The Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part II – Officina Bodoni’s The Fables of Aesop (1973)

{Ed. Note: This is the second of an on-going series looking at the greatest of all private press illustrated books of the last 120+ years. This article is provided by Books and Vines contributor Dlphcoracl. A few weeks back in a review of the Grabhorn Press Esope, we mentioned the Officina Bodoni’s stunning 1973 edition of The Fables of Aesop. Here is it for your perusal!}

Aesop is thought to have been a Greek slave who lived during the 6th century B.C.  Whether he actually wrote these tales, some of them or none of them is unclear.  Tellingly, many of Aesop’s fables have been found on Egyptian papyri known to have been written nearly 1000 years before Aesop’s birth and fables and proverbs of similar form and content are known to have existed in Mesopotamia (Sumer and Akkad) as early as the third millennium B.C. (the Early to Middle Bronze Age).  Aesop may have been more important as a gatherer and compiler of moral fables which he then kept alive in the oral tradition as an itinerant storyteller.  Aesop and his fables were known to both Plato and Socrates and Plato mentions in his Phaedo that Socrates rewrote several of Aesop’s fables into verse form.

The earliest written versions of Aesop’s fables in Greek are though to have been written by Demetrius of Phalerum in the 4th century BCE although no written version survives.  A later Greek written version by Babrius, thought to have lived in the 1st or 2nd century BCE, contained 123 out of the original number of 160 fables and that manuscript is now in the British Museum.  The first Latin version of Aesop’s fables was written by Phaedrus in the 1st century BCE.  The best known of the Latin prose versions containing 83 of the fables was written by Romulus in the 10th century.  Aesop’s fables take a familiar form – a brief story or episode involving two or more animals which concludes with a readily identifiable moral lesson which is then usually taught to children.

Aesop’s Fables is firmly ensconced as a member of Private Press Royalty – a work of literature that has been published by numerous private presses during the modern private press movement that began in 1890 and always to pleasing effect.  I have yet to see a poor or lackluster private press version of this work.  However, two versions reign supreme, considered by most collectors as amongst the finest private press books of the twentieth century and the Officina Bodoni (OB) Aesop is one of them. The OB Aesop is a modern version of one of the most famous and beautiful books published in 15th century Italy, the edition of Aesop printed by Giovanni Alvise of Verona in 1479.  The source of the Latin verse translation that formed the basis of this work is unknown.  In the Italian translation by Accio Zucco, he retells each fable in two successive sonnets, the first sonnet a translation from the Latin (Sonetto Materiale) and the second describing the fable’s moral (Sonetto Morale).  Alvise’s edition was highlighted by 68 woodcut illustrations and he also introduced use of typographic ornaments cast in lead, like letters, to frame each woodcut illustration with a border of fleurons. Only a handful of Alvise’s editions were eventually coloured and most versions were poorly done and primitive. However, an extraordinary hand-coloured copy was known to exist in the British Museum. Officina Bodoni proprietor Giovanni Mardersteig discusses this copy in his twenty-page epilogue at the end of Volume 1, concluding that it could only have been created by Liberale da Verona, the pre-eminent Veronese miniaturist of this period.  Da Verona’s famous miniatures are found in the large choir books of Chiusi and Siena, with Mardersteig stating : “Careful comparison of these with the coloured woodcuts of the Aesop in the British Museum reveals such similarities in composition, movements, gestures, garments, and coloring that only Liberale can be considered its artist.

Because the Officina Bodoni Aesop was intended to celebrate the golden anniversary of Mardersteig’s founding of the press he wanted this to be a perfect reproduction of the copy in the British Museum and he did not omit any details in recreating this medieval classic as faithfully as possible.  In volume one the parallel Latin-Italian text translated by Accio Zucco is revised by Giovanni Battista Pighi and Liberale da Verona’s 68 original woodcuts were recut in their entirety by Anna Bramanti.  The ornamental fleurons, first adopted in 1478 were engraved by Charles Malin.  The hand-colouring found in the British Museum copy was reproduced by Atelier Daniel Jacoumet in Paris using pochoir technique to recreate the illuminated miniature effect. The paper was specially handmade (mouldmade) by Magnani in Pescia, watermarked with a goose similar to that found in the original edition. Volume one was produced in an edition of 320 copies.  Of these, 160 copies were issued as a special English Edition with addition of a second volume containing the English translation of William Caxton entitled Fables of Esope, the printing of which was begun in 1483 and completed in 1484.  Seven fables not in Caxton but present in the Veronese version – the numbers I and LXI – LXVI – were translated by Betty Radice and added to volume two.  Caxton’s text was revised by Tanya and Hans Schmoller.   As stated by Mardersteig in the Introductory Note to volume two:

The spelling (Caxton’s) has been extensively modernized, and substitutes have been sought for words and expressions which the present-day reader might find difficult to understand.  Some punctuation has been added, and occasionally the syntax has been altered.  Caxton’s use of capitals has not been followed nor has any attempt been made to achieve complete consistency in any of the changes.  The aim has been to preserve the spirit of Caxton’s translation while removing the obstacles inevitably contained in a text nearly five-hundred years old.  Tanya and Hans Schmoller have carried out this revision.

