Book-bindings and the global middle ages

Matthew Holford, Tolkien Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries, writes:

Last week I organized a show-and-tell for students from the Department of Continuing Education studying the undergraduate certificate in the History of Art. One of the difficulties in selecting material was responding to the course’s emphasis on what has been called the ‘global turn’ in art history with its shift away from an exclusive focus on artefacts from Christian Europe and an increased focus on cross-cultural connections.

This is a potential challenge for a library where curatorial expertise and responsibility is very much structured according to linguistic and geographical boundaries. Nevertheless, excellent examples of interactions between European and Islamic art can be found in fifteenth-century Italian book-bindings, of which the Bodleian has an important collection. Connections between Italy and the Islamic world were extensive, as a result both of trade and diplomacy, and manuscripts were among the items crossing the Mediterranean. Books in Arabic are recorded in a number of contemporary Italian inventories, and Islamic books from the Mamluk sultanate (centred on modern Egypt and Syria) provided the most important models for the development of decorated leather bindings in fifteenth-century Italy.

Bodleian MS. E. D. Clarke 28, right (lower) cover

Historians of bookbinding have identified two main phases of development. The first was centred in Florence from around the second quarter of the century and came to be recognized by contemporaries as ‘modo fiorentino’, ‘Florentine style’. It was characterized by borders of geometrically arranged ‘twisted rope’ patterns, in blind, with roundels punched in gilt, often with a centrepiece and four cornerpieces. Our example above (MS. E. D. Clarke 28) is on a manuscript of Terence copied in 1466 (the four clasps, on the other hand, are a typically Italian feature).

MS. Auct. F. 4 33, left (upper) cover

A second line of development is associated with humanists active around Padua in the 1460s. Again their decoration is characterized by ropework borders and a circular or vesical-shaped centrepiece: the crucial innovation is tooling in gilt. Although there are earlier Italian examples of gilt tooling the Paduan bindings, borrowing from Islamic influences, were the first to fully realize its artistic possibilities. An example in the Bodleian (MS. Auct. F. 4. 33) is on a copy of Martial’s Epigrams written by the famous scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito probably in Padua in the 1460s.

MS. Canon. Ital. 78, left (upper) cover

A final binding (MS. Canon. Ital. 78), on a manuscript of Petrarch written in Florence in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, shows even stronger Islamic influence. The previous two bindings  have wooden boards; this has very thin pasteboards, flush with the text block, in common with most contemporary Islamic bindings. The insides of the covers have decorated leather pastedowns (known as doublures), again very typical of Islamic bindings.

MS. Canon. Ital. 78, right (lower) inside cover, showing doublure, and stained endleaf; traces of flap visible at the edge of the cover

A final Islamic feature is a right-to-left envelope flap [  ], now lost, but small traces remain. In fact Islamic characteristics are so marked that an Islamic origin for the binding has been suggested. The decoration is Ottoman in character, and although the manuscript has endleaves of Western paper, stained purple in an Italian style, Anthony Hobson’s intriguing suggestion was that ‘a Florentine merchant took the works of his favourite poet with him to Istanbul and had them bound there’. That suggestion needs to be reconsidered in the light of the substantial body of research on Islamic bindings that has appeared since Hobson wrote: but regardless of its exact origin, this binding is a powerful illustration of the influence of the Islamic world on Italian decorative arts.

— with thanks to Andrew Honey, Bodleian Conservation

Further reading:

Rosamund E. Mack, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600 (2002), ch. 7 ‘Bookbinding and lacquer’

Anthony Hobson, Humanists and Bookbinders: The Origins and Diffusion of Humanistic Bookbinding 1459-1559 … (1989)

Paul Hepworth and Karin Scheper, Terminology for the conservation and description of Islamic manuscripts (

Karin Scheper, The Technique of Islamic Bookbinding: Methods, Materials and Regional Varieties (Leiden, 2019)

Gulnar K. Bosch, John Carswell and Guy Petherbridge, Islamic Bindings & Bookmaking (Chicago, 1981). Available at:

BOOKNESS with Ron King, coming soon…

As we enter the final week of the Bodleian’s Alphabet’s Alive! exhibition we wanted to share a taster of what’s to come in our next BOOKNESS podcast.

