Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Item Feature: La Sfera, A 15th Century Schoolbook

October 19th, 2015

La Sfera, a 15th-century schoolbook, opens with basic concepts of cosmography and geography and ends with an itinerary of seaports of the southern Mediterranean and Black Seas. This manuscript poem in Italian is illustrated with astronomical and geographical diagrams, a drawing of the Tower of Babel, and miniature extracts from sea charts showing the coasts described.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.

Fig. 1. Diagrams showing celestial bodies and the division of the Earth into zones according to classical tradition appear near the beginning of La Sfera (ff.2v-3r). Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click image to enlarge.

Portolan charts, a type of sea chart that originated in the Mediterranean and was used in navigation from circa 1300 until the late 1600s, formed the model for the map illustrations in La Sfera.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.

Fig. 2. The portolan-style map illustrations exaggerate the shape of the seacoast and emphasize coastal place names and major cities (here Tripoli and Tunis), as well as giving approximate distances (f. 21v). Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click image to enlarge.

Some have attributed its authorship to Leonardo Dati (1362-1425), but, as a leader of the Dominican order, he was unlikely to have written a textbook in Italian. Boys destined for the law and Holy Orders were taught in Latin, while education for commercial careers took place in vernacular lay schools.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.  Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.

Figs. 3a-b. The text and place names are in Italian. The pen-and-ink drawings of mountains, water features, and the cities of Damascus and Jerusalem have been colored with watercolor washes (f. 22v). Left: overall view, right: detail of Jerusalem. Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click images to enlarge.

The confusion about authorship arose, because La Sfera’s author was Leonardo’s elder brother, Gregorio (Goro) Dati (1362-1435), a Florentine silk merchant whose 20 children (by a succession of four wives) doubtless provided the inspiration for writing La Sfera. The survival of more than 150 manuscript copies and several printed editions from the 15th and 16th centuries attests to La Sfera’s popularity. Goro Dati knew the Mediterranean Sea firsthand from trading voyages on merchant vessels, but he left La Sfera’s circuit of the Mediterranean coasts unfinished, perhaps because he died while writing it. In 1514 Giovanni Maria Tolosani completed and published the itinerary as a printed book.

La Sfera is written in ottava rima, a form of poetry employing stanzas of eight lines. It belongs to an Italian tradition of vernacular geographical poetry, known as geografie metriche. A later example was Francesco Berlingieri’s publication in 1482 of Geographia of the ancient Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, re-written in Italian verse. Also dating from the 1480s were Bartolomeo dalli Sonetti (Zamberti)’s sonnets in Venetian dialect about the Greek islands. The ease of memorizing poetry may account for its use in textbooks published elsewhere in 16th-century Europe, such as the 2nd edition Johannes Honter’s Rudimenta Cosmographia published in Latin verse in Kronstadt (now Brasnow, Romania). Based on its script and paper watermarks, Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s manuscript copy dates from circa 1450. As well as annotations, the dirty outer leaves, stains left by spilled liquid, and the remains of a snakeskin used as a bookmark attest to its use.

Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, Call number Pryce MS P4.  Pryce MS P4 ff. 11r detail finger

Figs. 4a-b. The leaves in this opening have added marginal notes and a passage marked by a pointing finger (ff. 10v-11r). Left: overall view, right: detail of pointing finger. Special Collections, call number Pryce MS P4. Click images to enlarge.

This manuscript was probably used first as a textbook, without a cover, and later bound in a codex with other texts, from which it had been separated before its acquisition in 1966.

Karen Severud Cook
Special Collections Librarian

All Creeping Things: A History of Herpetological Illustration

May 26th, 2015

All Creeping Things: A History of Herpetological Illustration, Spencer Library’s newest exhibit, opened on May 14, 2015. Guided by Special Collections Librarian Karen Cook, students Megan Sims, Sydney Goldstein, and Ryan Ridder created and installed the exhibit for an exhibit planning and design course (MUSE 703). Whitney Baker, Head of Conservation Services at KU Libraries, Special Collections Librarian Sally Haines, and Caitlin Donnelly, Head of Public Services at Spencer, also assisted the students with their project.

The exhibit was developed in conjunction with the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles conference being held at the University of Kansas in July and features herpetological illustrations from seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century books in Spencer Library’s Special Collections. Spencer has put on a few iterations of a similar exhibit for previous conferences. Each student had a unique perspective on their experience creating the exhibit.

