Thank you for your witty guesses to this month’s Crocodile, they are great! I also need to make a disclaimer: I am far from having collected enough evidence to answer this mystery, so like you, I only have guesses to offer and they may not be as funny as yours…
Like many of you, I’m leaning towards the hypothesis that this book was used as a board mat to cut something (most likely paper). The parallel and diagonal cuts on the front board of the binding do not seem to have been made intentionally, they do not create a specific design, and do not seem to have any particular meaning—unlike the shapes on some of our bindings, thought to be apotropaic, which Beth DeBold discussed in a post some time ago.
These cuts were made on the binding covering an architectural treatise written by the sixteenth-century French architect Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (1510-1584), which I discussed in a blog post several years ago.
I had found this book while going through our collection of continental architecture books. During the same “stacks expedition,” I saw other architecture books with cuts on their bindings. Our copy of the first French translation of Diego de Sagredo’s text on Roman architecture printed in the early 1530s displays similar parallel and diagonal cuts on its binding.1
Jean Errard’s treatise on military architecture has unfinished geometrical forms on its parchment binding:
The bindings of these 3 books all date from the 16th or the 17th century. Their front boards are somewhat flat although Errard’s is more uneven than the others (most likely because it is a parchment binding). Two of these books are in a folio format and are fairly large, while one (de Sagredo’s book) is in a quarto format and approximately 9 inches tall. Du Cerceau’s book is squarer than the others and has a shape similar to a modern small mat board. The cuts on its front board are deeper than those visible on the other books. They were most likely made with a knife and a ruler. By contrast, the lines and circles on the Jean Errard binding are thin and may have been made with a compass or a metal stylus.
Who made these cuts and lines? Were these intentional or accidental? When were they made?
Interestingly, we know that our copy of Diego de Sagredo’s text belonged in the 19th century to the French architect Hippolyte-Alexandre-Gabriel-Walter Destailleur (1822-1893). It is doubtful, though, that Destailleur, a collector of books, prints, and drawings, used this book as a cutting board; but could an earlier practitioner have done so?
Drawing has always been an essential part of the architect’s work. As Henry Wotton wrote in his Elements of Architecture “There are two Arts attending on Architecture … PICTVRE & SCVLPTVRE” (pages 82-83). Architects also worked with paper to create models of buildings for their customers. Wotton thus states “… Let no man that intendeth to build, setle his Fancie vpon a draugh• of the Worke in paper, how exactly soeuer measured, or neately set off in perspectiue; And much lesse vpon a bare Plant thereof, as they call the Schiographia or Ground lines; without a Modell or Type of the whole Structure, and of euery parcell and Partition in Pastboord or Wood” (pages 64-65). Could these practitioners sometimes have used books as flat surfaces to work on?
Two paintings show artists and architects using books as drawing supports. In a painting of St. Luke drawing the Virgin made around 1480, the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (ca.1435/45-1482) depicted the saint holding in one hand his stylus and in the other a book, on which rests a folded sheet of paper.
The binding he is holding has thick wooden boards (it is hard to tell if they are covered with leather or not) attached with clasps. One can understand how it would have provided a convenient surface to draw upon.
The literature on Van der Goes, who was a talented and prolific artist, is vast, but from what I was able to see, this depiction of St. Luke does not seem to have attracted much attention. I also have not found another painting depicting this subject in a similar manner. Roger van der Weyden (ca 1399-1464), most notably, painted St. Luke drawing the Virgin but he depicted the saint drawing on a wooden tablet. Van der Goes’ portrait seems to be idiosyncratic. Could it reflect the fact that he owned or lived in an artistic/bookish milieu (he was related to the well-known illuminator Alexander Bening)?
Another painting made around 1707, by Agostino Masucci (1690-1758), depicts the Italian architect Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736) holding in one hand a (perhaps?) leather chemise binding with ties and a stylus in the other hand. The drawing he is making is lying on the binding. Juvarra’s other working tools, a compass and a ruler, are depicted on the table.
In both paintings, the artists are intentionally using a book or a binding as a flat surface to draw upon. Could they have traced accidentally lines on the surfaces of the books they used?
Interestingly, the Met owns one of Juvarra’s albums of drawings and has digitized parts of it. Bound in vellum, it contains of 250 drawings made on sheets of paper of various sizes and formats. The drawings are thought to have been bound together by the architect himself.2 The binding of the album has not been digitized and I have not seen it, but it must be different from the one in Juvarra’s portrait, which looks like a sort of folder where to store loose drawings perhaps awaiting to be bound.
The recto of one of the digitized sheets in the album is covered with multiple ink parallel lines showing how Juvarra used this side of the sheet to practice his tracing. Perhaps he had placed his paper on a binding similar to the one in his portrait to produce these lines.3
This brings up another question: could practitioners of all sorts intentionally use the bindings of their books to trace lines, as Beth also asked in her post? This may very well have happened especially when they had no better surface readily available to practice on. Could the Errard binding be one of these examples?
Further research needs to be done to confirm this, but it is not the only binding with similar unfinished geometric forms on it.4
While we pay attention to marks in books, we should also look more closely at marks on books, as these also tell us something about how these objects were used. The lack of attention paid to “plain” bindings is reflected in their frequent absence from cataloging descriptions and digitization programs, something that has become very clear to me while perusing through other library digital collections. Bindings are not always digitized even when the whole textblock is; when they are, the quality of their images greatly varies. This will only change if our own view of these bindings changes.
- On the significance of this text see http://architectura.cesr.univ-tours.fr/Traite/Notice/Sagredo1526.asp?param=en
- Mary L. Myers, Architectural and Ornament Drawings Juvarra, Vanvitelli, the Bibiena Family, & Other Italian Draughtsmen, New York, N.Y.: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975, p.28
- Based on the description of the drawing, I assume that it is the recto of drawing 36i. No metadata describes this image https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/343243?exhibitionId=%7B3059ae4b-3dab-429d-a82f-4a68ccbb6d32%7D&oid=343243&pkgids=639&pg=0&rpp=20&pos=55&ft=*&offset=20
- See for example https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=gri.ark:/13960/t3qv6b32g&view=1up&seq=1