The binding is one quarter olive-green oasis morocco with vellum over boards, gilt lettering and Renaissance-style gilt strapwork borders to the covers.  The quality of the vellum is exceptional with a honey colour and marble pattern or grain.  Many consider this and the Sophocles/King Oedipus/Manzu to be Mardersteig’s finest books and it is thought by many to be among the half dozen greatest private press books ever printed. One final note: several of the most notable editions from the Officina Bodoni are books in which 15th and 16th century wood engravings were meticulously reproduced by having them recut on wood by hand using the finest Italian wood engravers of the day rather than simply reproducing them with ordinary means of reproduction (photolithography, etc.). Notable examples of  Officina Bodoni books other than the Fables of Aesop utilizing freshly carved wood engravings for illustrations include: the Nymphs of Fiesole, the Holy Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the Little Passion.

{Ed. Note:  Finding these books in fine condition can sometimes be done, though will cost you thousands and thousands of dollars. The lowest I see right now is $5k, I think it is usually more than that.}

About the Edition

  • Designed by Giovanni Mardersteig and printed at the Officina Bodoni
  • Printed from the Veronese Edition of MCCCLXXIX in Latin Verses and the Italian Version by Accio Zucco and The First Three Books of Caxton’s Aesop Containing the Fables Illustrated in the Verona Aesopus of MCCCCLXXIX
  • Woodcuts Newly Engraved by Anna Bramanti and Coloured After a Copy in the British Museum thought to have been drawn by created by Liberale da Verona
  • Hand-colouring found in the British Museum copy was reproduced by Atelier Daniel Jacoumet in Paris using pochoir technique to recreate the illuminated miniature effect
  • The paper was specially handmade (mouldmade) by Magnani in Pescia, watermarked with a goose similar to that found in the original edition
  • Bound in quarter olive-green oasis morocco with vellum over boards, gilt lettering and Renaissance-style gilt strapwork borders to the covers
  • Volume one was produced in an edition of 320 copies.  Of these, 160 copies were issued as a special English Edition with addition of a second volume containing the English translation from 1483/4 of William Caxton entitled Fables of Esope (Caxton’s text was revised by Tanya and Hans Schmoller); Seven fables not in Caxton but present in the Veronese version – the numbers I and LXI – LXVI – were translated by Betty Radice and added to volume two

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Slipcase
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Slipcase
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Spines
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Spines
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Covers or Vol. 1 Aesopus (Latin & Italian) and Vol. 2 Caxton’s English translation
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Covers or Vol. 1 Aesopus (Latin & Italian) and Vol. 2 Caxton’s English translation
Title Page
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Title Page
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Title page illustration - verso
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Frontispiece
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Introductory Page
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Introductory Page
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Frontispiece no. 2: Aesops Witty Fables
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Frontispiece no. 2: Aesops Witty Fables
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Fable one, page one, with decorative hand-illuminated border
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Fable One, page one, with decorative hand-illuminated border
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Macro view of initial letter: note the droplets of stray paint during the hand illumination process
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Macro view of Initial Letter: note the droplets of stray paint during the hand illumination process
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #1 - Fable Two: Latin text with Italian translation (Sonetto Materiale)
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #1 – Fable Two: Latin text with Italian translation (Sonetto Materiale)
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #2 - Fable Two: the moral of the fable in Italian (Sonetto Morale)
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #2 – Fable Two: the moral of the fable in Italian (Sonetto Morale)
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #2 - Fable Three: Of the Wolf and the Lamb
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #1 – Fable Three: Of the Wolf and the Lamb
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #2 - Fable Three: Of the Wolf and the Lamb
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #3 – Fable Four: Italian translation
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #4 - Fable Thirteen: Of the Two Rats
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #2 – Fable Thirteen: Of the Two Rats
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #7- Fable Seventeen: Of the Lion, the Boar, the Bull and the Ass
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #3- Fable eEghteen: Of the Ass and the Young Dog
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #11 - Fable Fifty-two: Of the Father and Son
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Illustration #4 – Fable Fifty-two: Of the Father and Son
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Handmade Magnani paper with the watermark of the goose, taken from the original edition by Giovanni Alvise of Verona (1479)
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Handmade Magnani paper with the watermark of the goose, taken from the original edition by Giovanni Alvise of Verona (1479)
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Colophon to Volume One
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Colophon to Volume One
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Front cover of Volume Two: Vellum with gilt ornamentation
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Front cover of Volume Two: Vellum with gilt ornamentation
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Volume Two - Title Page
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Volume Two – Title Page
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Volume Two: Table of Contents
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Volume Two: Table of Contents
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Volume Two: Introductory note to Wm. Caxton’s English translation
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Volume Two: Introductory note to Wm. Caxton’s English translation
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #4 - Caxton Translation: Fable Number Five
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #4 – Caxton Translation: Fable Number Five
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #5 - Caxton Translation: Fable Number Nine
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Sample Text #5 – Caxton Translation: Fable Number Nine
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Colophon to Volume Two
The Fables of Aesop, Officina Bodoni, Colophon to Volume Two

4 thoughts on “The Great Illustrated Private Press Books, Part II – Officina Bodoni’s The Fables of Aesop (1973)

  1. Stunning! The illustrations are a lot more brutal than any later ones I’ve seen in what they depict – there was no room for squeamishness in the Middle Ages.
    The goose watermark is wonderful, though I suspect if you showed it to a modern child they’d identify it as a baby dinosaur.

Leave a Reply