Archive and Special Collections

Four hundred and forty four years

I recently came across what is probably the oldest book of the Leeds College of Art and Architecture Collection. “L’Architettura di Leon Battista Alberti tradotta in lingua Fiorentina da Cosimo Bartoli, gentilhuomo & academico…” was originally written in Latin by Leon Battista Alberti and translated into Italian by Cosimo Bartoli.

This edition of 1565 was published in Venice and dedicated to Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. An earlier edition of the translation had been published in 1550.

Quite apart from the research or even the monetary value of a book like this, I am struck by its value as a historical object. What this object in time represents. It does not have especially fine binding and it looks a little plain, even dull. However what is fascinating is how this object connects  us with a past. For most of its four hundred and forty four years of existence, the majority of people would have been unaware of its content, or be aware of the ideas that would circulate through men of learning, artists, architects ultimately shaping the environment around them. They would not have been able to read. Or write. No route to this or other knowledge in other books.

The book I hold in my hand would have been the preserve of nobility, gentlemen and scholars, certainly not a descendant of yeoman farmers from Cumberland or Scottish Agricultural Labourers. And that is one of the things this small book measures, how the majority of us have come to enjoy the ability to read and all that that implies in comparison with our ancestors who lived in, what Peter Laslett calls “a mute and unreflecting situation”.

Now all I have to do is learn Italian.

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By Dr Keith Rowntree
16 Nov 2017
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