In the summer Alice and Jo were very lucky to speak to artist and founder of Circle Press, Ron King, who has multiple alphabet inspired works in the exhibition.

Alphabets Alive! is on at the Weston Library until 21st January 2024. Photo credit: Ian Wallman
‘ABC Paperweights’ and ‘Alphabeta concertina majuscule’ on display in the Weston Library

You have until 21st January to visit the exhibition which is spread cross the Bodleian’s Weston Library exhibition space and the Proscholium display (located in the entrance of the Old Library), and you can find Ron’s work in both parts of the exhibition.

So if you are in Oxford this week make sure you pop by and see the pieces for yourselves, and listen out for the next episode of BOOKNESS, featuring our conversation with Ron, which is on its way soon…

‘Alphabet Poster II’ in the Bodleian’s Proscholium display case

Useful links:

BOOKNESS speaks to Kevin Steele

For the latest episode of BOOKNESS, the Bodleian team speaks to graphic designer, book artist and paper engineer Kevin Steele about his work The Movable Book of Letterforms, which is currently on display in the Bodleian’s Alphabets Alive! exhibition.

You can find the episode wherever you get your podcasts (University Podcast website, Spotify, Apple Podcasts).

The opening currently on display in the Bodleian’s Alphabets Alive! exhibition

I’m always fascinated by the performance of movable books, especially when that actual movement is communicating something, so it’s not just about the final display when everything is open, but it has something to do with the movement

One of the book’s precising constructed pop-up spreads

As somebody that likes things precise… it is sometimes hard to see things change over time… but I guess that is just inevitable that things change like that beyond your control… And it would make me very happy if looking in the future I saw the book was very well used and worn and read

Watch The Movable Book of Letterforms in action below:

Useful links and glossary checks in this episode:

Good and bad printing

Francesca Galligan, Assistant Librarian, Rare Books, Bodleian Libraries

Each autumn, university students and members of the public embark on their type-setting and printing journeys in the Bodleian’s letterpress printing workshop. To inspire novice printers with the great typographical achievements of the past, we have chosen examples of fine and ambitious printing from the Bodleian’s Rare Books collections.  The selection also includes some ‘bad’ printing, with missing words and upside-down illustrations, also carefully preserved in the library.

An example of ‘good’ printing is an edition of Caesar’s Gallic war printed in 1471 by Nicholas Jenson. The type designed by Jenson, a French printer based in Venice, has been widely admired ever since.   Bodleian Library, Byw. adds. 6

Bodleian Library, Byw. adds. 6

Four centuries after Jenson, type designed for the Doves Press in London in 1899 was based directly on Nicholas Jenson’s work. The Doves Press was a private press producing fine books according to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction to industrialisation and mass-market printing. Bodleian Library, Arch. C c.3

Bodleian Library, Arch. C c.3

The 1481 Florence edition of Dante’s Comedia is in many ways an example of good printing, although it was an ambitious project that was beset by problems. The unfortunate upside-down orientation of this engraving in the Bodleian copy puts this item in the middle, between examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ printing. Bodleian Library, Auct. 2Q 1.11

Bodleian Library, Auct. 2Q 1.11

In the next example, shown below, the editor has evidently demanded that the printers explain why the page on the right contained none of the text of this work, Pastregicus’s On the origins of things (Venice, 1547). The half-page of text explains, in Latin, that there was an error on the part of the printer in dividing up the text before starting to print (‘Calcographi omisit enim dividendo’) and reassures the reader that there is nothing missing (‘operi vero nihil deest’). Bodleian Library, Byw. Q 8.24 Making the text fit the intended number of pages is a skill all printers need to acquire.

