Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring exotic travel

In 1549 in Vienna the renowned Austrian diplomat and scholar Freiherr Sigmund von Herberstein (1486-1566) published his Rerum moscoviticarum commentarii, the detailed account of two embassies he had undertaken to the Muscovy of Grand-Duke Vasilii III, in 1517-18 and in 1526-7 for Archduke Ferdinand I.

Priding himself on his knowledge of languages that included Russian and on a method of gathering information based on personal observation, probing conversations, and careful scrutiny of documentary sources, Herberstein offered sixteenth-century Europe a wide-ranging survey and commentary on what in later books would be called ‘the present and past state’ of Muscovy or Russia. He provided information on the geography, the governance, the people, their customs and their religion with a degree of persuasive accuracy that brought his book best-seller status and made it widely influential in shaping subsequent views of the country. Herberstein’s work was not only one of the earliest examples of travel writing on Muscovy but became the virtually uncontested source of information, acknowledged and unacknowledged, for almost all subsequent writers into the seventeenth century.

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This is one of three copies of the text from the collection of the historian Matthew Smith Anderson (1923-2006), who both wrote and collected about western perceptions of Russia to the period of the Russian Revolution. The other two are a second copy of this early translation into Italian, without the map at the end, and a Latin folio of 1551. This copy has a particular significance within the collection to which it belongs as the final item Anderson purchased for it.

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