Book Macabre

The other day a pretty somber, but intriguing little book came into the lab.

Just from the decoration, the subject is pretty apparent.

It turns out this is the first authorized edition in Italian of the Dance of Death, printed in 1549 (the binding is from a later period). The book is just one example of a long-standing artistic genre which seeks to remind the reader or viewer that no matter one’s station in life, death comes to us all. The wonderfully detailed woodcuts, designed by Hans Holbein the Younger, depict a personified Death interacting with kings, the clergy, and commoners alike.

This particular volume is interesting because it has been extra-illustrated. Probably at the time it was put in it’s current binding, leaves of thicker wove paper were added to the textblock and engraved copies of the woodcuts were tipped to them. While the designs are sometimes mirrored, it is interesting how faithful the engravings are to Holbein’s original composition.

If you would like to see more of the images, you can view a digitized copy of this book online here. This item will get a few straightforward stabilizing repairs so that it is safe to handle in the reading room. This seems like a good candidate for Rubenstein’s annual Screamfest event in the Fall.




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