By Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor
We’re posting our wrap up a little early this month, because next week, we will be celebrating American Archives Month with a five-day series on preservation in SCRC’s collections. The series, a collaboration between The Living Record, SCRC’s blog, and Sound Beat, will cover preservation of different audio and visual mediums from some of our most valuable and vulnerable collections. In the meantime, here’s a wrap-up of all the latest from SCRC in the month of October, including some Halloween and election selections from our collections!
Happy Halloween and Election Season
By Nicole Westerdahl, Reference and Access Services Librarian
This adorable bat sipping Bacardi in front of a full moon is found on a postcard in our Erskine Caldwell Papers, accompanying a recipe booklet for “Bacardi and its many uses” (spoiler alert: they’re all rum-based cocktails). The fruit bat has been part of Bacardi’s logo since the company’s founding in 1862 and is still used today. Happy Halloween!
Martin Van Buren caricature metamorphosis card
“Attack ads” have a long history in US politics, and this caricature metamorphosis card of 8th US president Martin Van Buren by artist David Claypoole Johnston is a fine example. This card was produced in 1840 during Van Buren’s re-election campaign against William Henry Harrison, whom Van Buren defeated in the previous presidential election. The card depicts a smiling Van Buren with “a beautiful goblet of White House champagne.” Pull the tab, and Van Buren’s eyes roll back, his mouth grimaces, and his MVB goblet transforms into “an ugly mug of log cabin hard cider” labeled WHH—a reference to Harrison’s opponents’ depiction of him as a provincial candidate more interested in drinking hard cider than running the country. Harrison embraced this depiction and transformed it into his own log cabin campaign, ultimately defeating Van Buren and becoming the 9th US president.
SCRC in the News
10.7.20: University Archives footage and photographs used in the Office of Multicultural Advancement’s program “The Syracuse 8: Then, Now and Forever Orange.”
10.15.2020: Courtney Asztalos presented to the Plastics Pioneers Association during their virtual annual Fall meeting with an annual update about the Plastics Collection.
10.15.2020: Meg Mason, Courtney Asztalos, and SCRC Curatorial intern, Krystal Cannon, collaborated on creating, filming and editing a video tour of the Traditions exhibition for Orange Central. Jim Meade contributed to audio mastering.
10.20.2020: Pan Am 103 Archivist Vanessa St.Oegger-Menn presented at SAA’s Archival History Section meeting this year and a recap of the presentation is discussed in Archival History News this month.
Learn more about the SU’s history, leaders and libraries – all at your fingertips! SCRC’s latest three exhibitions are now available online:
Special acknowledgements go out to Meg Mason, Sebastian Modrow, and Vanessa St. Oegger-Menn for reworking their extensive curatorial input for an online audience. The online versions of the exhibitions would not be possible without the expert help found within our IT department, especially Sarah Pohley, Suzanne Preate, and Daniel Rice – many thanks!
Call for Submissions
A reminder that the Syracuse University Archives is seeking to record and preserve the personal responses of Syracuse University students, faculty, and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look at our website page on this project for more information.
The image featured in the header of this post is from our Erskine Caldwell Papers (Erskine Caldwell Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.
I am co-president of the George Fisk Comfort Society, a graduate student club for art history students at Syracuse, and, before this semester, I was not aware of who I was representing. George Fisk Comfort (1833 – 1910) was a liberal arts scholar and museum founder from Berkshire, New York. He brought the world of museum collections and exhibits from Europe to the American hub of New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in Syracuse at the Everson Museum of Art (formerly the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts). As a museum studies and art history student, I am interested in the history of museums and their collections and I have visited and researched artworks at the Met for many years without knowing anything about one of the founders of the institution. In light of the racial injustices continuing to taking place in America, museum professionals La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski created the Museums Are Not Neutral movement in order to change the ways that museums are visited, curated, and protested in order to build community and question the traditional role of the museum and museum educators.
Because of my interest in the Museums are Not Neutral movement and the growing cases of racial injustices in this country, I was compelled to learn more about the founding of the Met and the Everson through an exploration of Comfort’s papers. I researched the George Fisk Comfort Family Collection held at the Syracuse University Special Collections to try and piece together information about the history of institutions he co-founded and relate my findings to the present. In reading Comfort’s views on the value of art, museum collecting policies, and staffing and hiring practices, I found myself reflecting on the current practices and policies of the Everson and the Met and considering how they have both upheld and diverged from Comfort’s views in recent years.
