Vikelaia library – Heraklion, Crete

13 – 14 January 2020

Our second organized visit to record incunabula in libraries outside Athens, this time in Crete. Crete is a special case since, until recently, we did not know about the existence of incunabula in its libraries, with the exception of the University of Crete Library copy, recorded and digitized in the digital library Anemi.

On the one hand, this absence of early printed books seems logical, considering the history of the island: the repeated sieges, battles and disasters, culminating in the Cretan Revolution in the mid-19th century, which has been symbolically etched in collective memory with the blowing up of the Arkadi Monastery in 1866. On the other hand, Crete had always held a special place among the colonies of Venice, while Cretan scholars and printers pioneered the first years of printing leaving their mark on its evolution.

Thus, our enthusiasm was great, when our colleague Kostas Papadakis, curator of the Closed access Collections of the University of Crete Library, informed us about more incunabula in other libraries on the island. It’s only fair to start with a big thank you for his contribution to this project.

The Vikelaia Library is definitely one of the ornaments of the city of Heraklion, something which becomes immediately obvious to the visitor. The people of Heraklion love it and use it, while its building – recently renovated, in the last decade – dominates in one of the most central parts of the city, just opposite the Morosini Fountain, the famous “Lions Square”. The director and colleagues of the library, with great willingness, prepared for us a pleasant workspace to study the incunable of their collection and we quickly got to work! 

The incunable of the Vikelaia

Aristophanes, Comediae novem. Venice: Aldus Manutius, Romanus, 1498.

The Vikelaia Library has a complete copy of the volume of Aristophanes’s Works printed by Aldus Manutius (Venice 1498). The arrival of this book in Vikelaia coincides with the first steps of the library in 1908: it belonged to the Collection of Dimitrios Vikelas, one of the most important named collections of the Vikelaia, alongside those of Giorgos and Maro Seferis, Elli Alexiou and others. 

The library register for the Vikelas Collection

The book, unlike others in the collection, does not bear Vikelas’ stamp, but it appears in the  library register for the Vikelas Collection under number 2618 from Box no. 1. The number of the box is also indicated on the book’s parchment binding, as clearly shown in the photographs of the conservator, documenting its condition before the conservation process.

The copy of Aristophanes has been fully restored by the Vikelaia’s conservator. The textblock has been separated from its binding, a limp 18th-century parchment with a manuscript title and a decorative ornament on the spine, which is kept in the library’s conservation laboratory. The textblock has not been resewn; it remains separated into quires, something which admittedly made our job, especially the process of collation, much easier.

Apart from the fact that the book was in the hands of Dimitrios Vikelas at the beginning of the last century, and was the oldest title in his collection, we do not have much information about other former owners or readers. But they make their presence known in the pages of the book, even if they do not reveal their identity. Leafing through it, we found at least two more readers from previous centuries, in addition to Vikelas himself and the modern conservator.

The first two comedies, Plutus (Wealth) and Nebulae (Clouds), seem to have been meticulously read by an anonymous 17th-century reader, probably a student of Greek, who added his notes in light brown ink to the margins of the text. This person writes in Greek and Latin, either copying words from the commentary, or translating words from the commentary or the text itself.

At some point in time between this first reader and the second reader of the book, the volume was bound in parchment and the paper was trimmed, resulting in some of the early notes being cut off. The second hand that we find in the pages of the book, traced to the 19th century, belongs to someone with obvious fluency in Greek.

Naturally, the first thought that crossed our minds was that this hand could belong to the first identified owner of the book, Dimitrios Vikelas. With the help of our colleagues from the Vikelaia, we found in his collection various volumes with notes written by his hand. Unfortunately, Vikelas’ handwriting does not appear to be the same as the one in Aristophanes; the second reader will also remain anonymous for now.

Our warmest thanks for their hospitality and their help in facilitating our research are due to the head of the library, Dimitris Savvas, to library personnel, Venetia Touvleliou and Stephania Terzaki, as well as the conservator, Philippos Lamprakis. Thank you!

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