University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Hiram Olsan Fund, Highlights from Four Decades of Collecting

Volume XXXIII · 1980
The Hiram Olsan Fund: Highlights from Four Decades of Collecting

The enrichment of any academic library collection often relies on the generosity and sensitivity of private individuals to the library's role in the support of its school's teaching and research programs. This generosity and sensitivity takes various forms, and one of the most enduring is the endowed book fund in memory of a family member or friend.

Such is the case with the Hiram Olsan Fund, established in 1947 to memorialize Dr. Olsan, a distinguished Rochester physician and alumnus (class of 1905) of the University of Rochester. Established in 1947 by his relatives and friends, the fund has provided a lasting tribute to Dr. Olsan, and at the same time has given the University Library the means to acquire books of unusual value and beauty which would not have been otherwise possible.

Over the years members of the Olsan family have continued their interest in the development of this special memorial fund; their occasional contributions strengthening the endowment for the purposes of the Library.

Throughout the four decades the Olsan Fund has been established, it has acquired many notable acquisitions from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Highlights from these acquisitions are described on the pages that follow.


During the late 1940's, the Library's Department of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Archives acquired through the auspices of the Hiram Olsan Fund several incunabula which brought into print the works of noted Roman classical authors. Of high interest is an early edition of Cicero's Cato major sive De senectute (Cologne, 1490), a charming dialogue in which the elderly Cato discusses with two young men the joys and benefits of old age. Equally interesting for its importance to classical archaeology is Joannes Lucensis' translation of Plutarch's Quaestiones romanae and Quaestiones graecae. The copy acquired by the Department was printed in Ferrara in 1477 and concludes with a note to the reader (here translated from the Latin):

Notice to the reader -- You have here the problems of Plutarch in a very emended state: except in three or at the most four places where the Greek type was lacking: since you have considered the matter more diligently, make the corrections yourself. Good-bye.

In 1947 the Department purchased a 1486 Venetian edition of the works of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century AD. During the great rebellion against Roman authority in 66 AD. Josephus led a contingent of Jewish troops, most of whom fled before the forces of the Roman general Vespasian. With the remnant of his army, Josephus held out against the Romans until the stronghold at Jotapata was finally breached. When capture appeared imminent, Josephus persuaded his compatriots to draw lots in order that they might kill each other in turn. Luckily for Josephus, he drew the last lot and survived. Having been led before Vespasian, he had the insight to predict that the Roman military leader would soon be created emperor. This prophecy so pleased Vespasian that he took Josephus with him to Alexandria, where the Jewish writer remained under the patronage of Vespasian and two succeeding emperors. Josephus' works include The Jewish warThe Jewish antiquities, which covers the history of the Jews from the creation of the world to the outbreak of the war against Rome, and Against Apion, a defense against certain misrepresentations of the Jews.

Roman history was the subject of Appianus of Alexandria, a copy of whose work Historia romana (Venice, 1477) was purchased on the Olsan Fund in 1948. Appianus flourished during the reigns of Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius. After many years in pursuit of a legal career, Appianus obtained the position of imperial procurator. His Historia may be regarded as a universal Roman history, treating as it does the story of various peoples and places from the earliest times down to their incorporation into the Roman empire; the work is particularly useful for the period dealing with the civil wars.

Approximately a century later (ca. 230), Diogenes Laërtius wrote a book detailing the lives and sayings of the Greek philosophers. The Department was fortunate to acquire a 1493 Venetian edition of this work, which is entitled Vitae et sententiae philosophum. The biographies include those of Pythagoras and Epicurus. For some of the minor philosophers it treats, Diogenes Laërtius' treatise is the sole source of information.