Comfort was quick to adopt the European model of museums, as he brought back knowledge from his overseas travels to America. Comfort first encountered the European model of a museum when he spent five years traveling and studying in Europe in the 1860s, focusing his studies on the aesthetic culture of Europe. Comfort returned to the United States with new ideas about art and museums, and taught the first aesthetics course in America at Allegheny College. He also taught at Syracuse one year after its opening and helped to instate the College of Fine Arts, becoming the first Dean of the College of Fine Arts, and making Syracuse the first university in America to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the fine arts. During his active years, he helped found the Everson and the Met, and published a book titled Art Museums in America, where he outlined his vision for museums and museum education.
Based on the content in his papers, Comfort was open-minded to the art that these institutions would collect and display, and he was interested in commissioning contemporary artists and facilitating loan exhibitions to show the progression of art from objects in American collections. Many scholars at this time were interested in the old masters, whereas Comfort did not care about the label, he just wanted good art. In Art Museums in America, he stated, “By commissioning only mature and first-class artists, we can form a gallery of the rise and progress of painting and of the many schools of this branch of art.”
In his essay about the Development of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, Comfort said of the Everson and other smaller-scale museums outside of large cities, that they were to rely on reproductions such as photographs, engravings, and casts of objects to build their collections as they could not obtain the famous masterpieces as easily as the heavily endowed institutions like the Met. In a turn of events, the Everson is currently selling one of its masterpieces, its only Jackson Pollock painting, in order to obtain works by lesser-known and more diverse artists. This is a big step for the future of the museum to build its collection in two key ways: to represent the local community and to reflect on the issue of race in America. Although Comfort enjoyed his masterpieces, I think he would have been proud of this feat. That a smaller museum like the Everson was able to own an American masterpiece, and decide to de-accession it for the betterment of the museum’s future and collect different kinds of masterpieces speaks volumes. Comfort believed that museums should represent the growth of their communities by “illustrating the history of the origin, the rise, the growth, the culminating glory, and the periods of decline and decadence… true art is cosmopolitan. It knows no country; it knows no age.”
This year is the Met’s 150th anniversary, and to celebrate there is an exhibition titled, Making the Met: 1870 – 2020, that exhibits 250 objects that were collected within the museum’s first decades. The objects are from all over the world and span millennia. The non-Western art in this current exhibit is intended to be understood outside the lenses of exotica and orientalism, which was how it was supposedly displayed and understood in the earliest exhibitions, according to the curators of the exhibit. For years, museums predominantly functioned with wealthy white men acting as the stewards of the art of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, a set-up that has largely remained intact to this day.
Art and cultural institutions like the Met have been heavily critiqued in the past decades, especially recently in terms of racial injustice and hiring practices. BIPOC voices have been largely excluded from these spaces for many years. And, although some women were employed by the Met in its early years of operating, they were not included in board of trustee meetings or welcomed at the higher level of operations, as a photographs and documentation from the initial proceedings of Metropolitan Museum of Art meeting of 1869 in the George Fisk Comfort Family Collection can attest. For the first time in its history, the Met has just hired its first full-time Native American curator years after Native American art has been displayed with the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. This act shows that museums are slowly evolving with the pushback from the public. Similarly, the Everson’s plan to buy and exhibit art by BIPOC artists is a small but important step towards true neutrality in institutions. As institutions move forward and take steps to change their collecting and hiring practices, it remains uncertain whether these spaces can ever fully decolonize.
Through the George Fisk Comfort Family Collection, we can understand the basis on which museums and cultural institutions were founded in the nineteenth century. The George Fisk Comfort Family Collection helped inform my understanding of the Museums Are Not Neutral movement in terms of museum history. The fact that the Met was attempting to diversify how the typical European museum functioned proves how someone like Comfort served as a good advocate for change and stewardship in the 19th century. As the Met looks to its past and the Everson roots itself in the present for a better future, one takeaway for cultural institutions should be how to rally for their own communities. Changes in diversity and inclusion start internally with staff, collections, and exhibitions. It is only once these changes are addressed that institutions can move forward from their colonial ideologies to become truly neutral.
The George Fisk Comfort Family Collection (George Fisk Comfort Family Collection, University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) is part of our University Archives collections.
