Ex Libris, known as Bookplates in English speaking countries, are almost as old as printed books. In fact their origins are closely related, since the ex libris were born out of the need to identify the book's ownership.
As a mark of possession, the ex libris begun to be manuscript - the owner's name written, or have the owner's hand-painted or illuminated coat of arms. But after the invention of the printing press they became definitely a small printed label, pasted into the volume, bearing its owner's name and a sign of personal identification, usually the person's Coat-of-Arms.
Apart from the ex libris, printed on paper and pasted on the inside cover of the books, there were also the super libros or book stamp, usually of heraldic motive, stamped on the cover binding of the book and serving the same purpose.
In its beginnings, accompanying the newly born printing methods invented by Guttenberg (in the first half of the XV th century), the bookplate was usually printed out of a wood engraving or of a woodcut.
The first known bookplates printed in this fashion are believed to have appeared in Germany. Some authors, stated, with some doubts, that the oldest, dated circa 1450, was the simple woodcut made on behalf of Johannes Hans Knabensperg - nicknamed «Igler»- who was the chaplain to the Schönstett family, bearing the legend «Hans Igler, das ein Igel kuss».
However, more certain as to its authenticity as a bookplate, following Warnecke, is the one that belonged to a cistercian Monk named Hilpbrand of Biberach with the Coat of Arms of the Bradenburg Family, dated at 1470-80.
Notwithstanding, Gustav Amweg, in his study of the bookplates of the old bishopry of Bâle, defends that the first ex libris in the modern sense of the word was the one used (as from 1464) by Guillame Grimaitre - a chaplain from Neuveville, Lausanne, then beloging to the bishopry of Bâle, which in turn was a part of the Holy German Empire.
In the late 1970's two more ex libris dated from the XVth and early XVIth centuries were found: those of the bishop Telamonius of Limberger (Switzerland) dated at 1498 and that of the Polish bishop Mathiedrevici Wladislaw, dated at 1516.
Amongst German painters who did not hesitate in drawing ex libris was H. Holbein and Albrecht Durer, who is known to have made at least five bookplates. The best known, though very rare in private collections, are those of Hieronimus Ebner (circa 1516) and of Bilibaldi Pirckheimer.
In Italy, for instance bookplates appeared only one century later, around 1548, with the exlibris of Cesare dei Conti Gambara, bishop of Tortona, followed by that of Nicolò Pelli, a woodcut, made in 1559.
In Spain, the oldest bookplate is generally considered to be the woodcut made for Fracisco de Tarafa, in 1553.
In France, the oldest bookplate is the one made in 1529 for Jean Bertaud de La Tourblanche representing the Apostle St. John, followed by that of the bishop of Autun, Charles d'Alboise, dated at 1574.
In England, the earliest bookplate dates from the XVIth century also, the oldest being the gift plate of Sir Nicholas Bacon to the Cambridge University Library
In Portugal, there are still doubts over a wood engraving bearing the Coat of Arms of the Bishop of Coimbra, Dom Afonso de Castelo Branco (1522-1615), as ever having been used as a bookplate. If not, the oldest known Portuguese ex libris dates only from 1622. It is the one made by Jan Schorkens, a Flemish artist who worked in Madrid, from 1618-1630, and accompannied King Philip III when he visited Lisbon, on behalf of the II Marquis of Castelo Rodrigo, Manuel de Moura Corte-Real.
Also from the XVIIth century, we have, amongst others, the ex libris of Manuel Severim de Faria (1583-1655) a cannon from the See of Évora - a writer and bibliophile - a copper engraving executed by A. Paulus (see fig. 3). Then comes the bookplate of Francisco de Melo e Torres (16220-1667), I Count of Ponte (1661) and I Marquis of Sande (cr. 1662), probably made in France where the marquis was sent as Envoy and Ambassador of the King of Portugal. The bookplate of Francisco de Mascarenhas, I Count of Conculim (1662-1685), was engraved by João Gomes, circa 1680. And finally, the ex libris engraved by Clemente Bellinque, circa 1695, on behalf of Luís José de Vasconcelos e Azevedo (1671-1713), in three formats.
By the end of the XVth century a new engraving technique was developed that of intaglio or incised printing, using a copper or steel plate engraved or etched with a burin, enabling more detail, being more resistant and allowing more prints to be made. This obviously helped the widespread of prints and of bookplates as well.
Ex Libris, though, evolved as society did.
The XIX th century and its ideas of egalitarism and freedom gave rise to a society where the "bourgeoisie", enriched by merchant ventures, the newly-born industries and sometimes by speculation, increasingly started having interest and also access to the possession of books. Book ownership as many other riches ceased to be a monopole of a minority, usually identified with the aristocracy.
An ever growing number of people with respectable professions - physicians, lawyers, sollicitors, librarians, architects, etc. - also became interested in collecting books and had the means to buy them. The revolution in the graphic arts - namely, the rising of lithography, and the discovery of zincography and other mechanical printing methods - making it cheaper and quicker to print images or drawings on paper, also contributed to the widespread of ex libris.
With it arose the interest in collecting the little pieces of paper - where symbols, a coat of arms or a nice drawing, alluding to its owner - were printed. Collecting things of all sorts has always been a passion for many people. In it there is a mixture of various human instincts, particularly that of the the hunter - to find and get the hidden covetted piece.
The first known systematic collectors of bookplates, some of whom even wrote books or articles about the subject, date from the middle of the last century. One of the most famous collectors was Sir Augustus W. Franks whose considerable huge collection is now at the Brtish Museum.
