Marking the anniversary of a great printer: our book of the month for January

Biblia Latina
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 30 July 1477

Incunabula 124-125

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the great Nuremberg printer and businessman Anton Koberger (c.1445-1513). Koberger, like Gutenberg, worked as a goldsmith before moving into the printing, publishing and bookselling trade. Printing his first volume in 1472 (a work on Platonic philosophy) he soon established the then-largest printing business in Germany, running, at the height of his powers, twenty-four presses and a staff of over a hundred compositors, proofreaders, pressmen, illuminators and binders, and enjoying fruitful trade partnerships in Italy, France, Poland, Austria and Hungary. His press produced more than 200 titles during his career, mostly in large folio format, covering works of medieval theology and philosophy, sermons, Bibles, liturgical works, treatises on church law, lives of the saints and church fathers, and some classical texts, mostly in Latin but also in German. The most famous products of his press are Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum (the Nuremberg Chronicle), issued in 1493 in Latin and German editions with some 1800 woodcut illustrations, and a 1498 Apocalypse illustrated by Koberger’s godson Albrecht Dürer.

Colophon to the 1477 Biblia Latina

Colophon to the 1477 Biblia Latina

This 1477 Biblia Latina was the second of fifteen Latin Bibles issued by Koberger over a twenty-five year period. It is not an especially rare survival: there are seventeen copies in the British Isles and many more in European and American institutional libraries. Senate House Library owns two copies in fact, the one shown here having formerly belonged to the beguine community in Maastricht and then to Charles Spencer, third earl of Sunderland (1675-1722), one of the greatest British book collectors and connoisseurs of his day. Acquired by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, possibly in the early 1880s, it came to Senate House with his library in 1931.

The date of printing can be seen in the first two lines of the Latin colophon (Millesimoquadringentesimoseptuagesimoseptimo being longhand for 1477) while Koberger’s name appears in the final sentence, where he is described as a resident of the city of Nuremberg. The Durning-Lawrence copy opens with a handsome hand-drawn and coloured initial F, at the start of the printed text, depicting St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, dressed as a cardinal and accompanied by a lion, his traditional attribute.

The opening initial of the 1477 Biblia Latina

The opening initial of the 1477 Biblia Latina

Senate House Library owns several other works printed by Koberger: a 1478 edition of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, two copies of the 1493 Latin edition of Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, and two copies of the 1494 edition of Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of witches’). The latter was outside Koberger’s usual area of publishing, but the work’s popularity guaranteed the astute businessman his profits.

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