Bodleian Library, Byw. Q 8.24

This translation of Aristophanes’ Greek plays into Latin shows an unusually careful correction, a word added in type to the margin. The sentence was meant to read: ‘…the whole of which had previously been Greek,’ with ‘graeca’ to be read where the caret symbol indicates. The book was printed by Angelo Ugoleto in Venice in 1501. Bodleian Library, Byw. J 7.25 Mistakes happen, and corrections can be a sign of care as much as of carelessness.

Bodleian Library, Byw. J 7.25

Below, a sixteenth-century edition of meditational poems on the cross demonstrates creative problem-solving and a real challenge to printers. These shape or puzzle poems were first composed in the 9th century by Rhabanus Maurus and at that time, before the invention of printing with moveable type, they circulated as beautiful and lavish manuscripts, allowing the poems within poems to be easily discerned. Thomas Anshelm decided in 1503 that it would be an excellent thing to reproduce the text in print. Attempting to achieve a similar effect to the manuscripts, he used an unusual combination of metal type and xylographic (wood-carved) letters. The black letters nearest to the images are carved into the woodblock. Bodleian Library, Douce M 114

Bodleian Library, Douce M 114
Bodleian Library, Douce M 114

BOOKNESS speaks to Paul Johnson

In the first episode of the second series of BOOKNESS, the Bodleian team speaks to book artist Paul Johnson about his work Dies Natalis.

Listen to the episode here.

If you take a conventional book… the pages don’t change… but when you come to pop-up engineering… it’s rather like being in a theatre… there are all these different changing viewpoints with the book which is quite unique

Paul’s pop-up gift to the Bodleian, ‘Dies Natalis’, which is on display in the Gifts & Books exhibition until 29th October 2023.

A book is designed to be held… if we think of a book as being  conceptually a form of art… I can’t think of any other art form that only really functions when you hold it directly in your hands and your fingers interact with the object

‘Dies Natalis’ opened showing both covers, the spine, and the pages opening up beyond.

And some conservation in action! Paul visited us back in May 2023 to work with our conservation team on some of his other books we have in the Bodleian’s collection, to assess their condition and carry out a few minor repairs.

Paul Johnson in the Bodleian conservation studio making repairs to his work ‘Serenade to Chaucer’ (Rec. a.45).

My books have thousands of individual little parts, and the risk is that one or two of them are going to fall off in transit… and this is always a problem, little pieces coming loose… when we first talked about bits probably falling off, I probably said to you stick it back on anywhere you like!

Paul Johnson and Bodleian conservator Alice Evans discussing the condition of his book ‘From Babylon to Ithaca’ (Rec. a.80).

Useful links and glossary checks in this episode:

  • Listen to the episode on the University of Oxford Podcasts website here (also available via Spotify and Apple Podcasts)
  • Find out more about Paul’s work here
  • Visit the Gifts & Books exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford until 29th October 2023

BOOKNESS is back for series 2!

The Bodleian Library in Oxford has books. Lots of books. But also books that don’t look like books. Books that self-destruct. Books that decay.

Join librarian Jo Maddocks and conservator Alice Evans for a second series of our podcast BOOKNESS where we continue to explore the wonderful world of the Bodleian’s artists’ books and discover what makes a book a book.

In this series Jo and Alice will talking to book artists, print makers and paper engineers who currently have works on display in the Bodleian’s Gifts & Books and Alphabets Alive! exhibitions, focussing on their books that have pop-up and moveable elements…

This podcast is for book lovers, book nerds and book makers.

First up Jo and Alice talk to book artist Paul Johnson about his spectacular pop-up creation Dies Natalis. 

You can listen to this episode on the University of Oxford Podcasts website, as well as Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

‘Dies Natalis’ by Paul Johnson

Useful links:

BOOKNESS speaks to Justine Provino

In the final podcast in this series of BOOKNESS, book conservator and PhD candidate Justine Provino talks about her research into the self-destructive book Agrippa: A Book of the Dead.

Listen to the episode here.

Justine Provino with Agrippa (Rec. a.25) at the Bodleian’s Visiting Scholars’ Centre.

