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:

[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: ) 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:

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 🙂

Poem Illumination

For our Poem illumination workshop, I chose “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. My choice was perhaps partially sentimental. It was the first “short poem” I ever had to memorize as a student, and, having read about Kilmer’s life, the negative response his poetry continued to get, and his experiences during WWI, I thought perhaps trying to illuminate it would help me look at thet poem in a different way, outside of its “traditional” context or the context that I was given as a student.

Because I know that the author of the poem was a World War journalist, I have always read the “trees” that the poem describes as a metaphor for other things. Perhaps a metaphor for humanity, or for life itself. My interpretation freed me to “sketch” my illumination in whichever way I wanted. It initially considered having human beings at various stages of their life (children, adults, elderly) to correspond to the changes of the seasons in the poem. Especially since the lines seem to personify trees in their description of how trees touch the “bosom” of the earth, or raise their hands up to the sky to pray etc. However, I ended up deciding to have actual trees (or rather one big tress) in my illumination instead. I thought that nature has always been a great metaphor for the human condition, and since I interpret the poem symbolically and metaphorically then I’d like my illumination to be symbolic as well.

This is when I came up with the idea of having One single large sized tree grow out of the bottom of the page and gradually envelope the poem. I decided to reflect the changes of the seasons by having one side of the tree appear “dead” or dying, leaving falling, brown, crumbly, exposed to clouds and rain while the side of the tree would have green branches and flowers growing out of it. That, I thought, was a way of capturing the cyclical nature of the poem.

I worried briefly that while I might think I’ve done a great job of providing a “symbolic illumination” of the poem, other people who are in favor of a more literal understanding of the poem might also think that my attempt quite simply “illustrates” what the poem says. i.e. reads it as they would, to be literally about trees. I thought for several minutes about this before I picked up my pencil because I realized – from viewing a few of the illustrations shown in class in the past couple of weeks—that illuminations are as much for the “other”; the reader, the viewer, as they are for the author/illuminator. What sits on the page juxtaposed to the text has an influence on how we read perceive and interpret the text. This also made me wonder whether illuminations allow for symbolism as well. In other words, could the relationship between image and text be a two-way interpretative path? Is it possible that my illumination could count as a metaphor that the text attempts to interpret? Or that an illumination would trigger its own illumination in the reader’s mind as the reader attempts to understand it. I remembered then that we’d discussed in class a few illuminations that, upon first glance appeared to have very little to do with the actual text, and might be –for the most part—serving an aesthetic purpose. This freed me from the worry about an outsider’s perception, and I finally settled on my tree idea.

All that was left to do was to complete the illumination. My initial plan was to have the branches of my tree create a “frame” around the text of the poem enclosing it with leaves and flowers. However, after looking through Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts in class, the images that appealed to me most were all images that showed the illumination to be “interacting” with the text. There was no clear boundaries between text and illumination. Sometimes leaves would extend to touch some letters and words, some text had flowers embedded in the blank spaces between its lines. Those text-illumination dynamics seemed to me to be more organic and natural than ones that left a clear space between the two modes of expression, so inspired by medieval aesthetics, I decided I would attempt to do the same thing. (My excitement didn’t account for the fact that I don’t have the same artistic abilities that those illuminators had)

Besides my lack of artistic capacity, I gained an important prespective from this illumination workshop. First, I learned that “text interpretation” is an important tool outside of English classes and in a scope bigger than aspiring academics like me. Artists who work in ekphrasis  illustrators, and definitely medieval illuminators had to have been equipped with the right skills to read and understand text, perhaps they even needed the capacity to anticipate multiple interpretations in order to account for the different ways that text might be read within their one illumination. Second, I realized that a lot less time and effort goes into creating manuscripts and books today. We hardly ever see illuminated books anymore, and when we do they are a lot more expensive and would probably be used for display not actual reading. I wonder if digital media would allow us to “bring back” illumination at as less costly price. With virtual books, e-books, PDFs etc. we can create images (and videos even) that interact with our texts without the price of more paper, color etc. Or have our understanding of book aesthetics changed too far being illumination?