The seamless art of Renaissance bookbinding

January 14, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The book of prayers, made in Rome about 1550, measures only about 1-by- 3/4 inches, but its cover is made of gold and enamel set with tiny rubies. The lady who owned it may have worn it as a pendant hanging from her neck, or from her waist, for the binding makes it really a piece of jewelry as much as a book.

This is the smallest and perhaps the most dazzling object in the Walters Art Gallery's "The Art of Fine Binding in the Renaissance"; but that's not to say it's the best looking or most interesting, because there are many candidates for those honors.

This represents one of the best in the series of manuscript gallery shows. Bookbinding is a large subject, but curator Elizabeth Burin has narrowed the focus here to the 15th and 16th centuries, when techniques largely taken from the Islamic world were introduced to Europe, with major results.

The show marks a change of pace from the subject matter of most of these exhibits; and the variety and richness of the examples on view will come as a surprise to many, for the binding is what you don't see in the usual manuscript show, when the books are open.

The material is extremely well organized and labeled to bring out various aspects of the subject, including the materials, the kinds and changes in designs employed and many of the techniques used.

A section on old techniques contains textile bindings, which were being replaced by leathers in the late 16th century but were still popular in northern Europe. A red velvet English or Dutch binding for a book of hours is delicately decorated in silver foil wound around silk threads and with raised flowers of silver wire.

Blind (non-gold) tooling -- which means to impress designs with special tools -- is shown, and this is also where the tiny jeweled binding appears.

Among late 15th- and 16th-century innovations are the use of gold tooling and the introduction from Islam of the grained goatskin leather called morocco. Strapwork designs -- patterns made of bands of color that look like straps -- became popular, and the decoration might be painted on, or onlayed or inlaid, two related ways to attach cut-out designs.

Some of the most interesting books in the show appear in the section on owners' tastes. A bible that belonged to Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) bears his coat-of-arms, and there is a morocco binding made in the workshop of the French royal binder Claude de Picques. But the most unusual example is the binding on a book about calculating, that has medallions painted with personifications of the mathematical arts -- geometry, arithmetic, astrology and music; this was made for Cuthbert Tunstall, early 16th-century bishop of London and the mathematician who wrote the book.

l The exhibit ends with a section on styles of decoration -- Islamic, Greek and others -- which contains among other examples a French polychromed arabesque binding whose curved forms may constitute the most beautiful design in the show; it also combines a number of techniques including gold tooling and stippling, onlay and painting.

A glossary of terms helps the viewer to understand what's going on, and there's a good bit to understand; the clearly written labels contain a wealth of information and contribute substantially to the success of a show that's as instructive as it is handsome.


What: Book Bindings.

Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Through April 11.

Admission: $4 adults; $3 seniors; free to students and museum members.

Call: (410) 547-9000.

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