A Binding of Great Historical Interest--for What it Is and What it Isn't

ODYSSEA [and other works].

(Venice: [Melchiorre Sessa, 1540?]). 165 x 108 mm. (6 1/2 x 4 1/4"). 238, [2] leaves.

Contemporary olive brown calf over pasteboard, ends of spine repaired (probably late in the 19th century), gilt covers framed with two sets of double rules, outer panel with broad foliate curl cornerpieces and sidepieces with trefoil of three rings between each, inner panel with 19th century decoration, including blind-stamped horizontal oval centerpiece of Apollo and Pegasus, the gilt collar with Greek motto touching rules at sides, large foliate sprays at head and foot curling to left and right and rising to a fleuron tool at ends, raised bands, spine panelled in gilt featuring broad rules and fleuron centerpiece, brown morocco label. Woodcut historiated initials, and charming cat-and-mouse printer's device. Leaves at front and back with various marks of ownership, including the signature of Francesco Suave at head of title page, and "proprieta di Carlo Balzi, 1884," on verso of first blank. Contemporary marginal annotations in Latin and Greek. STC Italian, p. 331. Joints partly cracked (and wormed in two places), corners somewhat worn, some scuffing to the leather, but the binding completely solid, the gilt still distinct, the plaquettes (not surprisingly) bright, and the volume altogether pleasing even with its defects. Final leaf cropped at fore edge (with loss of the first [verso] or last [recto] letter on two-thirds of the lines), upper corner of two gatherings with small, faint dampstain, one minor paper flaw costing a half dozen letters, otherwise unusually well preserved internally, THE TEXT EXCEPTIONALLY BRIGHT, FRESH, AND CLEAN.

This is a convincing 19th century forgery of a celebrated type of Renaissance binding, used here to cover a rare edition of a translation of the "Odyssey" by Andreas Divus. The story behind the very intriguing binding begins about 1545, when a library of approximately 200 books came into the possession of a Genoese youth of noble birth named Giovanni Battista Grimaldi (ca. 1524 - ca. 1612), apparently a student at the Roman Accademia della Virtù. Each of these volumes was bound in goatskin to a certain design, the key feature of which was an oval plaquette showing Apollo and Pegasus (both associated with swift flight) at the middle of each cover, with a Greek motto ("Straight and not crooked") in gilt in a collar around the vignette. Produced by three eminent masters, these bindings had long been famous and their provenance much debated before G. D. Hobson identified their original owner in his authoritative "Apollo and Pegasus," published in 1975, so it is not surprising that attempts would be made to cash in on their celebrity. During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, at least two binders are known to have produced fraudulent replicas of the much sought-after Apollo and Pegasus bindings. The first of these binders--and the one almost certainly at work here--was Vittorio Villa (d. 1892) of Bologna and Milan, who typically started with plain or sparsely decorated 16th century bindings, which he then tooled more elaborately and to which he added the Apollo and Pegasus medallion. These expert forgeries are considered appealing alternatives to original examples of Apollo and Pegasus bindings not just because the latter now fetch extravagant prices, but also because the former are desirable curiosities as fakes and because, as binding specimens, they are fine pieces of work typically done for books with inherent value. Hobson in his "Maioli, Canevari and Others," examines in considerable detail the criteria for determining those Apollo and Pegasus forgeries that he says are anything but obvious fakes. According to Hobson, the present example would not be genuine because the wheels of Apollo's chariot have four spokes, and in the genuine article, they have six. Still, when compared to other fraudulent Apollo and Pegasus bindings, this volume would arouse little suspicion, especially because of the wear to the covers--which can only be genuine--and because of the modern repairs, apparently made at the time the leather was decorated. The volume looks absolutely authentic, a dignified Renaissance survival with the usual signs of age and restoration that today nearly always characterize the state of early books, even those that might have led privileged lives in the libraries of careful owners. In addition to our Divus translation of the "Odyssey" (first published in Venice in 1537 by Jacob de Burgofrancho), our volume contains Latin translations of several shorter works falsely ascribed to Homer. Identifying our edition positively is difficult: the only edition of Homer in Latin issued by Sessa that we have been able to locate was printed ca. 1540, but we know our Homer was printed by Sessa because of his distinctive cat-and-mouse printer's device. It had to have appeared before 1555, when the printer died.

Keywords: Early Printing