Toppan Selection: Alexander de Hales, Summa universae theologiae, pars seconda

Alexander of Hales (ca.1185 to 1245) was a Franciscan scholar from Gloucestershire, England, who taught theology and philosophy in Paris. He was obviously still popular in the fifteenth century when this book was printed in Germany by Anton Koberger: one of the most important international printer/publishers of the time. (Koberger is most well-known for producing what is known in English as the Nuremberg Chronicle, and was also the godfather of the great Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer.)

Donated by Dr. William F. Fitzhugh, this Koberger example is historically significant because it one of only four of the Toppan Library’s thirteen volumes of “incunabula” (i.e., books printed before 1500) which still retain their fifteenth-century bindings (although the metal center and corner pieces have been stripped off this one at some point). It is a good example of characteristic German binding of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: sturdy, alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards; two brass clasps; and hand-tooled decorations covering both front and back covers with different designs. Although quite worn now, we need to remember that it would have looked a lot nicer when new (over five hundred years ago!), particularly with its metal fittings intact.

The outside of this book gives no clue as to the surprise waiting inside. As one carefully opens the heavy wooden cover, and proceeds to the first page of text, a stunning illumination glows from the page. Although this book was printed on a handpress in Gothic typefont, we see the love of gold embellishment continuing from the Medieval illuminated manuscript tradition. A skilled artist has painted (onto a space left on the printed page) a multi-colored frame around a foliated green initial letter, set on a gilt background. (Although it looks to us like a small a, it is actually a form of a manuscript-style capital C, and starts the word “Completis.”) The alternation of bands of color on the frame is intriguing; and the diapered pattern is exquisite, with lines created by a dotted roll tool, and filled in with a three-leaf hand tool pressed repeatedly into the gold.

The rest of the large book is filled with “rubrications” of red or blue initial letters, energetically hand-painted with calligraphic flourishes onto high-quality linen rag paper. Although we do not have the other three volumes of the set (it is just part two), we are proud to have it in the Toppan Library for people to enjoy.

–Anne Marie Lane, Rare Books Curator

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