One of the joys of welcoming visitors to the Library is the chance to explore the collections ourselves to find items that will appeal to the new audience. Daniel Barbaro’s La pratica della perspettiva (Venice, 1568) often makes an appearance on such occasions, as it illustrates several key points about Robert Whipple’s book collecting habits. It’s also a regular feature in the survey section of our Science in Print seminar series. On the one hand it serves very well as a model for collation, being a folio in 4s with regular gatherings but for signature P, which includes an extra leaf to accommodate a woodcut diagram across the centrefold.
Collation: Folio: A–O4 P6 Q–Z4 Aa4 Bb6, 104 leaves, 195,  p.
But by far the most remarkable feature of the book is its exuberant painted vellum cover. Although now kept in a custom-made acid-free cover to protect the delicate painted vellum strips, the coloured decoration on the front and back covers and the joyful green and red dots on the textblock edges make it stand out in the context of a collection of otherwise modestly bound historical scientific books.
The origins of the binding are obscure and no one has yet recognised its equal. Conservation work was carried out in 2013 by colleagues at the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium to secure the corner of one of the vellum strips in the bottom left-hand corner of the front cover, which was in danger of becoming detatched, but this yielded no obvious further clue.
Although crude the decoration seems too regular to be the work of a small child, and Barbaro’s text, a serious architectural treatise, was unlikely material for the nursery, though it’s possible an older family member may have enjoyed personalizing volumes from the family library. The manuscript inscription on the title page, “Di Nestore Monteselino 1614”, is the only indication we have of an owner before the early twentieth century, so it’s impossible to speculate further about this.
Robert Whipple purchased the volume for 5l 15s 6d from Sotheran & Co. via his agent Thomas Court in 1929, at the end of a busy decade of book collecting, as attested by his notebook. Whipple was part of a wave of collectors who mined a rich seam in the market for scientific and other special rare printed books in the 1920s and 1930s, but unlike many who sought to improve on the appearance of their treasures by commissioning new bindings, he seems generally to have been more interested in their contents than their aesthetics. For this we have good reason to be grateful, since, although several volumes are now in a fragile condition, much original evidence of early bindings is preserved which otherwise might have been lost. Barbaro’s quirky covers are thus a fortunate survival, and a delight to all who encounter them.
Sylvia De Renzi, Instruments in Print: Books from the Whipple Collection (Cambridge, Whipple Museum for the History of Science, 2000)
& Roger Gaskell, in conversation.
Anna Jones, Librarian