David Bjoerling Jensen

Tag: rare books

The Archimedes Palimpsest

palimpsest (palimp sest′), n.  a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.  [1655-65;  <  L  palimsēstus  <  G  palímpsēstos  rubbed again  =  pálin again + psēstós  scraped, rubbed, v.  adj.  of psân to rub smooth]

The Archimedes Palimpsest

So here’s the historical breakdown, convoluted as it may be:

Circa mid 3rd century BCE, the great mathematician/physicist/astronomer of antiquity, Archimedes, writes some of his most significant treatises and equations on a series of papyrus scrolls in Syracuse.  Then, approximately 1,200 years later, transcriptions of the scrolls were handwritten onto parchment leaves by a scribe working in Constantinople, and bound into folio codex form around the year 1000 CE.  Roughly 200 years later, a Christian monk scrapes the parchment clean (well, almost) and hand writes prayers in Greek over the mathematical text, thereby creating the palimpsest.  The new prayer book is used in religious study for centuries, but ends up being stored in the Greek Orthodox monastery, Mar Saba–one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world–for several more centuries into the future.  Fast forward to 1906, Danish philologist and historian, Johan Ludvig Heiberg, discovers the ancient manuscript, transcribes what he can make out of the obscure base layer text using only a microscope, and photographs each page (the transcriptions and images are later published as part of his doctoral dissertation entitled Quaestiones Archimedeae.).  Fast forward again to 1998…to make a long story short, the manuscript had gone missing, and through a series of rediscovery and changes of ownership, the mysterious little book found its way onto the stage of Christie’s auction house in New York City, where it sold to an anonymous private collector for $2 million.

In a nutshell, that’s the historical lineage of how this project–what I’m really getting around to telling you about–came to be.  Not long after its purchase in New York, the artifact was deposited at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in order to conserve it, image it, and study it.  A team of experts from a variety of disciplines–conservators, bibliographers, paleographers, mathematicians, physicists–was assembled in order to achieve these tasks.

The most impressive part of all of this, to me anyway, is the unimaginably sophisticated imaging techniques used to illuminate and decipher the ancient writings.  It’s all spelled out on the project’s official website, but essentially, this is what happens:  nothing shy of a particle accelerator is used to generate a certain wavelength of x-rays, which, when turned onto the leaves, cause ferrous deposits left by the original iron gall ink to glow without damaging the parchment on which they’re written…and the sub-written text can then be examined plain as day.  Amazing!

All of the resulting work performed by these astute scientists has been compiled and made digitally accessible and freely available for public for use with the only stipulation being to give credit where credit is due.  Ironically, the wealthy benefactor of this elaborate project wishes to take no credit and insists on remaining anonymous.

The project is headed by William Noel, Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum.  He gave a brilliant TED talk, which encapsulates this fascinating project.  If you find this as interesting as I do, I highly recommend watching this short clip:

Likewise, check out the project’s homepage, featuring all of the ins-and-outs of this undertaking, other video clips, and numerous links to well-respected publications on the topic:  http://archimedespalimpsest.org/

And one last thing…for a succinct timeline on the chronology I ran through above, you can view a PBS Nova article at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/inside-archimedes-palimpsest.html


Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.  New York:  Random House Reference,  2005.



Do you like antiquarian books?  Do you like well written, thought provoking blogs that cast the English language in its full blown glory à la fanciful imagination, acerbic wit, and properly placed but not overly used tongue-in-cheek sarcasm?  Do you like London?

If you answered yes to at least two of the three questions above, then you’ll likely enjoy the online journal of  Adrian Harrington Rare Books.  There, “information, updates, rantings, musings, and pretty pictures related (loosely I would imagine) to the world of rare and antiquarian books will be brought to you by a number of different personalities, some of whom cohabit in the same person’s head.”

Got a few minutes to stimulate your zeal for bookish intemperance?  Check out Bibliodeviancy.

It’s Like Magic!

