Hello fellow book historians!
What follows is a summary of Monday’s trip to the Boston Athenaeum. Since we were not able to take notes, and since my mortal memory is guilty of and liable to forgetfulness, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO LET ME KNOW IF I MISSED ANYTHING.
I wasn’t able to take any pictures since I’d checked in my phone before I went inside, but I have provided links from the Athenaeum website where appropriate. Please also feel free to provide your own pictures if you have any.
I look forward to reading your comments. It’s going to be especially interesting to hear from those of you who ended up in a different group from me. Maybe together we can piece together a more encompassing picture of The Athenaeum. Anyway, without further ado:
Monday, 02/27/17 Boston Athenaeum Visit
A few minutes after 3:00 P.M. we had all arrived at the athenaeum, checked in our belongings and signed the guestbook at the circulation desk. We were ready for our tour. We split into two groups; Myself and 8 other students were guided through by Mr. Fleming who started us off with a brief history of the place and the building. (I’m sure the second group got an equivalent intro. Please share in the comments!) He explained to us how it was founded 1807 which makes it one of the oldest independent libraries in the country. Though the athenaeum was at first a place to collect books, it later went on to acquire some works of art, sculptures, and paintings. In fact, we were shown some of these collections down in the basement of the building.
In the basement we brushed by cases-full of collected books, in order to arrive at a very special statue at the end of the room right in front of the conservation room. That statue was of “Venus D’Medici” (a copy of the original Venus in the Medici collection in Italy) Here she is at the athenaeum: http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/paintings-sculpture-online/venus-de-medici
[Complete Side note: In the spirit of the Shakespearean Sonnets that we read for this week: If you liked this sculpture of Venus AND you like Shakespeare, may I suggest Venus and Adonis ? (Read here: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/Poetry/VenusAndAdonis.html ) Shakespeare’s rewrite of Ovid’s Book X and (probably) the first thing Shakespeare ever published.]
We were also told that before this floor became “the basement of the athenaeum” and home to so many precious artifacts, it used to be a stadium — which explains the Greek columns that, oddly enough, don’t look so out of place in there. Where the stadium used to be, now there is a “conservation room”. Though we couldn’t go inside (time was ticking) we learned that this room is —to put it simply— the “restoration lab” where books get restored and repaired.
Next, we headed up for the 4th floor. On our way out, I thought for a millisecond that I saw Dante Alighieri’s eyes (and very distinct nose) staring at me, but I didn’t have time to pause and look back. So, the first thing I did when I got home was check to see if I was right…and sure enough the athenaeum does have several busts and sculptures of Dante. Here’s the one I saw: http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/paintings-sculpture-online/dante-0
On the 4th floor we saw several collections of books, including some of Henry Knox’s books (Fun fact: before he went on to become the U.S.’s first secretary of war, Knox was a bookstore owner which is where some of these books came from!) and George Washington’s encyclopedia. On that same floor, in the Trustee’s Room, we saw one third of Washington’s library (which we were told almost ended up in England after his death, had it not been for the Bostonians who thought it absolutely unacceptable to ship these valuables back to the British and brought it to the athenaeum instead.) Portraits of George and Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart were on display in the trustee’s room as well.
We then descended from the 4th floor in order to join the rest of the class in viewing some rare books that Stanley had picked out for us. First on the list was the Nuremberg Chronicles (1415) which included several hand-painted illuminations in surprisingly vibrant colors and great detail. Stanley explained that the typesetting would be crafted and painted prior to the making of the book to avoid messing up the pages etc. He also talked to us about the binding and restoration of this book, explaining also the use of gold on the Initial of the opening page. He mentioned that since most texts were no longer being printed on vellum, they were cheaper to produce and could therefore be construed as lesser in value. The addition of gold almost rectifies that and proves that the book is still worth its price.
The second rare book we saw was a sheet music book. Stanley explained the significance of this particular book because it was (one of) the first to use an engraved plate that allowed for the printing of both the musical notes and the lines at once without having to go through the process of printing lines, waiting, and printing the notes afterwards.
The third and last book we saw was printed or “inspired by” medieval books in terms of its appearance, illumination etc even though it was printed after moveable type. We did not get to hear about it in great detail since it was nearing 4 o’clock (i.e. the end of our tour) but I’m definitely missing a detail or two so if someone else remembers more about that third book than I do, by all means let us know!
after a few minutes of Stanley answering questions from some of us, our tour officially ended (thus concluding our magical albeit brief trip back in time? Am I allowed to say that? I think I am…) and we all left the athenaeum shortly after.
It’s been a pleasure documenting our very first trip. Happy commenting, everyone 🙂