A very special delivery

The Annenberg Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library could be described as the un-Rosengarten. No undergraduates cramming for finals mar its perfect serenity. A large oriental rug worn to soft shades of beige and blue and burnished wood cases displaying green and red morocco-bound volumes greet the visitor.

I had come to look at some of the some of the University’s treasures before they are carefully placed in hand-made boxes and then packed and shipped to Belgium. “We have never done this before—even to a local institution,” said director Michael Ryan. “This for us is an nervous-making undertaking.”

Some of Penn’s most important and beautiful early books and manuscripts are destined for an exhibition celebrating the renovation of the Central Library of Katholiecke Universiteit Leuven. It also recognizes Penn’s decades-long scholarly exchange program with this oldest university in the Low Countries, founded in 1425.

Coals to Newcastle

“To part with the second quarto of ‘Hamlet,’ to part with the 14th-century manuscript with a Chaucer poem in it, to part with Newton’s own copy of Ashmole,” Ryan explained like an anxious mother hen, albeit one sporting a Jermyn Street broad blue-striped shirt and red tie. “You can’t send over second-best.”

Literae Humaniores in the University of Pennsylvania Library” is the title of the exhibition. The topic, “humanism” was chosen by Leuven. “We, in our parochial way, thought they would want to see things that were American,” Ryan said. “But no, they want to see how they are reflected in American collections. We thought it was like carrying coals to Newcastle or mussels to Belgium, but that is what we did.”

We walked back to the stacks, where the books for Leuven have just returned from being weighed. Rare book librarians are inveterate storytellers. In the trade they call it provenance—the tale of where the books have been, who made them, who sold them, who owned them is all part of the magic.

Clues to cultures

Ryan showed me a copy of the Eliot Indian Bible, the first Bible produced in North America written in a Native American language never recognized before or since called Massachuset. Ryan hasn’t given up entirely on getting some American content into this show. “It’s a Bible so we are going to try to sneak it in.”

An early edition of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” is included because it speaks to the history of the University and the appearance of humanism in 18th century America. The book, donated in 1749 by Lewis Evans, a noted cartographer and surveyor was the earliest gift to the Penn library.

Ryan turned the vellum pages of a 14th-century French chansonnier adorned with elaborate red capitals on every page looking for a song thought to have been written by Chaucer. “Chaucer was sort of a bridge,” he said, ‘It speaks to the interdependence of the cultures of northern France, the Low Countries and England in the late Middle Ages.”

The story of a mid-16th century Luther Bible that had sat on the shelf at Penn for many years is the kind of thing that keeps rare books aficionados hooked. On the inside front cover is an arresting portrait of Luther. On the inside back cover is an equally compelling portrait of his executive officer Melancthon. Recent scholarship suggests that the portraits were from the studio of German master Lucas Cranach, the younger.

Daniel Traister, the curator for the Leuven show, said, “This was hidden in plain view. These are all books that don’t [immediately] yield up what they have to say.”

Penn’s treasures are a tribute to extraordinary men and women who for over 250 years have left the University a legacy of scholarship and connoisseurship. “The rare book collection at Penn is a large pond, fed by many rivers, big rivers and small rivers, tributaries, streamlets and islets.” Now, it’s time to knock the socks off folks on the other side of the water.

You can see 20 of the objects in the show at www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/leuven.

Originally published on April 17, 2003