With them were born the first Bookplate Societies aiming at gathering people with the same passion, enabling exchanges and publishing Bulletins which studied and discussed the subject, made artists known, organised conferences, talks and exhibitions.
Unfortunately, most of them were short-lived because of the Two World Wars and owing to the lack of renewal of members of younger generations. And this seems to be cyclical in the life of the majority of Bookplate Societies - half a century of existence and activity is really exceptional.
Bookplate collecting owed much to exchanges by mail beteween ex libris amateurs, and those were obviously interrupted during the World War II . After the War, Europe rose slowly from ashes and curiously enough, the countries where ex libris creation and artistic creativity rapidly developed, were the Eastern European countries. There - Russia, the Baltic Republics, Ukrania, Hungary, the now independent Czeck and Slovack Republics, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia and former Eastern Germany - the traditional graphic arts and engraving were practiced and much developed due to the interest of many graphic artists and enthusiast collectors.
In Western continental Europe - Italy,Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Belgium, France, Austria, Spain, Switzerland and Portugal - Bookplate Societies and a growing number of collectors and artists kept the flame alive.
Among the great modern European collectors, to whom the development of bookplate is much indebted, is Dott. Eng. Gianni Mantero, from Como, Italy, who in the 1950's wrote an article in an Austrian magazine advocating the organization of periodical meetings of bookplate lovers from all countries, in order to promote personal acquaintance and the exchange of ex libris, thus helping to drop national barreers. The idea was well received and the I Bookplate International Congress met at Kufstein, in Austria, in 1953.
Ever since, there have been held International Bookplate Congresses, every two years or so, which increasingly begun to be attended by bookplate amateurs outside Europe, namely, from the USA, Canada, South America and Japan. In 1998, the FISAE Congress met at St. Petersburg.
In 1966, another big step was taken to deepen and widen relations between collectors over the national borders - the foundation of the International Federation of Bookplate Societies - F.I.S.A.E., at Hamburg.
Paying tribute to his efforts in international relations and good will, Gianni Mantero was elected as its first President.
England with its traditional outlook traced her own path, having a very rich tradition of graphic arts applied to bookplate creation by also an ever growing number of free-lance artists, and by the 1970's was born the Bookplate Society, increasing its activity, both in the Isles and abroad, ending the somewhat traditional English splendid isolation.
In the Americas, both in North and Latin America, there is a rich tradition of bookplate production and collection. Particularly, in the U.S.A., the period from 1890 to 1925 was considered by a reputed author, Francis W. Allen, as the golden age of American bookplate design, with fine artists like Sidney Lawton Smith, Edwin Davis French, J. Winfred Spenceley, William Fowler Hopson, E. B. Bird, Edmund Garrett, J. W. Jameson and Arthur N. MacDonald producing little masterpieces of the Art of engraving.
There are many collectors in the USA and Canada but rather scattered. In recent years the presence of bookplate lovers from these two countires attending bookplate meetings has considerable increased. In recognition of this effort, FISAE decided to hold the next Congress at Boston, Mass., in the year 2000!
In Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Argentina, for example, there were also fine collectors and active active ex libris circles following the European and North American trends.
Australia also had early in the century a very active Bookplate Society and fine creations but its history and developments are not well known to us.
Japan, with a very rich and ancient tradition in the art of woodcut and woodengraving, soon developed an interest for bookplates and collecting, having one of the oldest Bookplate Societies in activity, publishing a very interesting bulletin. Following, Naoto Hida, a reputed Japanese artist and bookplate lover, the first modern Japanese ex libris dates from 1875, and was made for the Tokyo Public Library.
Meanwhile, styles and themes evolved - heraldry, as the main theme of ex libris creation, becoming a rarity - and under the influence of the "avant-garde" of graphic artists, there was a return to the old engraving techniques, simultaneously with the use new mixed engraving techniques, resulting in some cases in marvellous little printed masterpieces of Art.
Thus, the Art of Bookplate owes most of its peak to the work that artists, from all over the world, have been making in the last half a century. With it, though, came the proliferation of bookplates and the fever attacked many otherwise well-intentioned collectors. In some instances, the bookplate ceased to have its original purpose - to testify the ownership of a book, revealing in an artistic manner some of its owners' ideals. It rather became, simply, a collectible and some started to commission and others to produce bookplates "industrially".
However, this tendency has been repeatdly condemned by serious bookplate collectors and amateurs.
Portugal has played its part in the widespread of bookplates during the past half a century, not as much due to originality of artistic creations - except maybe in the field of armorial ex libris -, but mainly, owing to the activity of one of its Bookplate Societies, which till recently published one of the best bookplate journals in the world - «A Arte do Ex-Líbris», thanks to the strenuos efforts of the long-time great collector and bookplate lover Artur Mário da Mota Miranda.
We also owe to Mota Miranda, the edition of several Volumes of «Bookplate Artists», edited on behalf of FISAE and, from 1985 onwards, the fabulous repertoire of contemporary ex libris - Ex-Libris: Encyclopedia Bio-Bibliographical of the Art of the Contemporary Ex-Libris, with an average of 2 annual volumes, profusely illustrated and with originals. Through it, the creations of artists, from all over Europe, Japan, South America, Canada, the USA and elsewhere, were made known to a wide specialised public
Note: This is a condensed version of an article posted at Cyber Journal of Heraldic Bookplates
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© 1999, by José Vicente de Bragança (Portugal)