It’s a nesting doll about ageing and decay, and the publisher, the artist, and the writer really worked together … to express all these ideas throughout the materiality of every component of the artists’ book

The codex wrapped in the textile ‘shroud’ within a recess in the box base.
Detail of label on the box lid.
Condition record of unbound Agrippa image, with traces of the ‘disappearing image’ (MS. Eng. b. 2160)

The release of this episode of BOOKNESS on 9th December 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the publishing of this work. Happy birthday Agrippa!

Useful links for this episode:

  • Watch William Gibson’s poem Agrippa: A Book of the Dead
    running in emulation on a 1992-era Mac computer here
  • Read Justine’s article in issue 3 of Inscription

BOOKNESS speaks to Stephen Emmerson

In the third podcast in the series, BOOKNESS talks to poet and artist Stephen Emmerson about his work Translation of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, a paperback novel ‘translated’ into mushrooms.

Listen to the episode here.

In transforming, playing, or recomposing books, I’m trying to reconnect with the magic of it.

A record photograph taken by the Bodleian’s Conservation team showing the condition of  ‘Translation’ (Cons.Res. 43) in May 2021.

I kept it on the window sill … and it completely dried out … the preservation was kind of accidental to begin with …

” A nice array of fruiting”. A record photo showing a detail of the mushroom growth.

It could be rehydrated again, in theory, but hopefully it’s no longer spore producing for the sake of all the other books in the library…

Useful links and glossary checks in this episode:

BOOKNESS speaks to Yiota Demetriou

In this week’s episode, BOOKNESS talks to multi-media artist Yiota Demetriou, about her work  To You, a book printed in thermochromic ink.

Listen to the episode here.

A woman sits behind a table with her right hand placed on an open book. The book has black pages, but close to her hand white patches can be seen, with small black text. In her other hand she holds a mug with a hot drink. In the foreground is an open brown box.
Artist Laura Kriefman experiencing ‘To You’ (Image by George Margelis, 2019)

It’s a book as much as it is an art object … as a book, read it, interact with it, touch its pages, infuse its pages with your warmth … from the art experience, I guess it’s more about the audiences way of how they want to interact with it …

‘To You’ (Rec. d.625) on show in the Sensational Books exhibition at the Weston Library.

I’ve always been interested in interactive books since I was little, I am neurodiverse myself so it’s easier for me … to engage with books that … use different senses because they would capture my entire focus.

A white hand with a green sleeve pressed against a black piece of paper stuck to a grey wall.
A single leaf of ‘To You’ that visitors to the Sensational Books exhibition can interact with.

It is an artwork that is supposed to be touched and it’s supposed to wear and tear … as you start to expose and touch … as you’re reading the content, it becomes more familiar with you …

The interactive materials wall in the Sensational Books exhibition showing a leaf of thermochromic paper that has been activated by the heat of a hand, and shows signs of the many interactions that have happened already over the course of the exhibition.

Useful links and glossary checks in this episode:

  • Find out more about Yiota’s work here.
  • Listen again to episode 1 of BOOKNESS to recap on what artists’ books are and the collection here at the Bodleian.
  • Watch a video of To You in action.
  • Visit the Sensational Books exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford until 4th December 2022, and experience Yiota’s work for yourself!

BOOKNESS speaks to Ben Denzer

For our first artist interview in this series, BOOKNESS talks to book designer and artist Ben Denzer, about his work 20 Slices, a book created from Kraft American cheese.

Listen to the episode here.

’20 Slices’ by Ben Denzer (Photo courtesy of  Catalog Press)

This is already basically a book … these things look like pages, they’re kind of packed together, there’s an order, all I really did was bind those together and give them the cover. I thought it was interesting how it just becomes a book through that process

This image of the Bodleian’s “pristine” copy of 20 Slices  was taken by the Conservation team in May 2021 as part of the documentation of the object to record its condition.

’20 Slices’ by Ben Denzer (Cons.Res. 41)

I think of it as a book. But I also have a very broad definition of a book

20 Slices is on display as part of the Sensational Books exhibition at the Weston Library in Oxford until 4th December 2022.

Photos courtesy of Ian Wallman.