Apparently Bound for a Nun from the Celebrated House of Balbi, and Later Owned by Baron Landau


(Venice: Paulo Ugolino, 1597; Giolito, 1598; Erasmo Viotti, 1597). Vol. I: 205 x 147 mm. (8 x 5 3/4"); Vols. II & III: 215 x 153 mm. (8 1/2 x 6"). Three volumes. FIRST EDITIONS.

BEAUTIFUL CONTEMPORARY VENETIAN RED MOROCCO, all boards heavily gilt with intricate acanthus leaves surrounding a central oval inscribed "S. BERNARDA" on the upper and "BALBI" on the lower covers, the larger two volumes incorporating bee and vase tools into the design; raised bands with densely gilt compartments, all edges gilt and gauffered. Each volume with a few woodcut initials and headpieces, title pages with printers' devices, volumes II & III with full page woodcuts following preliminary leaves. Front pastedown of each volume with the bookplates of the Vicomte de Cossette and Baron Horace de Landau. Volume II with one-inch crack to the lower joint, other trivial signs of use to the leather, the text with occasional negligible blemishes, light dampstaining to the lower corners of each volume (darker on the preliminary and final leaves and affecting a little more of the page in volume I); not perfect, but all of the defects minor, and in general A FINE SET, the elaborately gilt bindings remarkably lustrous, and the leaves quite clean throughout.

While the highly ornate and animated decoration of these volumes is an instant source of delight for the eye, we are also fortunate to find here a very good state of preservation and a distinguished provenance, along with a text that provides a significant monastic history. Almost certainly executed in Venice at the end of the 16th century, the bindings obviously make up a three-volume set, but the decoration is slightly different from one volume to the next. The central, unifying oval on each cover marks them as having belonged to an "S. Bernarda Balbi." Since the "S" quite possibly stands for "Suora," the Italian word for a religious "sister," we are presented with the intriguing possibility that this set may have originally belonged to a nun. Although we could find no record of a Sister Bernarda, the Balbi name is instantly recognizable as belonging to an ancient and very wealthy Venetian family (the Palazzo Balbi was erected on the Canal Grande of Venice in 1582 and still stands today). The text consists of three separately published works that together form a three-volume history of the Franciscan Order by the Portugese Bishop and historian, Marcos de Lisboa. In the third volume, gathering Nn has been incorrectly imposed, and there seems to be a page that was never printed, but other copies, like the one examined at the Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna, have the same problem. The favorable condition of the bindings suggests that these volumes have been well looked after over the years. Other than the Balbis, we know that they have passed through the collections of at least two other distinguished owners, most notably the famous bibliophile and representative of the Rothschild banking house, Baron Horace de Landau (1824-1903). Baron Landau had an outstanding collection, featuring much early printing as well as many important illustrated works and luxurious illuminated manuscripts; his library was disposed of through a number of sales in the late 1940s.