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A Hidden Gem in Our Rare Books Collection

April 10, 2017
Baruch Spinoza’s René Descartes’ Principiorum Philosophiae image

This early edition of Baruch Spinoza’s "René Descartes’ Principiorum Philosophiae" contained a hidden surprise.

Philosophers, historians, book buffs take note as Rutgers' rare books librarian Michael Joseph describes how a quest to find Baruch Spinoza’s René Descartes’ Principiorum Philosophiae led to a startling discovery in our Special Collections and University Archives:

A request from the Spinoza Society sent us into the stacks in search of Baruch Spinoza’s René Descartes’ Principiorum Philosophiae. The Dutch philosopher’s response to René Descartes’ ontological arguments concerning substance (dualistic views that Spinoza, arguably a pantheist, sought to correct) was the first and only work of his to appear in print bearing his name, and Rutgers University Libraries’ copy, published in Amstelodami by Johannem Riewerts, is from the first edition. What particularly interested us was the binder’s waste on the covers, which clearly belonged to an early printed book.

It was a practice of book binders, dating back to the Medieval Period, to use whatever paper they had to hand to reinforce the strength of and to decorate a book’s covers. The paper covering the Libraries’ Principiorum Philosophiae included scribal marks (rubrications) and type that resembled the Roman types in other volumes in our rare book collection (specifically, in our copies of Nicolas Jenson’s Suetonius, and Vindelinus’s letters of Francesco Filelfo. It seemed highly possible that we had discovered leaves from an incunabulum we hadn’t recorded in our archives, but what we actually had proved to be even more exciting.

Working with our rare book cataloger, Silvana Notarmaso and Jeroen M.M. van de Ven, a postdoc researcher at Utrecht University in the Faculty of the Humanities, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, we determined that the leaves had once belonged to the editio princeps (first edition), of Aristotle’s De animalibus, a notable work in the history of Western philosophy inasmuch as it incorporates Aristotle’s thinking about the natural world, represents the first work on animal physiology, the first text on embryology, and includes a lengthy and quite graphic discussion on generation—with which Silvana notes our leaves are specifically concerned.

Moreover, in identifying and classifying groups of animals and in explicating their functioning as a part of nature, Aristotle provided the basis for his philosophical analyses of relationships between structure, function, and purpose. De animalibus epitomizes Aristotle’s organizing principle.

Of course, we don’t know whether the binder of the Libraries’ copy of René Descartes’ Principiorum Philosophiae intended or even realized the intellectual connections he was drawing between cover and text (or the graphic nature of the reproductive passages), but Aristotle’s interest in relating natural specimens to a holistic system conceptually anticipates Spinoza’s central concern in his text, describing materiality and material objects as but modes of substance. Regardless of the binder’s intent or interests, we may claim that the Libraries’ Spinoza is one of those rare instances in which one can tell a book by its cover.

The Rutgers De animalibus (such as it was) was published in Venice by Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen in 1476, a work translated by Theodorus Gaza and edited by Ludovicus Podocatharus. The printers Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen were German merchants-turned-printers who acquired their printing material from Venice’s first printer (also a German immigrant), Vindelinus de Spira in 1473, during a slump in Venetian printing. Along with Nicolas Jenson, Colonia and Manthen dominated the highly-competitive Venetian printing business during the 1470s, producing 86 editions from 1474 to 1480, and merged their business with his in 1480. Intact copies of this edition of De animalibus are rare and highly valued. The last copy to go up to auction in 1998 sold for $96,000. While the Libraries own extraordinary samples of early Venetian printing in the form of intact works by Vindelinus, Jenson, and Aldus Manutius, these leaves are (as far as we know) the lone examples of work by Colonia and Manthem in our collection.

Note: The specific leaves covering the Libraries’ copy are from book 7, chapters 4 and 7 (sigs |1v, |2v,  |3v and |4v).