In the late 1940's, the Department purchased on the Olsan Fund works by three noted Christian authors. The first purchase, the Epistolae of St. Jerome, was printed in Basel in 1497 and contains a woodcut on the verso of the title page, which is one of the earliest known to have been designed by Albrecht Dürer. In 382 Jerome served as secretary of Pope Damasus I, and four years later traveled to Bethlehem where he founded a monastery and devoted himself to theological studies. He published a Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which remained the standard version of the church for many centuries. The second item purchased was a 1483 edition of Eusebius of Caesarea's Chronicon, or chronicle of world history. The great library of Caesarea in Palestine provided Eusebius with. the source materials for his universal history as well as for his other major treatise, History of the Christian church. These works place him among the earliest and most learned of Christian historians and have gained for him the title "Father of Church history." With continuations by later historians, Eusebius' Chronicon has been carried down to 1481. Under the entry for 1457, it contains one of the earliest records of Gutenberg and the invention of moveable type. The third acquisition of a work by a Christian author was the Epistolae familiares of Pope Pius II. Pius, better known in literature as Aeneas Silvius, was born in 1405. Having resided for five years at the court of Emperor Frederick III of Germany, in 1449 he was created bishop of Siena and became a leader in the humanist movement. He was elevated to the papacy in 1458. During his reign, Pius issued the famous bull against a current belief that councils were superior to the Pope in matters of dogma and church government; thus Pius reaffirmed the concept of papal supremacy. In 1464 he sought to lead a crusade against the Turks but died of a fever at Ancona. The Epistolae, or letters, of Pope Pius II are among the most valuable literary documents of Renaissance Europe. The Nuremberg edition (1481) purchased on the Olsan Fund contains 433 letters, tracts, and orations, many on philosophical and humanistic subjects as well as on historical and political topics. The highlight of the book, however, is a magnificently illuminated initial letter in bright gold, green, blue, and red. 


The 1950's witnessed the continuation of purchasing incunabula on the Hiram Olsan Fund. Two items of the late Roman period are of particular interest. The first is a work by Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who flourished in the fourth century and wrote an important treatise on military tactics entitled De re militari. The Department acquired a 1494 edition of this work printed in Rome. Although Vegetius Renatus' military theories were somewhat outmoded for his own time, when the use of the crossbow and gunpowder lessened the strategic importance of the cavalry, the tactics which Vegetius Renatus had recommended again came into vogue, particularly the portions dealing with army training and siegecraft. On account of its popularity and practicality, his military treatise was translated into several different languages.

The second work of the Late Antiquity period purchased on the Olsan Fund was C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius' Epistolae et poemata printed in Milan in 1498. Sidonius (ca. 430-488) was an early Christian prelate, politician, and man of letters. As a protegéof Emperors Majorianus and Anthemius, he was raised to the patrician and senatorial ranks and in 472 was created bishop of Clermont. When the city of Clermont fell to the Goths in 474, Sidonius was imprisoned but later released and restored to his bishopric by Euric, king of the Goths. His collections of letters and poems are valuable source material for fifth-century political and literary history.

The Middle Ages were represented in the Olsan Fund acquisitions of the 1950's by the Venerable Bede's Repertorium sive tabula (Nuremberg, 1492) and by Joannes de Sacrobosco's Sphaera mundi (Venice, 1482). Of the first, the author was a monk at the Benedictine monastery of Jarrow in the British Isles during the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Although more famous as the author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Bede compiled a textbook, or Repertorium, which was widely circulated in manuscript form before the invention of moveable type for the printing press. The work consists of brief extracts from the writings of Aristotle and other philosophers with explanatory notes. The Department's copy of Repertorium has a delightful hand-colored woodcut on the first page showing a teacher and his pupils in a typical late medieval academic setting.

The second medieval author, Joannes de Sacrobosco, was an English mathematician who flourished in the early thirteenth century. Sacrobosco was one of the first Western writers to study and comment upon Arabian mathematical treatises. His work, Sphaera mundi, is a paraphrase of part of Ptolemy's Almagest; it contains many interesting illustrations detailing supposed configurations of the planets.

Four noted works of the Renaissance were purchased on the Olsan Fund in the 1950's, the first being Francesco Petrarca's De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies against both kinds of fortune), printed at Cremona in 1492 by Bernardinus de Misintis and Caesar Parmensis. In this philosophical work, the humanist Petrarch discusses the remedies against prosperity and adversity, and demonstrates that all earthly goods are perishable.

