Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hebrew Incunabula at the Rosenbach Museum

This afternoon, I had an introduction to the Hebrew incunabula collection at the Rosenbach Museum here in Philadelphia. The museum is the historic home and (parts of the) book collection of the Rosenbach brothers, one of whom was an important book dealer and collector. The regular tour of the home, which I took the last time I visited Philadelphia, in 2009, is the most charming, literary historic home tour I've ever been on — and something I'd highly recommend. 

The building has a small exhibition of Samuel Yellin ironwork in the lobby; and the museum is the depository of Maurice Sendak's work, so all in all, it's a great place for representations of monsters and other gruesome characters. 

The hands-on tour was part of a series that is definitely for non-specialists, and I think I did a reasonable job of not being a pain in the patoot. Except about this book:

It is a Lisbon Bible — not the famous manuscript Lisbon Bible, but one of a class of printed Hebrew Bibles also referred to as Lisbon Bibles (kind of like Paris Bibles refer to a type of Bible, if that helps situate you at all); they were among the first books printed in the city of Lisbon and are considered to be one of the most skillful examples of early Hebrew printing.

This particular exemplar is particularly of interest to me because it appears to have traveled roughly along the same route out of the Iberian Peninsula as some late medieval/early modern books I'm working on currently and for we're missing about 200 years of ownership information. I'm definitely going to go back and sit with their registrar's file, at least to have some kind of comparandum in terms of the history of the books.

The type of binding is known as a box binding, which is more or less just what it sounds like. 


The woman leading the tour brought out a copy of the Bay Colony Psalter and asked one of the people to read from it to illustrate the way that the Puritans translated in a linear style (that is, word for word, without regard to the syntax in the target language, just like my medieval  translators did). I wish I had volunteered more quickly — he's actually holding one of the very few remaining Bay Colony Psalters in existence, and one of only three in the original sixteenth-century binding. (NYPL has one, too, though I don't know about the binding.)

And this is the first printed image of a matzah:

I'm a little disappointed that I have to write my book this year because I'm definitely not making use of the really amazing local collections; but since I know about them now, and since Philly and NYC are not that far apart, I can definitely think about using them as a really organic foundation for the next big project.

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