, and offering a revealing glimpse of 15th century book construction. First page and last page somewhat soiled, the former also with faint brown stain (apparently from fixative used to stabilize the paint used here for rubrication) running down the center of the leaf (not affecting legibility), a few additional trivial imperfections, otherwise AN ESPECIALLY FINE COPY INTERNALLY--the leaves clean, fresh, and bright, with vast margins, and so thick they rumble when you turn them.

This is a handsome early Basel printing of St. Augustine's celebrated "City of God," that great intellectually sprawling defense of Christianity against the charge that it brought about the collapse of Rome in the fifth century. Born in the ancient Roman province of Numidia in North Africa, St. Augustine (354-430) is counted second only to the Bible as the foundation of Catholic and Protestant belief. The strength and endurance of his inspiration can hardly be overstated: his sermons were widely read during the Middle Ages, and he later exerted great influence over the reformers Luther, Calvin, and Jansen. He wrote a very substantial number of philosophical, polemical, moral, homiletic, dogmatic, and apologetic works. First issued by Sweynheym and Pannartz in 1467, "City of God" takes its name from the author's characterization of all history as the struggle between the City of God (i.e., good, personified by devout Christians) and the Earthly City (evil, personified by pagans and other non-believers), the conflict to be resolved on Judgment Day, when the residents of the City of God will be granted immortal life, and their foes will be damned for eternity. Begun shortly after the sack of Rome in 410 and occupying some 13 years in composition, "Civitate" is Augustine's longest and most influential work. It is remarkable in its elaborate structure and wide ranging in the strategies and fields of inquiry it employs in the name of Christian vindication, with appeals drawn from cosmology, psychology, political thought, theory of history, and much more. Moreover, apart from its central apologetic thrust, the book, in the words of Britannica, is replete with "devout utterances and aspirations of a great soul," along with "the charm of personal disclosure" that has "never ceased to excite admiration in all spirits of kindred piety."

The present printing is the third edition with this commentary, and is taller than those issued by Mentelin (not after 1468) and Schoeffer (1473), suggesting that it may have been intended for use as a refectory book, to be read aloud in a monastery while the monks were taking their meals. The commentary is by two respected Dominican scholars from Oxford: erudite classicist Nicholas Trevet [Trivet] (ca. 1257 - after 1334) wrote the commentary for books 11–22, and theologian Thomas Waleys (fl. 1318-49) did that for books 1-10. In this edition, the commentary is printed following the main text, rather than surrounding it, as in later versions. Originally from Strassburg, Michael Wenssler (ca. 1445-1512?) matriculated at the University of Basel in 1462, and issued the first book from his press 10 years later. He was one of the first three printers at work in the city, where he operated a press that employed as many as 30 people and produced more than 150 works. Financial problems led him to flee the city in 1491, and he was subsequently found printing in Lyon, Mâcon, and Cluny. Wenssler was apparently assisted in this project by fellow Basel printer Bernhard Richel, as the 10th quire and the first few leaves of the 11th quire are printed in one of Richel's types.

The fine, thick paper here, the attractive layout and vast margins, the rubrication, the solidly constructed binding--even the out-of-sequence arrangement of the penultimate quires--make this a wonderful exemplar of incunabular book production. The tools used on our binding do not appear in Kyriss or Schwenke-Sammlung, and could not be located in a search of EBDB. However, two are similar to Schwenke's Hirsch 33 and Hund 42, assigned to Wolfgang Herolt of Erfurt; Lillie 282, used by a Leipzig bindery; and Lillie 333, found on bindings by a Wurzburg workshop. This edition does not appear often in the marketplace: ABPC and RBH record no other copy sold at auction since this volume was purchased in the Schøyen Collection sale in 2002, and only one other seems to have been sold at auction in the past 30 years--a copy in later calf at Sotheby's on December 1, 1993 (lot 20), fetching a handsome hammer price of £48,800 ($72,732).
(Lhi21112)

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PJP Catalog: 81.066

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