The three remaining Renaissance works are of a more historical nature. Werner Rolevinck's Fasciculus temporum was a very popular chronicle of the fifteenth century. Basically it served the same function as a modern-day, one-volume encyclopedia, detailing as it does, in brief form, the history of the world from the creation to the year 1483. Nearly 40 editions appeared during the author's lifetime. The edition acquired by the Department was printed in Strassburg by Johann Prüss sometime after 1489. Another work of universal history which was acquired on the Olsan Fund was the pirated edition of the Nuremberg chronicle by Hartmann Schedel published in Augsburg in 1500 by Hans Schönsperger, the first edition having been printed in 1493. This treatise is a history of the world, famous for its woodcuts, there being approximately 2,100 in the edition purchased by the Department. It is interesting that the entry dealing with the legend of "Pope Joan" has been disfigured by a contemporary hand in the University of Rochester copy. The third Renaissance historical work has a more narrow, civic emphasis. Antiquitatis Vicecomitum libri, the history of the Visconti, dukes of Milan who ruled from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, was written by Georgio Merula, an Italian humanist and classical scholar. This work is considered Merula's masterpiece and one of the best examples of Italian historical writing produced in the fifteenth century. The Department's copy is the first edition printed at Milan by Guillermus Le Signerre about 1500.


In the 1960's, the Department purchased, with the aid of the Olsan Fund, three works on Roman history. Flavio Biondo, author of Roma triumphans (Brescia, 1482), was secretary to Popes Eugene IV, Nicholas V, Calixtus III, and Pius II. Johann Huttich's Imperatorum et caesarum vitae (Lives of the emperors and caesars; Strassburg, 1534) is fulsomely illustrated with portraits of the various Roman rulers and their wives.

In May 1966 a copy of the second Latin translation of the Roman antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus was purchased for the Library's rare book collection from the Olsan Fund. This book had the distinction of being the one-millionth volume accessioned by the Library. It is the work of a distinguished classical scholar and was published by a printing house established in the late fifteenth century in Basel by John Froben, which for more than a generation ranked as one of the greatest in Europe. Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek historian and rhetorician who lived during the first century B.C. and who spent his later years in Rome as a teacher. His best-known work, Roman antiquities, covers the history of Rome from the earliest legendary times down to 450 B.C. The first Latin translation appeared in 1480, some 75 years before the original Greek text was published. A second Latin translation by Sigmund Gelen was published in 1549 in Basel by Jerome Froben, son of John Froben. It is this volume which the Department acquired.

The University's copy of the Roman antiquities is in splendid condition with clean, crisp paper, beautifully designed type, decorative initials, and the famous printer's mark of the Froben establishment on the title page and on the verso of the colophon page. A bookplate indicates that the volume was at one time in the library of the abbey of the Premonstratensian Canons in Steingaden, a town in Bavaria. Although the bookplate bears the date 1786, there is a manuscript note on the title page which indicates that the book was acquired in Steingaden in 1649, just 100 years after its publication.


In 1971, the Department purchased on the Olsan Fund Archimedes' De us quae vehuntur in aqua. This volume was printed in Bologna in the year 1565. Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) served as royal mathematician to King Hieron II of Syracuse in ancient Greece. On one occasion, the king had ordered a crown of pure gold to be made but he suspected that the artisan had fraudulently added silver alloys in the process. While lying in a bath and contemplating this problem, it occurred to Archimedes that an object immersed in water is buoyed up by a force equal to the density of the displaced water, and that by placing the crown and equal weights of gold and silver separately into a vessel of water and then noting the differences in overflow, he could determine the purity of the crown. Archimedes was so excited about discovering this principle (so the story goes) that he jumped from his bath and ran down the street undressed, screaming "Eureka! Eureka!" (I have found it! I have found it!). The ratio of the density of the crown to the density of the water it displaced is now called the specific gravity of the material.

