The Valmadonna Trust has a number of activities and one of these is to maintain the library housed in London. The beneficiaries of the Trust are members of my family, and the name derives from a charming village in Piedmont with which we have been connected since the Second World War. My late wife’s family established the Trust nearly fifty years ago. At the time there was a nucleus of books – perhaps a thousand volumes, mainly Hebrew books printed in Italy in the sixteenth century. I was very young and recently married and I cannot say that I was particularly interested in the collection.
However, my wife encouraged me enormously. She regarded the library as a form of history of the Jewish people, and considered it a great privilege, as do my children. Without my wife’s support, I could not have burnt the midnight oil as I have done for many years. She used to come down to my study in the still of the night and find me working on a book that for some reason gave a problem. Do you know that I have been to the cinema twice in the last twenty-five years? Time is short and I feel we must push on with the library.
Although the Valmadonna Library contains several hundred manuscripts and a unique collection of sixteenth century broadsheets, it is renowned for its collection of printed Hebraica. Over the years the scope has been extended to the entire field of Hebrew printing in the sixteenth century and beyond. Our Italian holdings continue up to the nineteenth century, with specialist collections devoted to, for example, Leghorn, the Tuscan port which was a major centre of Hebrew printing. The non-Italian holdings include books from various European centres, with an extensive collection from Holland which took over from Venice in the early seventeenth century as an outstanding centre of quality Hebrew printing.
Ottoman imprints from Salonika and Constantinople are also well represented, and I am very fond of the collection of Hebrew books printed in India which I have visited many times. There was an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem recently of the Jews of India to which we contributed a number of items. Incidentally the Valmadonna Library also has a celebrated collection of early Jerusalem printing, dating from 1841 when the Hebrew press was established in the city. Printing on vellum is another great joy of the library, which also has a major collection of books on coloured paper, a most attractive tradition in Hebrew printing.
England is outside our parameters and, although we do have examples of Hebrew printing in this country, they are not of great importance. Our great strength must always be the collection of Hebrew incunables from Italy and the Iberian peninsula, of which the Valmadonna Library holds over fifty examples, only seventeen of which are recorded in the late Dr David Goldstein’s survey of Hebrew Incunables in the British Isles, 1985.
Let us consider for a moment the Jews and their books. The Jewish religion is based entirely on the written word – the Hebrew Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, commentaries and the codes of Jewish law stating what you may or may not do – a voluminous literature. A Jewish person who accepts Judaism is bound to the written word on a daily basis. Before children can read or write, they wake up in the morning and say a prayer in Hebrew parrot-fashion. By the age of four or five, they start to read the Hebrew alphabet, for which a huge number of primers – often very charming - have been printed. The child starts with an alphabet book and soon acquires a liturgy, a Bible and then the commentaries and edicts.
Jews never travel without a liturgy, and perhaps also a Bible, and it is this practice which, to a large extent, promoted the spread of Hebrew printing. In the early days, the Soncino family printed liturgies and Bibles executed in miniature with great accuracy. These volumes were easily tucked in a sleeve in the days when travel was anything but easy.
If one knows anything of the history of the Jews, one should not be surprised by the appalling condition of most old Hebrew books. Quite apart from the spectacular disasters which overtook them when their destruction was decreed by, for example, papal edicts, many liturgical books were simply read to destruction. The value of the book as an object was totally disregarded; the value was only in the text. Leopold Zunz, the father of modern Jewish studies, called the Bible the ‘portable fatherland of the Jews’ which is a serious and meaningful thought.
When a sacred book finally falls to pieces, it must not be thrown away unceremonially. In every synagogue there is a genizah – a box or room in which defective books may be stored. It might be a good idea to rummage in the genizah
to look for an incunable discarded by someone who did not know better. I do not believe there is anything to stop one doing this – though I have never done it myself.
I repair everything that requires attention. In fact I doubt if there is another private library that has gone the same length to preserve its books. Of course there are two schools of thought on this subject. Paul Needham and Felix Oyens, both dear friends and great authorities, are of the opinion that an old book – even if it is in tatters – must not be tampered with, whereas I believe that we must protect and preserve these books for the future.
Our story starts in 1463 when Sweynheym and Pannartz knocked on the door at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco near Rome, and said, ‘May we print?’ Although Sweynheym and Pannartz printed in Latin, it may be assumed that they instructed the Jewish printers or typesetters who are thought to have been responsible for a few Hebrew books issued with no place or date, but supposedly in the vicinity of Rome around 1470.
Now you ask yourself, why this vagueness – why does it not say in the colophon where and by whom these books were printed? Because of anti-Semitism. Jews were not allowed to join the Christian guilds, and without a licence it was impossible to print in Italy. Therefore these first Roman Hebrew imprints may have been produced in association with Sweynheym and Pannartz who were German Christians.
In 1475 the first Hebrew dated books were printed at Reggio di Calabria and Pieve di Sacco and in a short time Hebrew printing – with or without permission – spread to a number of Italian towns including Ferrara, Bologna and Mantua. Incidentally on of the first problems to be addressed in Hebrew printing was the question of prejudice. There was initial resistance to the idea of using a new mechanical art to communicate sacred text. A solution was found by cutting type to imitate as closely as possible Hebrew manuscript models.