ABRACADABRA!  As the mission statement reflects, the Conjuring Arts Research Center is a “not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of magic and its allied arts, which include psychic phenomenon, hypnosis, deceptive gambling, mentalism, ventriloquism, juggling, and sleight of hand techniques.”

Based in the heart of New York City, the center appeals to practitioners and performers of the conjuring arts, academic historians, collectors, writers, and general enthusiasts; which serves to fill the gap between private collections of magic related history and information, and the public.

Accordingly, the crown jewel of this cultural institution is its magical library, housing over 12,000 volumes on the subject–over 500 of which are early printed works predating the year 1700.  In addition to monographs, a variety of magic-related periodicals are also a part of the collection, some published as early as the 18th century.  Included among the holdings, as well, is an extensive collection of unpublished manuscripts on magic methods, some dating back to the 15th century.

Additionally, the Conjuring Arts Research Center fosters and facilitates an outreach program directed toward disadvantaged youth and adults called Hocus Pocus.  The focus of Hocus Pocus is not magic entertainment, but rather, magic education…the intended audience: patients at children’s hospitals, veteran’s hospitals, and at-risk youth.  The goal of the program is to empower participants by introducing them to fun and accessible magic effects that, with some effort, they will master and be able to share in other settings.  Among the desired outcomes aimed at by this program are relief from boredom and monotony, distraction from physical pain, emotional support, inspired curiosity, increased self-esteem, and FUN!

After all, who doesn’t like magic?!?

Fore-Edge Paintings

About a month ago, I posted an entry about book paintings, describing one artist’s interesting use of books whereby stacks of these beloved objects were used as a “canvas” to be painted upon.  Well this time around, I report on a much more antiquated, subtle, and artistically crafted use of “book-as-canvas” known as fore-edge paintings.  The fore-edge of a book is the part of the text block opposite the spine, the edge of the leaves a reader thumbs through.  Fore-edge paintings, naturally, can allude to any painting on the fore-edge, but the most common usage of the term refers a “hidden art.”  In ABC for Book Collectors, John Carter describes this art as:

an English technique quite widely practiced in the second half of the 17th century in London and Edinburgh…whereby the fore-edge of the book, very slightly fanned out and held fast, is decorated with painted views or conversation pieces.  The edges are then squared up and gilded in the ordinary way, so that the painting remains concealed (and protected) while the book is closed:  fan out the edges and it reappears (108).

This video clip provides a quick demonstration:


For much more information on this wondrous book art, please be directed toward a website maintained by the Boston Public Library entitled On the Edge: The Hidden Art of Fore-Edge Book Painting, which highlights a special collection of more than 200 high-resolution images of fore-edge paintings housed in their Rare Books Department.  The site contains numerous articles written by expert bibliographers regarding historical and curatorial insight into the featured selections contained therein.


Carter, John and Nicolas Barker.  ABC for Book Collectors, 8th ed.  Delaware:  Oak Knoll Press.  2004.


For those of you bibliographers, print-making historians, natural history enthusiasts, illustrators, graphic artists, and general appreciators of all things related to book arts, I would like to share one very well put together and amusing blog:  BibliOdyssey.  Among the tags chronicling the wonderfully rich and pedantically detailed postings you’ll find artistry, ephemera, fauna, flora, monsters, printing, science, and others.

Below is a sampling of a few striking images–all of which are reproductions originally printed in books–to be found on this blog.

Please enjoy!…

tori, maihouou, maitsuru, houou (animal - kamon)

Examples of "Kamon," i.e. Japanese family crests.

toucan illustration - coloured engraving

This hand-colored plate, an engraving of a toucan, was taken from 'Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux de Paradis et des Rolliers, Suivie de celle des Toucans et des Barbus' -- François Levaillant ; Jacques Barraband ; Perée, Jacques Louis ; Grémillier ; Bouquet, Louis, Paris : Denné le jeune / Perlet, 1806.

