Books are magic - and there's a reason why

March 05, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

A book is like no other object. I am almost as incapable of putting a trashy book into the trash as I am a worthy one. There is magic about the very concept of the book that seems to transfer, with no dues required, to all books.

Why?

There can be little argument that books are the vital vehicles of every system of law, of science, of culture in the broadest and most specific senses. Only graphic art and architecture stand on their own, and it is hard to imagine either having evolved far without the help of what books do.

That is a sentimentality so strikingly obvious that it barely bears repeating. But, like sea otters and constitutional law, obvious truths gain strength from nourishment. Nothing has ever more powerfully fed the idea of books' magic in my mind than a recent visit I paid to The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. There, through May 7, is an exhibition titled "The Painted Page: Italian Renaissance Book Illumination, 1450-1550."

That may sound obscure, particular, boring to anybody but an established fanatic - in short, bookish. Not so.

The exhibit contains more than 100 works from some 24 collections around the world, put together by the Morgan and London's Royal Academy of Arts. They include Bibles, missals, and the huge and glorious books in which hymns were recorded in such large proportions that an entire choir could read from them. They include - in fascinatingly similar form and ornamentation - copies of the works of Roman and Greek classics and even some contemporary writers.

The paintings on pages of books are called illuminations. These were done by many of the most distinguished artists of the era, LTC great Renaissance painters. They range from full-page initials to the most miniature portraits of saints and patrons. There is much gold leaf and blazing color, mainly tempera, brilliantly preserved for five centuries by being between closed covers. The subjects include elaborate Biblical story scenes, celebrations of martyrdoms, and much more cheerful, secular stuff. Putti (the plural of putto, the fanciful figure we usually call a cherub) soar, frolic and lounge all over the pages. Putti galore.

These books were created only because of immense ostentation, built on huge and readily expendable personal or institutional wealth. They are the 15th century's equivalent of a late 20th century self-made zillionaire buying a professional ball team.

But even the most excessive example of this purse-pride is redeemed by two elements. Barring the grossest human irresponsibility (say, global nuclear war or book burning), the books are eternal, immortally luxurious. And, more moving yet, in many cases the motivation was perhaps the most splendid of all human endeavors: The will to draw together into one force the strengths of spiritual values and temporal reason.

The late 15th and early 16th centuries were the moment in history - if something like a century can be called a moment - in which the most resilient values of classic Greek and Roman civilizations courted and married formal Christian discipline. In that process, both were freed: The classic broke out of the dust bin of the Dark Ages; Christian doctrine shook loose the limitations of the ascetic or simple magic.

The issue of that marriage, of course, was humanism. Forget all present efforts to kidnap that term for petty political ransom. Humanism became and remained the motive force of most of the last five centuries' accomplishments that earn the right to be called both decent and intelligent.

To stand quietly in the presence of those books and bits of books is to be witness, in an almost magic manner, to that marriage.

Separately and together, these books are both emblems and artifacts of the unity of the mystic and the material, the pure and the practical.

In a way that is too wondrous to be ascribed to coincidence, they also are prefaces to all that books are today. For just as these unique, unreproducible individual objects were being painstakingly inscribed and illuminated, printing was developing. The first use of movable type - by the elusive Johannes Gutenberg or whomever - came in about 1450. By the 1470s, printing was growing strong in Italy and elsewhere.

So printing was emerging from birth to early adolescence during the century of the show.

The words in the earliest - and many of the most powerful - of the volumes have been inscribed by hand, in artful, lovely, painstaking inked letters. The earliest printing used type, composed of individually sculpted wooden letters, that is still large, still somehow very hand-hewn. Then, in the latest elements of the show, the techniques of printing have developed dramatically. Type has become smaller, more modern looking.

In 1550, a book still was prohibitively expensive for all but the rich and powerful. But the genie of mass production of the written word was well out of the tiny bottle belonging to the princely elite, and growing fast toward availability to the masses.

Thus literacy grew from a privilege and power available to a minuscule few. Access to all that books contain, and do, began its march toward the universal. Today, illiteracy still plagues too many people and countries. But books indisputably have been history's greatest social and economic equalizer.

Take one to lunch.

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