Ryan Ridder

“One of our goals was to be distinct from Slithy Toves [a previous exhibit, by Sally Haines] and to present images that viewers familiar with that exhibition, and associated book, might not see as often. We ended up repeating a few irresistible images – the giant salamander, Agassiz’s turtles, and the famous frontispiece to Rössel von Rosenhof’s frog volume – but everything else you see is different. We thought touching on embryological illustrations would give our exhibit another unique slant.”

Photograph of Megan and Ryan installing books

Megan Sims and Ryan Ridder installing books in the cases. Click image to enlarge.

Sydney Goldstein

“I found this class to be both an overwhelming and an incredibly eye-opening experience. Coming from a graphic design background I’ve never gone through the steps of curating an exhibition or working off the computer. It was fun to rummage through a variety of books to select illustrations, figuring out how they will fit in the cases, selecting wall graphics, and working in a group. The most rewarding part was applying our vinyl title graphic ourselves. Overall, a great experience!”

Photograph of the MUSE 703 group hanging vinyl

Megan, Sydney, and Ryan hanging the vinyl title graphic.

Megan Sims

“I have installed many exhibits according to specific designs from clients, but this was my first experience selecting objects, designing signs and labels, and fabricating book mounts and wall graphics for an exhibit. Both the physical process and communication were challenging at times, but seeing the finished product was very rewarding. I’m excited for the conference members and the Lawrence community to see this exhibit!”

Photograph of the MUSE 703 exhibit team in front of title

Ryan Ridder, Sydney Goldstein, Megan Sims, and curator Karen Cook. Click image to enlarge.

All Creeping Things is free and open to the public through August 2015.

Megan Sims
Museum Studies Graduate Student

‘Dead Coloring’ Revived Again: John Gould’s Hand-Colored Bird Lithographs

September 22nd, 2014

Over the centuries a number of techniques for creating graphic images have outlived their original technology, successfully migrating to new imaging technologies. I was recently reminded of this while planning Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s exhibition, “Ornithological Illustration in the Age of Darwin: The Making of John Gould’s Bird Books” (open September 11-November 15, 2014 on weekdays 9-5 and Saturdays 9-1, except October 11).

John Gould, an English ornithologist, published illustrated books about birds from 1830 until his death in 1881. The Library has recently digitized its holdings of Gould’s 47 large-format volumes, as well as nearly 2000 preliminary drawings, watercolor paintings, tracings, lithographic stones, and proofs.

When searching the new digital John Gould Ornithological Collection (accessible at the University of Kansas Libraries website at, I happened to compare the published hand-colored print of the Horned Lark or Otocoris alpestris with the black printing image on lithographic stone. “What a great example of dead coloring!” I exclaimed.

Image of Otocoris alpestris / Horned lark

Otocoris alpestris / Horned lark. Lithographic crayon on stone by
John Gould and Henry Constantine Richter.
Reference: ksrl_sc_gould_2387.tif.
Call number: Gould Drawing 2387. Click image to enlarge.

Image of Otocoris alpestris / Horned lark

Otocoris alpestris / Horned lark. Lithograph and watercolor by
John Gould and Henry Constantine Richter.
Reference: ksrl_sc_gould_gb_1_3 (n77).
Birds of Great Britain, 1st edition, volume 3, plate 18.
Call number: Ellis Aves H131. Click image to enlarge.

So what is dead coloring? It involves underpainting shapes in a neutral hue, then finishing the oil painting with transparent colored glazes, and was often used by late-18th-century English painters. Early painters in watercolor, a medium gaining popularity in England during the late 18th century, employed a similar approach.

However, dead coloring also had a place in European printmaking. Mezzotint and aquatint, new methods of intaglio printmaking capable of the tonal gradations necessary for dead coloring, were invented in the mid-17th century and increased in use thereafter. John James Audubon’s hand-colored aquatints of American birds published in the early 19th century were outstanding examples.

During the early 19th century yet another new printing technology, lithography, spread from Germany, where it had been invented in 1798, across Europe to England. Working with a waxy crayon on a block of lithographic limestone with a fine-textured surface was similar to drawing on rough-textured paper. The lithographic crayon caught on the tips of the grained stone surface, creating a random pattern of irregular dots. Viewed with the naked eye, the tiny dots merge into shades of gray.

