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All About Glass

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Strabo's De situ orbis printed in Venice, 1472

All About Glass

When Johannes de Spira died in 1470, the printing business he had started was taken over by his brother, Vindelinus. Two years later, Vindelinus published Strabo’s De situ orbis, an ancient geographical text consisting of 17 books. A first edition of this work had been issued in Rome in 1469 by Sweynheym and Pannartz, two Germans who were instrumental in bringing the craft of printing to Italy. The Rakow Library owns the second edition by de Spira, printed in Venice, as well as a manuscript produced in Milan about 1465. Both the manuscript and the printed texts were translated from the original Greek into Latin by two distinguished Italian Humanists, Guarino of Verona (about 1374–1460) and Gregorio Tifernate (about 1414–1462).

Strabo, De situ orbis (manuscript), Milan, 1465. CMGL 97140.De situ orbis describes the inhabited world as Strabo knew it—the lands that are known today as Europe, the Near East, the Middle East, Turkey, the Caucasus, India, and North Africa. While some of Strabo’s accounts are derived from his own travels, others are borrowed from various oral testimonies and writings. What we know about Strabo himself comes essentially from the text of this work. He was born about 63 B.C., making him a contemporary of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Although his home was Amaseia, in what is now northern Turkey, Strabo adopted the language and philosophical inclinations of Greece.

Strabo’s narrative is often equal parts travelogue, history, and geography. In Book 16, he leads us on a tour of Syria and the Phoenician coast, to the ancient Mediterranean port cities of Tyre and Sidon. He also mentions the city of Ptolemais, formerly called Ace. Between Ace and Tyre, he writes, is a beach that provides sand for making glass. With obvious interest in the subject, he ponders the mysteries of glass, noting that he has heard that Egypt contains a special “vitreous earth” for coloring glass, and that the Romans are adept at finding methods to make affordable colored glass products.

Detail of a drawing in the margin of Strabo, De situ orbis, Venice: Vindelinus de Spira, 1472. CMGL 97139In the Rakow Library’s de Spira edition of Strabo, we have not only a fascinating glimpse into the ancients’ view of glass but also a special artifact of printing and bookmaking. No doubt availing himself of his brother’s type font, Vindelinus produced a beautifully legible Roman type with little or no ornamentation. The copious notes in the margin, probably executed by one of the book’s owners, are in such a beautiful hand that they become a decorative feature on their own. One must-see “note” is a sketch of an elongated finger pointing to a section of text—a witty precursor of the Post-it note. This book also displays the early bookmaking device of printing small guide letters in the spaces that would later become decorative initials created by hand. The guide letters can be seen behind their larger, colored counterparts, reminding us of the simultaneously precarious and precise nature of early printing.


Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Published on January 16, 2014