A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Four: Learning from a Damaged Book, Margarita Philosophica (Basel, 1508)

Exposed sewing.

Exposed sewing.

As a book conservator, I am drawn to a book for the binding, not the contents. I enjoy learning about different book structures and making historic models in order to fully understand how a book is constructed. This understanding is then useful for making any repairs that need to be done. Because the structure of the book is generally covered, this can be challenging. For this reason, the Margarita Philosophica (Basel, 1508) drew my attention. The spine is missing which means that the sewing is exposed and can be studied. There is a remnant of the linen spine lining on the inside of the wooden boards. The book is missing the metal fastenings that would have kept it securely shut, but the boards are covered in brown calf and blind-tooled with an image of a wanderer with a knapsack. For the Margarita Philosophica, the best conservation decision was to do nothing, other than make a sturdy box. But for me, the chance to study the book’s structure was enormously significant.

It turns out that the contents of the book are also interesting. The Margarita Philosophica, first published in 1503, was widely used as a textbook. Written in Latin by Gregor Reisch, this encyclopedia of twelve chapters is illustrated with many woodcuts, and has an index and printed marginalia. It remained in use by students for about fifty years as a comprehensive source of knowledge. Both the binding and the contents are beautiful and provide valuable information on 16th-century books and learning.

Alice Austin
Conservator
Woodcut Illustration.

Woodcut Illustration.

Cover, Margarita Philosophica, gift of Michael Zinman.

Cover, Margarita Philosophica, gift of Michael Zinman.