Liber Chronicarum – one of history's first illustrated printed books for sale
By Jack Martin
May 4, 2011
It's easy to become blasé in the ubiquitous, 24-7 avalanche of information in which we live our lives – the challenge now is about filtering, organizing and synthesizing information into a useful and relevant form. Think back though to an earlier time when the very first books became available to the public, when the treasure trove of knowledge in our pocket that we take for granted simply did not exist.
A book coming up for auction, the Liber Chronicarum, was one of the very first history books available. It was a groundbreaking book in several ways when it was published in 1493, as it has hundreds of complex illustrations and was one of the only incunables (books published before 1500) to include illustrations.
Less than 1500 copies of the Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) were printed in Latin in July, 1493 with roughly 400 believed to have survived the subsequent 500 years. A German version of the book using the same exquisite illustrations, was published in December of the same year, and only around 300 have not perished with the years.
One of the key reasons for the sharp decline in the number of complete copies of the book still in existence is that the large page size (250 x 342 mm) and large number of original woodcuts (around 645 original illustrations were created for the book) meant that many of the books were broken up and the illustrations sold separately as decorative prints.
Bonhams describes the Nuremberg Chronicle (so described because it was published in Nuremberg) as the "most lavishly illustrated printed book of the 15th century," which is undoubtedly true. For starters, the Gutenberg Bible wasn't printed until 1455 and at the dawn of printing, illustration was rare.
The book is not just a work of art, but one of the original communication innovations. As one of the first books to combine text and illustration successfully including world and European maps and city views, it is essentially a history of the known world.
This fine first edition of the Nuremberg Chronicle will go under the auctioneer's hammer at Bonhams Printed Books and Manuscripts sale in London on June 7. Its sale price has been estimated at GBP25,000-30,000 (US$41,066-$49,273) – an astonishingly small amount for such an important document.
If you have children approaching school age, it would be an ever-appreciating investment that would forever remind them of how lucky they are to live in the information age, and it might just stop one of those vandalistic and opportunistic fine arts dealers from dismembering it to make a profit by selling the illustrations separately.