A 16th Century “Database” of Every Book in the World Gets Unearthed: Discover the Libro de los Epítomes Assembled by Christopher Columbus’ Son

The 16th century was a thrilling time for books, at least for those who could afford them: building a respectable personal library (even if it didn't include novelties like the books that open six different ways and the wheels that made it possible to rotate through many open books at once) took serious resources. Hernando Colón, the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus, seems to have commanded such resources: as The Guardian's Alison Flood writes, he "made it his life’s work to create the biggest library the world had ever known in the early part of the 16th century. Running to around 15,000 volumes, the library was put together during Colón’s extensive travels" and ultimately contained everything from the works of Plato to posters pulled from tavern walls.

Alas, this ambitious library, meant to encompass all languages, cultures, and forms of writing, is now mostly lost. "After Colón’s death in 1539, his massive collection ultimately ended up in the Seville Cathedral, where neglect, sticky-fingered bibliophiles, and the occasional flood reduced the library to just 4,000 volumes over the centuries," writes Smithsonian.com's Jason Daley. But we now know what it contained, thanks to the discovery just this year of the Libro de los Epítomes, or "Book of Epitomes," the library's foot-thick catalog that not only lists the volumes it contained but describes them as well. "Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes," Flood writes, "ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato."




The Libro de los Epítomes turned up earlier this year in another collection, that of an Icelandic scholar by the name of Árni Magnússon who left his books to the University of Copenhagen when he died in 1730. Fewer than 30 of the 3,000 texts in Magnússon's mostly Icelandic and other Scandinavian-language collection (detailed images of which you can see at Typeroom) are written in Spanish, which perhaps explains why the Libro de los Epítomes went overlooked for more than 350 years. Rediscovered, it now offers a wealth of information on thousands and thousands of books from five-centuries ago, many of which have long since passed out of existence.

Colón’s uniquely exhaustive library catalog opens a window onto not just what 16th-century Europeans were reading, but how they were reading — and how the very nature of reading was evolving. "This was someone who was, in a way, changing the model of what knowledge is," Daley quotes Colón’s biographer Edward Wilson-Lee as observing. "Instead of saying ‘knowledge is august, authoritative things by some venerable old Roman and Greek people,’ he’s doing it inductively: taking everything that everyone knows and distilling it upwards from there." The comparisons to "big data and Wikipedia and crowdsourced information" almost make themselves, as do the references to a certain 20th-century Spanish-language writer with an interest in history, language, and knowledge as represented in books extant and otherwise. If the Libro de los Epítomes didn't exist, Jorge Luis Borges would have had to invent it.

via the Guardian

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Salvador Dalí’s Illustrations for The Bible (1963)

Some might have taken offense when Salvador Dalí began illustrating the Bible in 1963. The notorious Surrealist “went to jail for his artworks as a young man,” writes Jackson Arn writes at Artsy, but he “lived long enough to lend his legendary panache to Hollywood movies and Alka-Seltzer commercials.” Along the way, he gained a reputation for having a rather vicious character. George Orwell, reviewing Dalí’s autobiography, described him as “disgusting” for his fanatical harassment and abuse of other people. But, Orwell went on, “Dalí is a draughtsman of very exceptional gifts. He is also, to judge by the minuteness and the sureness of his drawings, a very hard worker…. He has fifty times more talent than most of the people who would denounce his morals and jeer at his paintings.”

Dalí hardly needed the defense of his morals or his paintings, nor might he have wanted it. That was the wrong sort of attention. But maybe he himself was surprised by a later career turn as an illustrator of respectable “Great Books”—including not only Judeo-Christian scripture, but also Don Quixote, Macbeth, The Divine Comedy, Alice in Wonderland, and much more.




The artist who seemed to have nothing but contempt for traditional canons approached these projects with the skill and professionalism Orwell couldn’t help but admire, as well as subtleties and understated tonal shifts we might not have associated with his work.

These are not his first religious subjects; he had always referenced big scenes and broad themes in Catholicism. But the illustrations represent a deeper engagement with the primary text—105 paintings in all, each based on select passages from the Latin Vulgate Bible. Published by Rizzoli in 1969, Biblia Sacra (The Sacred Bible) was commissioned by Dalí’s friend, Dr. Guiseppe Albareto, a devout Catholic whose intention “for this massive undertaking,” writes the Lockport St. Gallery, “was to bring the artist back to his religious roots.” Whatever effect that might have had, Dalí approaches the project with the same diligence evident in his other illustrations—he takes artistic risks while making a sincere effort to stay close to the spirit of the text. If he did this work for the money, he earned it.