Another interesting item acquired in the same year was Ambrogio Calepino's Dictionarum latinum printed in Trino in 1521. This Italian lexicographer's book was first published in Latin only at Reggio in 1502; over a period of 250 years several editions were published to which were added the word equivalents in a number of other languages. The most complete polyglot edition was that printed in Basel in 1590 which contained entries in 11 different languages. In the University of Rochester's earlier edition, only Greek equivalents have been added. The text of the dictionary is intriguing in that it was printed in a tiny Roman letter with a matching cursive Greek type which allowed the printer to squeeze 20 lines into a space just over two inches. The title page was printed in red and black within a woodcut border depicting various saints and apostles. Poemata (Antwerp, 1534) of Pope Urban VIII, purchased in the same year, also contains an interesting title page. It was drawn by Peter Paul Rubens and engraved by Cornelius Galle.

In the following year, the Department acquired three notable sixteenth-century works through the auspices of the Hiram Olsan Fund, the first being Pietro Bembo'sHistoriae Venetae libri XII which was published in Venice in 1551. Only one other American library has reported to the National Union Catalog that they have this first edition of Bembo's work. Bembo, a noted Italian scholar, had been appointed secretary to Pope Leo X in 1513. Sixteen years later he occupied the dual posts of historiographer to Venice and librarian to St. Mark's church. Before his death in 1547, Bembo had obtained a bishopric and had been raised to the cardinalate. In this his posthumous first edition of a work on Venetian history, Bembo perfected a style which was a polished imitation of the classics. Carolus Sigonius, Bembo's contemporary, wrote the second book acquired through the Olsan Fund in 1972. After engaging in a quarrel with the famous grammarian Robortello, Sigonius retired from his university post at Padua and wrote his work De dialogo liber (Venice, 1562), in which he applied the principles of Aristotle to a literary form not treated by the Greek philosopher, that is, the dialogue. Fifty years earlier, Battista Fregosa had retired from a stormy political career in Genoa, renounced all public ambition, and devoted himself to the study of literature and poetry. His masterpiece, De dictis factisque memorabilibus, was first published in 1509 and attained great literary success, having gone through many editions during the sixteenth century. The University of Rochester's copy was printed in Paris in 1586.

In 1973, the Department was fortunate to acquire through the Olsan Fund a work by the greatest Christian humanist of the Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus. In hisEnchiridion militis Christiani (first edition, 1504; University of Rochester edition, 1522), Erasmus voiced a plea for a return to the primitive simplicity of Christianity. Although he remained a Catholic through the tumultuous period of the Reformation, Erasmus viewed as irrelevant the accretions of dogma and ceremony which had developed in the church over the centuries; instead, in the above-mentioned work, he advocated a return to the Bible and early church fathers for a true interpretation of Christian duty and doctrine.

The next two years witnessed the purchase of several Renaissance works, two of the most intriguing being Jean Bodin's Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem(Paris, 1572) and Andrea Alciati's Paradoxorum ad pratum (Basel, 1531). In the former, Bodin developed a scheme for determining precepts of universal law through a critical examination of world history. Bodin believed that stability of government arose not only through the discovery of such universal laws but also through the establishment of a powerful sovereign state. Alciati's treatise also dealt with political philosophy, being a study on the principles of Roman law. According to the NationalUnion Catalog, only one other American library reports having this book in this edition in their collections.

In the three-year period from 1977 through 1979, the Department obtained a first edition copy of Pierre Belloy's Apologie catholique contre les libelles diffamatories (n.p., 1585), in which Belloy tried to demonstrate that the rights of Henry, King of Navarre, to the throne of France were independent from his religion, and that the Pope could not pronounce judgment on the matter. Belloy was labeled a heretic for his opinions and suffered through a two-year imprisonment in the Bastille. Belloy's Italian colleague, Francesco Sansovino, suffered only parental wrath and pressure which pushed him into a legal career when his heart was more truly devoted to literature. Through the Olsan Fund, the Department acquired a first edition copy of Sansovino's work Del governo de i regni (Venice, 1561), in which he describes the constitutions and forms of government of both ancient and modern states; he even had a section devoted to the structure of a utopian state. This work, like many others purchased on the Hiram Olsan Fund, complements the holdings of our special collection containing works on law and political theory, an area in which we hope to continue to build.


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