By Sebastian Modrow, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts
In early 2019, SCRC acquired a Renaissance edition of the works of Bernard of Clairvaux. Printed in 1508 in Paris by Jehan Petit, it was later illuminated and apparently put to good use as indicated by its frequent marginalia. It also came in a contemporary pigskin binding. The chosen author of Petit’s 1508 edition, Bernard of Clairvaux, probably doesn’t make anyone’s top 10 associations list when it comes to the Renaissance, as he was, in fact, neither a classical author nor a Renaissance mind, but instead, one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the Middle Ages. Knowing this, you might question why a French Renaissance publisher would bother to publish his works. Like other contemporary publishers, and following in the footsteps of Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible, Petit chose religious subject matter for his printing, a subject popular among monastic and scholarly settings alike. So, who is this Bernard and why should we care about him?
The Man and His Works
Bernard of Clairvaux was born in 1090 into an aristocratic family in the Dijon region of Burgundy (France). He was to become one of the most influential leaders during the High Middle Ages, not only of the young Cistercian Order, but of the Catholic Church in general.
After the death of his mother in 1107, Bernard sought the counsel of Stephen Harding, abbot of Cîteaux Abbey, establishing a relationship that would ultimately lead Bernard to abandon his literary studies and ecclesiastical career and to join the monastery in 1112. This monastery had been established only a few years prior in 1098 by Robert of Molesme in the ‘Burgundian wilderness’ in an attempt to reform and re-focus the Benedictine order on the spiritual life in imitation of Christ. Instead of reforming the old order, however, the movement led to a split with the Benedictines, and Cîteaux emerged as the mother house of a new order, named accordingly, the Cistercians.
From 1112-1115, Bernard immersed and distinguished himself in theology and and explored his own spirituality, developing a leadership potential that Abbot Harding recognized and acknowledged with the mission to lead a small group of Cistercians to found a daughter house at Clairvaux, situated in the border region of Burgundy and Champagne. In the years following the founding of the house at Clairvaux, and forced, in part, by his deteriorating health, Bernard retired to a small hut, which gave him the time to not only focus on his spirituality, but also to produce his first writings, such as his “Praises of the Virgin Mother.”
Writing became a way for Bernard to contemplate, in solitude, God’s great mysteries and then to share his experiences and insights with the world. This attests to his over 300 letters and sermons, many of which center around the imitatio Christi (the imitation of Christ). Not all of his writings, however, were of a contemplative nature. With his Liber ad milites templi de laude novae militiae (“Book addressed at the Knights Templar on the Praise of the New Knighthood,” written between 1120-1136), Bernard directly entered the debate about the justification of the existence of warrior-monks where he positioned himself in the affirmative.
Bernard was also one of the most prominent promoters of the disastrous Second Crusade (1147–49), which illustrates that as much as he liked to withdraw from the world and contemplate God’s mysteries, he found himself instead at the center of the events of his age. Five popes relied on his counsel, church- and other councils invited him as mitigator and as a representative of the old contemplative approach to the holy scriptures, as reflected in probably his most famous work, his “Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles.” Bernard grew increasingly weary of the rise of Scholasticism as it developed at Europe’s cathedral schools and its rationalizing approaches to Christian doctrines.
He must have, indeed, been a person of great charisma and great oratorical skills, a fact that is also reflected in his writings and that would earn him the title doctor mellifluous, because his instructions to the faithful were always ‘flowing sweet as honey.’ Bernard was canonized on January 18, 1174.
Despite the prevalence of scholastic texts during the High and Late Middle Ages, Bernard’s spiritual message maintained its appeal inside and outside the Cistercian order. He is, for example, the final guide for the protagonist of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it is at his intercession with the Virgin Mary that the true nature of God is revealed to Dante’s protagonist. The Renaissance scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his The Art of Preaching, praised the charming and lively eloquence of Bernard’s style, so it should be no surprise that his works were printed throughout the Renaissance. To one of these editions we want to turn now.
The Publisher and his edition
Our book in question is based on the edition of Bernard’s works by André Bocard and was printed by Jehan Petit (c. 1470-1530). Petit was one of the key players of the French book trade during the transition from the Incunabula Period into the 16th century and one of the four official stationers of the University of Paris. Petit’s business would develop into a large-scale publishing enterprise, contracting multiple printers at the same time for his projects. Over the span of his career (1493-1530), this amounted to over 1,000 different volumes, many of which were – unsurprisingly, for an official university bookseller – mainly of scholarly interest and mostly in Latin. He published our Bernard of Clairvaux edition in Paris on March 31, 1508.