Dalí's illustrations “aren’t some kind of subversive prank," writes Arn. "The luminous watercolors he produced for the Bible are, in the main, earnest renderings of their sacred subjects.” Perhaps the book illustrations have attracted so little attention from art historians because they lack the sensationalism and outrage Dalí aggressively cultivated in his public persona. Maybe these paintings, as German gallerist Holger Kempkens puts it, show “something of a spiritual side of Dalí.” Or maybe they just add to a bigger picture that shows what he could do with narratives not of his own making, but which he clearly respected and found challenging and stimulating. These qualities apply to many parts of the Bible as well as to great literary epics, including those based on the Bible, like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Dalí illustrated in a series of surprisingly spare, elegant etchings.

You can buy an original set of Dalí’s illustrated Bible in five volumes from The Lockport Street Gallery (email for a price and condition report); buy a more affordable book online that features and explores Dalí's illustrations; or see all 105 of Dalí’s Biblical illustrations (and purchase some 1967 prints) at Artsy.

via Artsy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.




But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

800+ Treasured Medieval Manuscripts to Be Digitized by Cambridge & Heidelberg Universities

Western civilization may fast be going digital, but it still retains its roots in Ancient Greece. And so it makes a certain circle-closing sense to digitize the legacy left us by our Ancient Greek forebears and the medieval scholars who preserved it. Cambridge and Heidelberg, two of Europe's oldest universities, this month announced their joint intention to embark upon just such a project. It will take two years and cost £1.6 million, reports the BBC, but it will digitize "more than 800 volumes featuring the works of Plato and Aristotle, among others." As the announcement of the project puts it, the texts will then "join the works of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking and Alfred Lord Tennyson on the Cambridge Digital Library."

These medieval and early modern Greek manuscripts, which date more specifically "from the early Christian period to the early modern era (about 1500 - 1700 AD)," present their digitizers with certain challenges, not least the "fragile state" of their medieval binding.




But as Heidelberg University Library director Dr. Veit Probst says in the announcement, “Numerous discoveries await. We still lack detailed knowledge about the production and provenance of these books, about the identities and activities of their scribes, their artists and their owners – and have yet to uncover how they were studied and used, both during the medieval period and in the centuries beyond." And from threads including "the annotations and marginalia in the original manuscripts" a "rich tapestry of Greek scholarship will be woven."

This massive undertaking involves not just Cambridge and Heidelberg but the Vatican as well. Together Heidelberg University and the Vatican possess the entirety of the Bibliotheca Palatina, split between the libraries of the two institutions, and the digitization of the "mother of all medieval libraries" previously featured here on Open Culture, is a part of the project. This collected wealth of texts includes not just the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Homer as they were "copied and recopied throughout the medieval period," in the words of Cambridge University Library Keeper of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Dr. Suzanne Paul, but a great many other "multilingual, multicultural, multifarious works, that cross borders, disciplines and the centuries" as well. And with luck, their digital copies will stick around for centuries of Western civilization to come.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The First American Picture Book, Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928)

For better (I’d say), or worse, the internet has turned cat people into what may be the world’s most powerful animal lobby. It has brought us fascinating animated histories of cats and animated stories about the cats of gothic genius and cat-loving author and illustrator Edward Gorey; cats blithely leaving inky pawprints on medieval manuscripts and politely but firmly refusing to be denied entry into a Japanese art museum. It has given us no shortage of delightful photos of artists with their cat familiars

Cat antics and awe have always been a very online phenomenon, but the mysterious and ridiculous, diminutive beasts of prey have also always been inseparable from art and culture. As further evidence, we bring you Millions of Cats, likely the “first truly American picture book done by an American author/artist,” explains a site devoted to it.




“Prior to its publication in 1928, there were only English picture books for the children’s perusal.” The book “sky rocketed Wanda Gág into instant fame and set in stone her reputation as a children’s author and illustrator.”

It set a standard for Caldecott-winning children’s literature for close to a hundred years since its appearance, though the award did not yet exist at the time. The book’s creator was “a fierce idealist and did not believe in altering her own aestheticism just because she was producing work for children. She liked to use stylized human figures, asymmetrical compositions, strong lines and slight spatial distortion.” She also loved cats, as befits an artist of her independent temperament, one shared by the likes of other cat-loving artists like T.S. Eliot and Charles Dickens.

Millions of Cats’ author and illustrator may not share in the fame of so many other artists who took pictures with their cats, but she and her cat Noopy were as photogenic as any other feline/human artistic duo, and she was a peer to the best of them. The book’s editor, Ernestine Evans, wrote in the Nation that Millions of Cats “is as important as the librarians say it is. Not only does it bring to book-making one of the most talented and original of American lithographers… but it is a marriage of picture and tale that is perfectly balanced.”

Gág (rhymes with “jog”) was “a celebrated artist… in the Greenwich Village-centic Modernist art scene in the 1920s,” writes Lithub, “a free-thinking, sex-positive leftist who also designed her own clothes and translated fairy tales.” She adapted the text from “a story she had made up to entertain her friends’ children,” with the millions of cats modeled on Noopy. Gág is the founding mother of children’s book dynasties like The Cat in the Hat and Pete the Cat, an artist whom millions of cat lovers can discover again or for the first time in a Newbery-winning 2006 collector’s edition.