A fine example of a woodcut illustration printed in 'Monstrorum Historia' by Aldrovandi, first published in 1642.

“Withus oragainstus”

Renowned renegade artist, Banksy, known for his bold street art and radical stance on the “War on Terror,” sure pulled a fast one when he surreptitiously hung this mockery of a specimen of the harlequin beetle, Acrocinus longimanus, in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Biodiversity.

“Withus oragainstus”

With glued on plastic sidewinder missiles under jet fighter wings and a satellite dish protruding near the antennae, the artist’s commentary on this piece suggests it is “an outsider’s view of the modern American bug, bristling with listening devices and military hardware.”  Allegedly, the prank was executed as the artist and his accomplices staged an ostentatious gay lover’s quarrel to distract security guards while the piece was mounted to a column in the Hall of Biodiversity with Velcro.  It inconspicuously hung there for 5 days before anyone noticed or took action to remove it.  As an indisputable unique artwork, the glass-encased specimen, “Withus oragainstus,” is now housed in the AMNH Research Library’s Rare Book Collection.

Click here for the cataloged AMNH OPAC record of this work…and here for a related article.  Also, visit  Banksy’s website.

The Morgan Library and Museum

The East Room, the original library.

The West Room, Pierpont Morgan's study

In two words, quintessential elegance!  The Morgan Library and Museum, which houses one of the world’s greatest collections of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, prints, and art artifacts from antiquity in virtually every medium, has undergone a fairly recent restoration to bring back it’s original grandeur.  In addition to retrofitting the lighting system, which now employs LED lighting for purposes of optimum preservation, the renovation has also included cleaning marble surfaces and ornamentation, refurbishing original fixtures, reupholstering period furniture, and installing new, beautifully crafted display cases.  All rooms of the original 1906 library are now available for public viewing.

Among  a few seasonally appropriate items currently on display is a first-edition copy of A Christmas Carol, in the “Charles Dickens at 200” exhibition.

  Charles Dickens-A Christmas Carol-Title page-First edition 1843.jpg

This classic novel, completed by Dickens in just six weeks, was originally printed in London by Chapman and Hall.  The first print run of 6,000 copies was released on December 17, 1843.  By Christmas Eve that year, all copies had sold out!  Click here to view a page-by-page digital facsimile of a signed, hand-written manuscript held at the Morgan.

Also on display in the Rotunda is an original sheet music printing of “The One Horse Open Sleigh.”  Commonly known as “Jingle Bells,” the song was originally composed by Pierpont Morgan’s uncle, James Lord Pierpont, in the 1850s.  This has become one of the most recognized holiday songs ever written!

Page 1 of 4, The one horse open sleigh /

 ‘Tis the season!…

**Crystal Bridges**

The museum's unassuming drive-up entrance.

Reflecting pool between gallery wings.

Nestled in an idyllic valley in the Ozark Mountains of Bentonville, Arkansas sits a brand new cultural treasure, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.  Founded by Alice Walton (Wal-Mart heiress), this museum, which opened on 11-11-11, has an endowment in the ballpark of $800 million–nearly four times that of the Whitney Museum.  Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the building is an architectural showpiece in and of itself.  And as for the art, the “heartland of America” setting is perfectly appropriate for its purely American focus.  The collections span a range from the Colonial period, though the 19th and 20th centuries, and up to contemporary American art.  The works displayed in many of the gallery spaces are easily comparable to what one might find in the MoMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including works by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Eakins, Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and many, many others.  Paintings are the focus, but sculptures and installation art abound.  In addition to artwork, the museum houses a library with open stacks for art reference resources, and several computer terminals with internet access, subscription databases, and art-specific research guides.  The library also contains a rare books section, all of which were printed in America.

Say what you will about Wal-Mart, but this cultural institution is well worth a visit!  Best of all, thanks to a $20 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation, the museum is FREE for everyone…forever!

For more information on the background and development of this fine museum, visit the following links to publications in:

The New Yorker

The Huffington Post