University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Hiram Olsan Collection

Volume III · Winter 1948 · Number 2
The Hiram Olsan Collection

In June, 1947, the Bulletin announced the donation of a fund established in memory of Dr. Hiram Olsan, '05, contributions to which had been received from members of the Olsan family and their friends. It seems appropriate to give an account of our stewardship, and to show how a friend of the University - in this case, a loyal and active alumnus - can be memorialized in a way which will keep his memory green as future generations of students use the books which have been acquired from this fund.

Five volumes, containing six rare titles, have already been purchased from the fund. These additions to the Treasure Room are all in the field of incunabula - books printed before the year 1501 - and have reopened a line of collecting in which the library had made but one addition since 1931.

The first purchase from the Olsan Fund was a copy of Diogenes Laertius' Vitae et sententiae philosophorum published in Venice in 1493 by Peregrinus de Pasqualibus. This compilation of information about the ancient Greek philosophers was extremely popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and had been printed four times previously. This edition occurs in three different states, and is well established bibliographically. There are four other copies of the book in the United States: in the Harvard and Huntington libraries, and in two private collections.

Bound with the Diogenes is an extremely rare pamphlet of four leaves printed in Brescia in 1496 by Baptista Farfengus. This is a short commentary entitled Epistola de C. Plinii Secundis patria, by Matthaeus Rufus. There is a copy in the Verona Public Library, but no copy except the Olsan example appears to be owned in the United States. Farfengus was an obscure printer about whom little is known: twelve of his books are in the British Museum, but this one is not among them.

The most important of the purchases from the textual point of view is the 1486 Venetian edition of Flavius Josephus' Opera printed by Joannes Rubeus Vercellensis. The library had no early edition of this monumental work in cultural history, and the fine copy just acquired fills a long-felt need. It is not a scarce book, as incunabula go, since twenty other copies are recorded in American libraries, but this is a particularly fine copy, with some illumination and a fine painted bookmark of an early owner on the second leaf. The volume is the second book printed in Venice by this famous press, which had earlier been established in Treviso. The Josephus was supervised by two gentlemen with equally impressive names: Rufinus Aquileiensis translated the work, and Hieronymus Squarzaficus edited the text.

From the bibliographical standpoint, probably the most interesting purchase from the Olsan Fund is a puzzling little book by Francesco Negri (Latinized to Franciscus Niger), entitled Epistole, sive opusculum scribendi epistolas, published in Paris by Michael Le Noir, probably about the year 1493. This handbook to letter-writing was written by Negri, a Venetian who taught at Padua and died in the latter place in the year 1513. Since the book was a popular compilation, very few examples of this edition have come down to us, and the only other copy recorded is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

Michael Le Noir, the printer of the work, is an interesting figure in the annals of early French printing. Evidently a Parisian by birth, he was established as a bookseller and publisher as early as 1486, and seems to have begun printing in 1492. He married the daughter of his partner (who was perhaps also his master), Jeanne Treperel. Le Noir continued to print until 1520, and his wife maintained the business in the two years which followed.

The most beautifully bound of the Olsan Fund acquisitions is a copy of Pope Pius II's Epistolae familiares, printed by Anton Koberger in Nuremberg in 1481. The book was formerly in the library of the Dukes of Saxe-Meiningen, and bears the stamp of that collection, and the binding is of late fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century white pigskin. It is decorated with unusual tooling, including a roll which shows a fool in cap and bells. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the binding is an attempt to match a cinquefoil design which is used in a large illuminated initial at the beginning of the text. The initial itself is curiously modern in its coloring, combining with the polished gold background (which is compartmented by pointille work - each division containing a blind-stamped cinquefoil) border decorations in yellow, chartreuse, and maroon tones. The description sounds garish, but the effect of the page is stunning in its vivid richness. The text is rubricated throughout, and is in bright condition.

Pius II, who was born Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, is regarded as a typical Renaissance figure, and his letters have been printed many times. He was born in 1405 and died in 1464. His early life at the University of Siena was a thing of beauty, but its joyousness gave way to a stormy political career. He was ordained in 1446, became a cardinal in 1456, and was elevated to the papacy in 1458. Poetry, drama, history, and oratory were some of the fields in which he wrote, and his pronounced humanism is especially apparent in his letters.

The Epistolae familiares comes from the famous press of Koberger, the second printer of Nuremberg and one of the most celebrated of the early German workmen in typography. Koberger had already printed his great Bible of 1475, and the year of the Epistolae is the same as that of the huge Postillae of Nicolaus de Lyra. Koberger's most famous book, the Nuremberg Chronicle by Schedel, appeared in 1493.

The most recent purchase from the fund is a copy of Plutarch's Problemata, issued in Ferrara by Andreas Belfortis in (or about) 1477. This is a rare Plutarch item, translated by Joannes Petri Lucensis and edited by Joannes Calphurnius. The book seems to be a reprint of a Venetian edition issued by Dominicus de Siliprandis a short time before, and is a bibliographical puzzle. Books from the Belfortis press do not frequently appear in the market, and not a great deal is known about the printer. It has been established that he was a scrivener of Ferrara, and the son of an immigrant from Picardy, but his name keeps dodging in and out of printing records from 1471 until 1493. It has been surmised that Belfortis had some sort of connection with Nicolas Jenson, the greatest of the early French printers. It may be that Belfortis helped his fellow-craftsmen in crises, and that the edition of Plutarch which he printed was hurried through the press at the request of the Venetian, who desired more copies after his own type for the book had been distributed and reset for some other publication.

A fine beginning has been made in the development of a distinguished collection of early printed works in the University Library. Six titles have been acquired on the Olsan Fund, ranging in date from 1477 to 1496, and coming from five cities in three countries. They add to the library's resources textually, but perhaps their more immediate value is as examples of early printing, especially since they so well extend the material already available in this region to the student of typographic history. The names of Le Noir and Koberger are especially notable accessions to the list of early printers' works which can now be studied in the Treasure Room. The five volumes have been provided with a specially printed bookplate which reads: "In Memory of Dr. Hiram Olsan, '05 -- Presented by His Family and Friends."