Read a summary of the charming story of Millions of Cats at Lithub and learn more about her, the talented Gág family of artists, and her charming, very cat-friendly house here.

via LitHub

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Bowie Songs Reimagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: Space Oddity, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

In the last year, screenwriter Todd Alcott’s hobby has blown up into a legit side career.

This Etsy seller isn’t peddling kombucha SCOBYs, letter pressing new baby announcements, or repurposing old barns for use as cutting boards.

No, Alcott’s crafty fortunes fall squarely at the intersection of pulp fiction and rock and roll, with classic song titles, lyrics, and other cunning references replacing the cover text of pre-existing vintage paperbacks.

David Bowie’s lifelong fascination with space travel, tortured anti heroes, and outrageous fashion make him a natural fit with Alcott’s ongoing project, which has lavished similar attention on such luminaries as Bob Dylan, RadioheadTalking Heads, and Elvis Costello.

As Alcott, who conceives of his mash ups as tributes to his long time musical favorites, told Open Culture:

Bowie dressed as an androgynous alien, went out onstage and told his audience "You're not alone, give me your hands," I can't think of a more encompassing gesture to a misfit. No matter how weird you were in your community, you would always find someone like you at a Bowie concert. During a time of my life when I felt incredibly isolated and alone, (Bowie was one of) the key artists who made me feel like I was part of a bigger world, an artistic continuum.

Meanwhile, Alcott is tending to another continuum by posthumously pairing such late greats as Bowie and Queen’s Freddie Mercury (“co-author” of the deep sea-themed Under Pressure cover, above) with the sort of adventurous, occasionally steamy reading material that were among the hallmarks of their 1950s' boyhoods.

Many of these items have found their way to used book and thrift stores, where, tattered and worn, they provide a vast trove for someone like Alcott, who browses with his favorite acts’ catalogues deeply imprinted on his mental hard drive.

It must’ve been a grand day when he happened across the above 1970s sci fi cover. A few deft tweaks, and Life on Mars, a nonexistent “new adventure from the author of Space Oddity," was born.

(Hardcore fans, take note of the doctored publisher in the upper left corner)

Heroes, which takes its inspiration from the 1981 X-Men comic Days of Future Past, is crammed full of such Easter eggs. Can you spot them all?

What a fitting tribute to the Starman’s enduring hold on the public’s imagination.

Browse Todd Alcott’s Bowie-themed pulp fiction collection in his Etsy shop.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City April 15 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts: Why So Many Drawings in the Margins Depict Bunnies Going Bad

In all the kingdom of nature, does any creature threaten us less than the gentle rabbit? Though the question may sound entirely rhetorical today, our medieval ancestors took it more seriously — especially if they could read illuminated manuscripts, and even more so if they drew in the margins of those manuscripts themselves. "Often, in medieval manuscripts’ marginalia we find odd images with all sorts of monsters, half man-beasts, monkeys, and more," writes Sexy Codicology's Marjolein de Vos. "Even in religious books the margins sometimes have drawings that simply are making fun of monks, nuns and bishops." And then there are the killer bunnies.

Hunting scenes, de Vos adds, also commonly appear in medieval marginalia, and "this usually means that the bunny is the hunted; however, as we discovered, often the illuminators decided to change the roles around."




Jon Kaneko-James explains further: "The usual imagery of the rabbit in Medieval art is that of purity and helplessness – that’s why some Medieval portrayals of Christ have marginal art portraying a veritable petting zoo of innocent, nonviolent, little white and brown bunnies going about their business in a field." But the creators of this particular type of humorous marginalia, known as drollery, saw things differently.

"Drolleries sometimes also depicted comedic scenes, like a barber with a wooden leg (which, for reasons that escape me, was the height of medieval comedy) or a man sawing a branch out from under himself," writes Kaneko-James.

This enjoyment of the "world turned upside down" produced the drollery genre of "the rabbit's revenge," one "often used to show the cowardice or stupidity of the person illustrated. We see this in the Middle English nickname Stickhare, a name for cowards" — and in all the drawings of "tough hunters cowering in the face of rabbits with big sticks."

Then, of course, we have the bunnies making their attacks while mounted on snails, snail combats being "another popular staple of Drolleries, with groups of peasants seen fighting snails with sticks, or saddling them and attempting to ride them."

Given how often we denizens of the 21st century have trouble getting humor from less than a century ago, it feels satisfying indeed to laugh just as hard at these drolleries as our medieval forebears must have — though many more of us surely get to see them today, circulating as rapidly on social media as they didn't when confined to the pages of illuminated manuscripts owned only by wealthy individuals and institutions.

You can see more marginal scenes of the rabbit's revenge at Sexy Codicology, Colossal, and Kaneko-James' blog. But one historical question remains unanswered: to what extent did they influence that pillar of modern cinematic comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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