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Missale Romanum, 1701

We're always making new discoveries in Special Collections, and this is one exciting find.  This Roman missal was published by the Plantin-Moretus Press in 1701.  It's bound in red velvet with silver clasps and decorations, gilt edges, leather tabs, and red silk bookmarks.  The text is printed throughout in red and black, and there are amazing engravings after works by Rubens. Interestingly, the name of a previous owner is engraved on one of the clasps: "HAC Defresne Possessor – 1817."

There are six copies in WorldCat.  Three, including ours, are in North America (two in the United States, and one in Canada).  The others are in the Netherlands. 







Find it in the MERLIN catalog.

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Posted in Rare Book Collection

Spring brings things

The adult form of a privet hawk

Print 3 (detail)

And spring things bring people who collect them –naturalists and artists such as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), the first to hitch entomology to fine art and to make a living doing so. Her interests were not limited to European species; she spent two years stalking the insects of Surinam, a colony the Dutch had acquired from the English in exchange for Manhattan about thirty years earlier. She devoted an equal amount of attention to giant flying roaches as to seemlier species, but there is no question that she had a special passion for caterpillars.

Print 7

Merian’s interest in metamorphosis led her to develop a new form of composition. She would depict a single species at each distinct phase simultaneously. She arranged these in a composition on and around the plant that formed its principal food source. In the image on the left several saw-fly specimens pose on a tulip. The caterpillar sits atop a gooseberry at the bottom center, while the adult fly prepares to land on a petal at the top right. In between on a stem and leaf are the pupa and larva. As Ella Reitsma, curator of a recent exhibit, observes about Merian’s work, “In the details the drawing is realistic; as a whole it is anything but. The beautifully balanced composition conjures up a seeming realism, for the successive stages in the development of an insect can never be found together!  Tricks have been played with time and place” (15)

A saw-fly at caterpillar stage on a gooseberry

Print 7 (detail)


Heliconiidae on Palma Christi

Print 46

Despite such innovation, Merian’s work languished for a long time under the misnomer “minor art.’ It has only recently come into its own, with exhibitions in Los Angeles and Amsterdam, and a digital exhibit hosted by The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library Rare Book Collection. She is even the subject of a children’s book. Ingrid Rowland notes her “crystalline accuracy, ” “incomparable precision,” and the “electric intensity” of her color. She asserts, “there is no question that she was an artist. Her disquieting view of life in all its forms has carefully, cleverly shaped every one of the images that seem, so deceptively, to present intimate, dispassionate snapshots of reality.”

Pervading her works is a healthy Aristotelian sense that something must be known in all its variousness. Working alongside this cognitive disposition and perhaps encouraging it was a habit that she shared with many contemporaries: collecting. Her life-like compositions conceal the artificial taxonomizing and categorizing that lie behind them, making it appear as if she had discovered, rather than created the scene depicted.

These are qualities that Peter the Great evidently appreciated; he was an avid collector of her work, much of which remains in the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. In 1974  The Leningrad Watercolours is a facsimile edition featuring fifty of the works housed there. It is a large-format edition limited to 1750 copies.  Several prints from the collection  are available to view in our reading room. The entire collection collection (RARE QH31 .M4516 .A34 1974) is also available to consult.


Select Bibliography

Reitsma, Ella, Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters: Women of Art and Science. Amsterdam : Rembrandt House Museum, 2008.

Rowland, Ingrid. “The Flowering Genius of Maria Sibylla Merian.” New York Review of Books. April 9, 2009.

Todd, Kim. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

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Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens!

So Handsome!Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on this date in 1812. Dickens, one of the most famous and most beloved of all English novelists, created some of the most powerful characters in fiction. He is known all over the world, and, unlike most great authors, he was rock-star famous in his own time. He moved around a lot as a child and was forced to quit school at twelve years old to work in a factory. Those early memories, however, would later inspire settings both fantastic and real; characters both legendary and sympathetic.

Friends and family described Dickens as full of energy, almost frenetic, and he was able to focus this power into an amazing literary output. He began writing journalism at age 15, and by 24 he had finished the Pickwick Papers and was famous on both sides of the Atlantic.

BOZ!When Dickens began writing A Christmas Carol, perhaps his most well known work in the U.S. today, he was 31 and already the author of Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, and American Notes.

Early in his career he adopted various pen names, the most popular of which, Boz became a nickname as well as a marketing tool. Boz knew how to play to the public and controlled not only his public appearances and persona, but also the illustrations that accompanied his work. From the beginning, Dickens worked very closely with illustrators and vetted every sketch before it went to press. In fact, more than one illustrator claimed later that they had been responsible for story elements, though the author denied this.


The first of these pairings was with George Cruikshank, a popular cartoonist at the time. The author and illustrator became great friends, though their relationship soured due to many factors including Cruikshank’s growing obsession with the Temperance movement.


Dickens started working with Robert Seymour when publishers hired him to provide the words for a series of engravings featuring cockney sporting life. Dickens argued successfully that the words should take precedence over the art. Seymour mimicked Cruikshank’s style for the occasion but was of a depressive sensibility and often in conflict with Dickens over the artwork. He had a nervous breakdown in 1830, and committed suicide upon completion of the second installment.


Perhaps the most popular collaborator, Hablot Knight Browne worked with Dickens for over 23 years. He adopted the nickname Phiz to complement Dickens’ Boz.


“No other illustrator ever created the true Dickens characters with the precise and correct quantum of exaggeration.”

- G.K. Chesterton on H.K. Browne


Charles Dickens changed the face of literary history, revolutionized popular fiction and fame, and left behind immortal masterworks that still resonate with a world of readers.

Celebrate his 200th birthday by dropping by Special Collections in Ellis Library to read the stories as Dickens so meticulously intended. We have many of his greatest works, some beautifully bound, dating from the beginning of the author’s literary career. Experience what created this pop sensation first-hand!


Dickens @ MU Special Collections!

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Special Collections and Rare Books

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