Petit’s opulent but elegant printer’s device connects the publication with his workshop. Half a century after Gutenberg’s first Bible edition, the printed book had come a long way. Still, we can detect reminiscences of the medieval manuscript tradition of which Paris was one of the most productive centers: The elaborate so-called gothic type face evokes the ‘feel’ of the handwritten book as do the illuminated and woodcut initials. However, as seen with the printer’s device, the use of woodcuts is not limited to initials.
When turning the title page, the reader will in fact encounter the most impressive woodcut illustration in our Bernard edition showing the Virgin and Child flanked by St. Bernard and St. Malachy (see below).
SCRC’s copy contains a total of 456 leaves and measures 38.5 x 26 cm (15” x 10 1/8”). It is bound in beveled wooden boards wrapped in blind-stamped pigskin (‘blind’ meaning the impression is not colored), consisting of various lines and floral motives. Brass corner guards and brass bosses (metal studs) lend extra protection to the cover. Bookbinders and conservators usually refer to these protective elements as book ‘furniture.’
The book is held together by two brass fore-edge clasps. Leather tabs on the copy’s fore-edge marking the beginning of Bernard’s individual works within the edition, as well as marginalia in contemporary hand, attest to the frequent use and systematic study of our copy during the late Renaissance period.
This early 16th century edition of Bernard’s works is a perfect example of the longevity of the medieval manuscript tradition in the history of the early printed book: While Petit executed many initials as woodcuts, he decided to also leave space for illuminations on the first page of each of Bernard’s major works in this edition, indicating the required initial with a small letter in the center of the gap.
Only one of the many potential initial illuminations is executed in our copy, but it is an important one: It appears at the beginning of the copy on the first recto after the title page. It is embedded into the vita of St. Bernard of Clairvaux that precedes this collection of his works. The illumination in question represents a very elaborate “B” extending over eleven lines which, in this position, is the initial letter of the word “Bernardus,” the subject of the vita and author of the works edited in this volume.
The Largest Book Worm in the History of the Book?
The close study of a rare book reveals information not only about its maker and their edition of a book, but also about its use and place in a collection. Parts of the cover boards and the text block of our copy are perforated with holes, bearing witness to the fact that there are two kinds of book worms – the metaphorical and the real ones. Two of these holes, however, clearly stand out due to their large size and position right in the middle of the top part of the back board. On the outside of the binding, they are also enclosed by a brown circle that makes them stand out even more.
The double hole and its brown circle are likely remnants of a chain clasp that was once attached to the book’s cover for security purposes. In a world without electromagnetic library security systems, medieval and early modern librarians found other ways to prevent the theft of the objects in their care, objects we have to keep in mind, that even in their own days, represented items of considerable monetary value.
This attachment combined with the book’s content, suggests a monastic or university context (the publisher was one of the official stationers of the University of Paris!). During the medieval period, books were first chained to reading desks, known as lecterns, and – as collections and storage facilities evolved – later also to bookshelves, this was a practice that continued into the early modern period. One of the few preserved ‘chained libraries’ can be found in England at Hereford Cathedral. It should be noted, however, that Hereford’s books are stored with the fore-edge facing outwards and the chain clasp attached to the long side of the cover board. How to account, then, for the position of the clasp hole on our Renaissance edition? The simplest answer seems to be that our book was stored differently, bringing us back to the aforementioned chained reading desks, a type of library furniture that also survived well into the early modern period. In order to imagine our book in its earliest context, I would suggest to ‘visit’ the library at Walpurga’s Church in Zutphen, Netherlands, one of the five intact chained libraries featuring prominently an arrangement of said reading desks. An easy but informative read on chained libraries interspersed with pop culture references can be found on Ricke Elaine Ballard Gritten’s blog called Ricketiki.
But, since the book’s spine shows lettering in its head compartment, it can be assumed that this book was at least at some point stored on a bookshelf with its spine sticking out.
The creation of every text has its context and so does every printed edition. By examining an individual copy, we can learn about a reader’s engagement with a certain text. The History of the Book is about the physicality of this engagement. It is my hope, however, that this glance at an over 500-year-old edition of an almost 900-year-old text corpus was able to demonstrate how every copy is not only a part of the History of the Book but how every copy has its own ‘life,’ its own history, which it will tell us if we are willing to listen.