Simultaneously there was some fabulous Hebrew printing in the Iberian peninsula, produced a few years be fore the Inquisition expelled the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492. The earliest dated Hebrew printed book from Spain was issued at Guadalajara in 1476. After the Jews’ expulsion, a master-printer from Lisbon trundled his type and font onto a boat bound for Morocco, and established in Fez the first printing press on the African continent.
The details of the harsh existence of these early Jewish printers are occasionally recorded in colophons. Gershom Soncino, in one of his colophons, described the miseries of life as an itinerant printer in the Renaissance, packing up his type and moving from one place to another. Members of the Soncino family produced more than a third of all known Hebrew books printed before 1500. Gershom Soncino himself printed in ten Italian towns till, in 1527, he was finally forced out of his native land and settled first in Salonika and then in Constantinople. His son, Eliezer ben Gershom Soncino, continued printing there after his father’s death in 1534.
The Valmadonna Library holds two fascinating polyglot Bibles printed by Eliezer in 1546 and 1547. The latter is particularly interesting as it contains Judaeo-Greek, the language of the Byzantine Jewish community, and represents one of the very rare printed examples of this language. The first polyglot Bible to be completed was of course Cardinal Ximenes’ Complutensian Polyglot, printed at Alcala de Henares in Castile, 1514-17. The Valmadonna Library possesses the magnificent Chatsworth set of this monumental work.
When the great Daniel Bomberg began printing Hebrew books, it was an activity still dominated by Gershom Soncino. However Bomberg was very far removed from the image of the wandering Jewish printer. He was a Christian and a man of considerable wealth, who devoted his life and fortune to printing Hebrew books. Bomberg is my hero – I have had a love-story with him for fifty years. When he was a young man in Antwerp, he was given four million ducats to open a branch of the family banking and shipping business in Venice. Instead he spent the money on printing Hebrew books of great beauty and accuracy. Several type-faces were cut for him by Guillaume le Blé who was also a Christian and the finest type-cutter of his day.
In 1515, the year of Aldus Manutius’ death, Bomberg established his Hebrew press in Venice and immediately applied for a licence to print the Bible and the Talmud. The Valmadonna copy of the first edition of Bomberg’s so-called Biblia Rabbinica, 1516-17, is one of the rare examples of Renaissance Hebrew printing to contain rubricated initials. The work is a typographical masterpiece, printed in four volumes in Hebrew and Aramaic with rabbinic commentaries, Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of the Faith and Ben-Asher’s treatise on biblical accents.
In order to print the complete Talmud, Bomberg had to obtain source material and sent out buyers all over Europe and the Middle East to acquire Talmud manuscripts. Meanwhile he also assembled in Venice a regiment of scholars to dissect these manuscripts so as to arrive at the most accurate text. Between 1520 and 1523 Bomberg’s press produced the first complete printing of the Babylonian Talmud, of which the Valmadonna Library holds a perfect copy.
It was acquired by exchange from the library of Westminster Abbey where it had been untouched for centuries. The initials RB on the binding have given rise to much discussion as they were at one time thought to indicate the royal library (Regia Bibliotheca) of Henry VIII. The king is known to have consulted Italian rabbis for their interpretation of the Talmud tractate on divorce, a subject in which he took a special interest. Actually the initials have since been identified as belonging to Richard Bruarne, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford from 1546 to 1556.
Then what was the disaster that followed? Remember the situation in Venice where there was a high concentration of Hebrew manuscripts, largely accumulated by Bomberg for his printing activities? In August 1553, by which date Bomberg had died, a papal decree was issued by Julius III for the confiscation and destruction of copies of the Talmud. In October of that year the Venetian Council of Ten issued a similar decree and a huge bonfire was lit in St Mark’s Square to burn the Talmud and commentaries. Public burnings of Hebrew books took place all over Italy and the Papal States. As a result there are hardly any medieval Talmud manuscripts extant.
If anyone wanted to start collecting Hebrew books today, I would advise them to concentrate on places of printing that have been ignored – Eastern Europe and Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or perhaps Constantinople and Salonika in the same period. Both areas would make meaningful collections, and books could be acquired within the price range of £50 to £150. In recent years some people have started to collect Hebrew incunables or special exotic pieces. But I know of no buyer trying to put together the definitive works of a printer or a place of printing. Abandon hope, all ye who would collect the complete works of Daniel Bomberg…
The Valmadonna Library receives offers from book dealers all over the place – some of them are nuisance offers, but we dare not overlook anything. Pauline Malkiel, our librarian who is extremely competent and painstaking, also deals with numerous inquiries from students and scholars with whom it is a privilege to cooperate. Our manuscript holdings are available on microfilm and perhaps also on the Interset? Internet? I belong to the horse-and-cart age.
From time to time we lend books to exhibitions. In 1989 Paul Needham organised an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library of Hebraica from the Valmadonna Trust. Brad Sabin Hill wrote the catalogue which has now become a collector’s item. It was snapped up by dealers as soon as it appeared, and I have often thought of having it reprinted.
This may surprise you but I do not think of myself as a book collector. I have simply tried to put together certain books based on their printer or place of printing. The text has been secondary to this activity.
Interviewed for the Bookdealer in September 1996. The Valmadonna Library was sold on 16 December 2010 at Sotheby’s in a sealed-bid auction to an unknown buyer. Jack Lunzer died on 18 December 2016.