Lithographic drawing was much easier to learn than mezzotint and aquatint and was the obvious choice for illustrating John Gould’s ornithological books. Elizabeth Gould (his wife), an amateur artist, rapidly mastered crayon lithography under the tutelage of Edward Lear, a younger but more experienced artist employed by Gould. She illustrated Gould’s books until her death in 1841, after which he employed a succession of professional artists.

Image of Melanopitta sordida

Melanopitta sordida. Watercolor and lithographic crayon drawing by
William Hart. Reference: ksrl_sc_gould_1264.tif.
Call number: Gould Drawing 1264. Click image to enlarge.

Image of Melanopitta sordida

Melanopitta sordida. Colored lithographic proof by
William Hart. Reference: ksrl_sc_gould_1265.tif.
Call number: Gould Drawing 1265. Click image to enlarge.

Artist William Hart executed his drawing of Melanopitta sordida in lithographic crayon and watercolor, thus rehearsing his final drawing on lithographic stone for printing and hand coloring. Colored by hand using watercolors, Gould’s lithographic prints are successful examples of dead coloring. By the time of Gould’s death in 1881, color printing was taking over the reproduction of graphic images, bringing the hand-colored lithographic revival of dead coloring to a close.

Karen S. Cook
Special Collections Librarian



And the Oldest Item in Kenneth Spencer Research Library is…

July 12th, 2013

…a cuneiform clay tablet a little over 4000 years old!

Photograph of Cuneiform clay tablet (MS Q4:4)

Ancient History: Cuneiform clay tablet, Umma, ca. 2055 BCE.
Call number: MS Q4:4. Click to enlarge.

This small baked clay tablet dates from ca. 2055 BCE in Umma in southern Mesopotamia (the location of modern-day Iraq).  Like many cuneiform tablets, it is an administrative document: in this case, an inventory of materials — such as asphalt, bitumen, and fish-oil — used in caulking the ship Ur-Gilgamesh.

Cuneiform is among the earliest systems of writing. It involves pressing signs into soft clay with a wedge-shaped tool. The tablet pictured above is in the Sumerian language; however, the library also holds later tablets in Akkadian.

Image of box containing Spencer Library's Cuneiform Tablets

Spencer’s cuneiform tablets, ca. 2112-529 BCE. Call Number: MS Q4. Click image to enlarge.

In all, Spencer houses eleven cuneiform tablets. The smallest of these (MS Q4:1, the top left tablet in the box) may possibly be even older than the ship caulking inventory. However, since it lacks a date of rule, its age can only be narrowed to likely sometime during the Third Dynasty of Ur, ca. 2112-2004 BCE. Interestingly, this tiny tablet is itself a receipt for something small: one dead lamb. Other tablets in the collection include votive inscriptions praising King Singashid of Uruk and Amnanum (MS Q:7-8) and a court record concerning a missing servant (MS Q4:10).

Since the ability to read Sumerian and Akkadian is a fairly specialized skill (we’re guessing you didn’t learn it in grade school either), Spencer has been fortunate enough to benefit from the expertise of its researchers.  Thanks to scholars and KU faculty members, such as Professor Paul Mirecki in the Department of Religious Studies, we are able to give a much better answer to the frequently asked question, “What’s the oldest thing in the library?”

Karen S. Cook and Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarians

November Scene, Circa 1520

November 30th, 2012

How better to end November than with a manuscript leaf depicting swineherds knocking acorns off trees for pigs to eat, a typical November activity in late medieval France? The leaf is from a calendar of feast days that was formerly part of a book of hours (a volume of devotional readings). The Latin text was copied onto vellum (treated calfskin) by a scribe and then richly decorated with colored and gold pigments. This particular leaf dates from approximately 1520. It demonstrates the persistence of manuscript book production more than half a century after the Gutenberg Bible was printed using moveable type (circa 1455) in neighboring Germany. 

Image of Leaf from Calendar for November. France, vellum, ca. 1520?
Leaf from Calendar for November (likely from a Book of Hours). France, vellum, ca. 1520?
Call number: MS A28. Click image to enlarge!

Karen S. Cook
Special Collections Librarian