1776 is one of the most monumental years in the history of the Western World. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow ‘Founding Fathers‘ transformed the world with the Declaration of Independence, helped on by Common Sense and The American Crisis from Thomas Paine (both first published in 1776). Adam Smith‘s The Wealth of Nations, which was to have almost as big of an impact on the human condition as the Declaration of Independence, was also first published in 1776. Tough competition to go against in terms of historical importance! Yet there is yet another publication that first saw light in 1776 which belongs in a similar category of greatness — that being Edward Gibbon‘s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Decline and Fall is the greatest historical work in all of English literature. The Monthly Letter (ML) of the Limited Editions Club (LEC) nicely summarizes the 3,000 pages of this work:
The history covers a period of about 13 centuries. It comprehends such vast subjects as the establishment on the Christian religion; the movements and settlements of the Teutonic tribes; the conquests of the Mohammedans; and the Crusades. Therefore, in actual fact, it traces the connection of the ancient world with the modern…To read Gibbon’s History is to be present at the creation of the modern world.
That is not hyperbole. Gibbon immerses the reader into the Roman world starting from its zenith and continuing for 1400 years to the fall of Byzantium. This is not dry historical reading, instead it is riveting. Gibbon put significant emphasis on primary sources and his extensive use of notes provides the reader with much insight into his own thinking. His wit runs throughout the long work, making a reading of The Decline humorous, in addition to enlightening. The lessons that Gibbon’s draws from the fall of Rome directly resonate with the West as a whole today. It is unfortunate that more people in today’s world have not read this great work, as many of the “crimes and follies and misfortunes of mankind” that the West is staring at today could be avoided with a clear headed knowledge of the past. Obviously, later findings have shown Gibbon to have gotten a number of things wrong. However, thinking of or writing about Roman history, always comes back to Gibbon. As a work of historical literature, it is the end all be all!
When one looks at the sheer expanse of Gibbon’s work, it is incredible to think of it being published in pre-modern times. Just think of the huge amount of work to cast and set a work of 3,000 pages! Even with linotype or monotype, it is a Herculean feat. The Limited Editions Club (LEC) tackled this work in 1946, and the net result is an outstanding accomplishment. Unfortunately, the accomplishment is marred by the use of Moroccan sheepskin for the spines. This choice resulted in an impossibility, nearly 70 years later, of ever finding a set where the spine is not in some sort of disrepair. At the least, the spine tips are always worn or rubbed, though typically it is in much worse shape than just that. After many years of looking, I simply bought the best one I could find. As I started reading it, it became apparent that even with very gentle reading, the spine suffered from further damage nearly every time I read some pages. So, I bought a copy of the same work from George Macy’s sister publishing venture, The Heritage Press, and use that as my reading copy.
Ignoring the unfortunate use of sheepskin on this edition, the rest of this publication is outstanding. The rag paper is, as George Macy says, “pleasantly-thin, pleasantly-toned.” It can be hard to find thin paper for an edition of this size which retains enough heft to handle the type and illustrations without adding significant weight to the volumes. In this edition the paper seems to have just the right characteristics to hold up to its purpose without expanding the size and weight of each volume beyond comfort. The type, 12 point Granjon, is quite readable and a good choice. Each page is left with a wide outside margin for very useful notes from John B. Bury, who also wrote the introduction and edited the work (Bury’s edition was the seminal edition of the twentieth century). The margin notes are composed in Granjon italics. The chapter numbers are set in a large size of Bodoni type. Each chapter has a beginning that is decorated with a design in the form of a Roman plaque, drawn by Paul McPharlin, who also designed this entire edition. Large decorative initials begin each chapter. Interestingly, these initials were, in George Macy’s own words, “swiped” by reproduction from the Nonesuch Press edition of Don Quixote! There are headings at the top of the pages, taken from Gibbon’s own notes, providing a consecutive outline.
One stroke of genius that the LEC pulled off here is using famous etchings of ancient Rome done by a contemporary of Gibbon, Gian Battista Piranesi. It is the first time that Piranesi’s etchings were used with Gibbon. It works marvelously. Gibbon paints such a picture of Rome by the written word, which is matched by the genius of Piranesi’s visualizations. Piranesi spent 30 years, beginning in 1741 when he was 21 years old, creating hundreds of etched plates. Coincidentally, many of those same years Gibbon was at work on his history, which took him twenty years to write (he was 27 when he embarked on creating this history). Of Piranesi’s etchings, eighty were chosen and made into eighty double page illustrations, using the photogravure process for reproduction. You will see below that the quality of the reproduction is excellent.
Each of the seven volumes of this edition has end papers which are maps printed in color. The maps were specially done for this edition by cartographer William Meek. Each volume has a different map, showing the ever shrinking influence of the Roman empire as time marches on. Speaking of the edition being seven volumes, this follows the division in which Gibbon first issued his text. Each volume is 6 1/2″ x 10″. Because the work comes out to nearly 3,000 pages, the LEC used two shops to print from the type, E.L. Hildreth & Co. in Vermont, and Aldus Printers in New York. This brings us back to the binding. The aforementioned Moroccan spines have the title stamped in gold along with a handsome and creative design of crumbling pillars also stamped in gold. The boards are covered with rag paper which has a very well done photographic reproduction of Italian marble. A nice idea, apropos for the work, and looks quite nice next to the black spine. To try to keep my set in the generally very good condition it is in (relatively!), I replaced the original slipcase with a custom slipcase picking up on the marble idea, along with a scanned image of the spines of the 7 volumes. You will see that below.
In short, this LEC is an outstanding edition of the greatest historical work in the Western world. If you happen to be one who has, or can find, this edition in truly fine edition, you are one lucky person. I remain convinced such does not exist! In any case, such would certainly cost at least $1000, if not much more. As it is, those willing to accept the flawed reality, can find decent copies from $150-200 and up. Find it, or buy the Heritage Press version. More importantly, find the time to read it!
About the Edition
- Designed by Paul McPharlin
- Edited, with notes, and introduced by John B. Bury
- 80 double page illustrations from etchings by Gian Battista Piranesi, the first time paired with Gibbon’s work
- Illustrations reproduced by the photogravure process by the Photogravure and Color Company
- Type is 12 point Granjon, with a wide outside margin for the notes which are composed in Granjon italics
- Numbers of the chapters are set in a large size of Bodoni type
- Headings at the top of the pages were taken from Gibbon’s own notes so that the headings tell a consecutive outline
- Chapter beginnings are decorated with a design in the form of a Roman plaque, drawn by Paul McPharlin
- Large decorative initials at the beginnings of the chapters were “swiped” by reproduction from the Nonesuch Press edition of Don Quixote
- End papers are maps printed in color; maps done for this edition by William Meek
- Pages printed directly from the type by E.L. Hildreth & Co. in Vermont, and Aldus Printers in New York
- Rag paper especially made for this edition by Worthy Paper Company
- Seven volumes following the division in which Gibbon first issued his text
- 6 1/2″ x 10″, ~3,000 pages
- Bound with shellback in black morocco, on which a design and title stamped in gold, with sides of rag paper with a photographic reproduction of Italian marble, at Russell-Rutter Company in New York
- Limited to 1500 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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