The Oldest Book in the Collection

1473: The birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The height of the Aztec Empire in Mexico. 19 years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. The publishing date of the oldest book remaining from the St. Ignatius Library in University Archives and Special Collections at Loyola University Chicago.

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This volume of Pliny’s Natural History was published in Rome.  It is written in Latin. Surrounding the text of the first leaf, and incorporating the initial letter, is an elaborate hand-drawn border, illuminated in gold and colors.  About 400 years after its publication, it found its way to the brand new Jesuit library at St. Ignatius College. How did it make its way from Renaissance Rome to Industrial Era Chicago? Only two parts of the book’s past are currently known, but their connections are fascinating.

According to the Latin inscription at the beginning of the book, this volume of Pliny belonged to the Dominican Order in Perugia, a city in the Umbria region of Italy.
The presence of the book, however, cannot be confirmed for quite some time afterwards. The turmoil the Italian Peninsula faced during the 17th-19th centuries, culminating in the unification as the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, could have led to the book’s departure at any time within the 300 year span. French and Austrian troops had control of the city itself at various points in time, so either could have removed it from the library, or the book could have remained where it was until its movement to England.

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A bookplate found has the unmistakable crest of the Duke of Sussex. Luckily this title was only ever given to one man, Prince Augustus Frederick, 1st and only Duke of Sussex. He was well known for his extravagant library which he built through the acquisition of individual books rather than whole libraries. The question of how the Duke of Sussex came to obtain this book likely cannot be answered unless a proof of sale/purchase is found. The book may have still been in the care of the Dominicans at Perugia, or it could have found its way to a bookseller in Paris or London where the Duke bought it.

Living beyond his means, the Duke was forced to auction off his possessions, including his library, in the 1840’s. Volumes of Pliny are mentioned within the catalog of books for sale.  The book only has about thirty years at this point to make its way to the library at St. Ignatius, so its purchase by a book dealer or a different private owner is possible.  It might also have been purchased by a Jesuit or someone affiliated with the Jesuit Order who donated the book when the library was being formed.

More on the Duke of Sussex’s Library can be found here. Many thanks to Martin Davies for his help with the identifications!

Evan Thompson, JLPP Intern

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2 thoughts on “The Oldest Book in the Collection

  1. From Professor Steve Schloesser in the Loyola History Department:

    “If I were thinking of chronology, at least getting from the Perugian Dominicans to the Duke of Sussex, I would think Napoleon. He disestablished all the old monarchies on the peninsula and invented the idea of “Italy” — which is why, post 1815, the “Italians” were never satisfied with going back to their little states. He plundered monasteries in order to build public libraries — including Perugia.

    That’s how I would imagine that the book left the hands of Dominicans.

    And I suspect it somehow got into the newly-enlarged and now “secular” university library at Perugia.

    Then — when you have 1814-1815 and Napoleon Bonaparte in the mix — you usually have British troops.

    All sheer speculation … but still ….”

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