Open to the public today, this exhibition at the Cambridge University Library reconstructs the ‘private lives’ of books through the material traces of use left by their early readers. It is the culmination of a five-year research project at the Library, which catalogued their holding of incunabula (printed books pre 1501) and was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation.
The creation of full online records for the books involved detailing the individual features of the Library’s specific copies, including any decorations, bindings and annotations. These were material elements added after the printed book’s production in the workshop. In effect, every book became a different object depending upon its owner and the individual purposes for which it was used.
The ‘private lives’ exhibition focuses on the varied histories of Cambridge’s incunabula, displaying objects like their copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an eccentric allegorical romance poem, beautifully printed, which in this case inspired the 16 year old owner to add his own unique composition to the volume in 1518.
Also interesting in the light of the themes of the upcoming In(ter)ventions workshop is the decision taken by the exhibition curators to display a modern work by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy alongside the Cambridge Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. A rough manuscript poem of the same name, this tells of Duffy’s encounter with the Hypnerotomachia in 2013 when she visited the library to view it.
A sharp visual contrast to the beautifully printed incunabula, Duffy’s work is effectively presented as a modern annotation to the work. The exhibition website explains that the Hypnerotomachia has a history of inspiring impassioned responses and that it has influenced ‘generations of typographers, authors, poets and book designers’.
But Duffy’s response also sets out a particular view of the work’s importance, and one which resonates well with the exhibition’s wider themes. She deems it ‘the world’s most unreadable text’, but celebrates its role as a material conduit to an earlier time. Above all, she stresses the very human, personal element in the object’s history.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, by Carol Ann Duffy
You swipe the screen and scan
the pages of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,
a dream within a dream; where, it seems,
even the future has already passed.
It truly is the world’s most unreadable text:
‘In this horrid and cuspidinous littoral
and most miserable site of the algent, fetorific lake stood saevious Tisiphone, efferal and cruel,
with her viperine capillament…’
that evening in the emptying library, the human chain,
from Venice 1499 to here and now, joined
warm and open palms to yours, a living link
around the precious charm of a book.
Woodcutter to printer; ink’s solemn vow to page; word and image in their beautiful Renaissance dance.
How we know what we love – what we make, or hold, or pass on with