Detectives with a Wood’s lamp: hunting for early users


Detectives with a Wood’s lamp: hunting for early users

It’s often the case with early books that the marks and other notes left by their previous owners have been cancelled by their successors – scored out heavily or lightly in ink, rubbed away or even removed completely by cutting them out – in the desire to take away all visible traces of the volumes’ previous provenance.

On the final page of an edition of the Bible (Biblia latina. Venice, 1498. Subiaco, S. Scolastica II.C.11, c. EE4v - ISTC ib00603000, MEI 02125070), for example, a 15th-century inscription, almost certainly of ownership, written in a spidery and wavering script, has been heavily crossed out in red ink. Lower down the same page another inscription has been completely covered with ink.

In the copy at II.C.6 (ia00789000, 02125082) an ownership inscription on leaf [a]2r has been erased and made unreadable even under ultraviolet light – ‘D. Pauli […]’ can just be made out. Another probable ownership inscription on leaf [a]3r has been crossed through by writing over it and staining the lower margin of the page in black ink.

In II.C.21 (if00137000, 02127166), the upper part of the title-page has been cut away in order to remove the ownership note which was written on it.

In more recent times collectors in the 19th and 20th centuries carried out what were concerted campaigns to wash the leaves in early printed books in order to obliterate not only marks of ownership but also all marginal annotations and suchlike, since the ideal – and most valuable – model of how a copy of an early printed book should look was when it was completely washed of any addition which had been made to it after it came off the printing press.

In the last decades of the 20th century – and very occasionally before then - a new awareness of the cultural importance of those traces in books - words, drawings, marks – which have become stratified over time started to emerge. Non-invasive scientific instruments were used in the effort to recover these traces, such as the ultraviolet lamp (or Wood’s lamp) which can reveal inscriptions written in ink which have been washed away or have faded over time.


Johannes Versorius, Dicta super septem tractatus Petri Hispani. Naples, 1477. Subiaco, S. Scolastica III.C.3, &11v purchasing note

And if, by good fortune, you are studying the books in a collection which has a certain unity in the way it has been formed, it can happen that you find the same marks of ownership and use in more than one copy, so that by comparing the cancelled or washed inscriptions in various examples it becomes easier to decipher them. This is what happened with our examination of two incunables in the Santa Scolastica collection – III.C.3 and III.A.1 - which, by comparing the inscriptions in them, of varying visibility, we came to realise had been acquired by the monastery at the same time, in January 1480.

3_Paolo Veneto

Paulus Venetus, Expositio librorum naturalium Aristotelis. Perugia, 1477. Subiaco, S. Scolastica III.A.1 purchasing and sale note

At the foot of the final leaf of the copy of Dicta super septem tractatus Petri Hispani by Giovanni Versorio (Naples 1477, iv00237800, 02125265, III.C.3, &11v) a note on the book’s acquisition by a certain friar Nicolò da Veroli explains: ‘Hunc librum emi ego Nicolaus de Verulis a procuratore Sancti Francisci de Sublaco de intentione custodis dicti loci, qui vocatur frater Nicolaus de Urbe Veteri.’ Fra Nicolò da Veroli bought this edition of Versorio’s work from the procurator of the Benedictine monastery of San Francesco in Subiaco, which today no longer exists, at the suggestion of the custodian Nicolò of Orvieto.

At the end of another contemporary incunable edition, the Expositio librorum naturalium Aristotelis (Perugia, 1477, ip00211300, 02125097, III.A.1), we can read – with a great deal of difficulty and only with the help of a Wood’s lamp - a longer version, again by Nicolò da Veroli, of his note in the Versorio book, which links the two copies. Nicolò again explains how the volume was acquired at the suggestion of the custodian of San Francesco and goes on to add that on 3 January 1480 he sold the Expositio to the ‘reverendo patri Priori Monasterij [S. Scolasticae] cum Versorio’, i.e. together with the Versorio book now shelfmarked C.III.C.3. The price agreed for the books was 16 carlini; part was paid in cash (12 carlini) while the rest was substituted with a privilege which unfortunately remains illegible, despite the ultraviolet lamp. At the time 16 carlini, which would have corresoponded to a little over 1.5 Neapolitan ducats, would have been the equivalent of about 80-100 euros in present-day currency.

It is understandable that the Prior would have wanted to acquire these two books to benefit the studies of his fellow-monks. Both Latin texts are philosophical in content (one of natural philosophy and the other of logic) and perfectly in keeping with the requirements of Benedictine study, which, across the network of their monasteries, formed a beacon of learning in contemporary culture.

4A_Paolo-Veneto_decorazione               4B_Paolo-Veneto_decorazione

At the top, two leaves from Expositio librorum naturalium Aristotelis by Paulus Venetus. Perugia, 1477.
Subiaco, S. Scolastica III.A.1, decoration; at the bottom, two leaves from Dicta super septem tractatus Petri Hispani by Johannes Versorius. Naples, 1477. Subiaco, S. Scolastica III.C.3, decoration

4C_Versorio_decorazione          4D_Versorio_decorazione

The two copies are similarly decorated (red or blue capital initials, but not in all the spaces reserved for them); above all, they contain similar annotations in several 16th-century hands – reflecting the collective use the monks made of these books – and the same kind of small leather thumb tabs attached to certain of the pages to make it easy to navigate the texts.

Thanks to the ultraviolet lamp and the comparison of copies we were able to read in large part a lengthy inscription which at first sight seemed to tell us nothing but once deciphered has added another small fragment to our knowledge of the culture of learning in the small world of a Benedictine monastery.