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A New Old View

Dumbarton Oaks Acquires Seventeenth-Century Monument Guide

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Anatole Tchikine |
A New Old View

When we think of the Grand Tour, it is the English rather than the Dutch who first come to mind. Yet, seventeenth-century Holland (or, more correctly, the United Provinces) was a rich mercantile empire with trading outposts as far the island of Kyushu in Japan and colonial settlements and plantations, such as Surinam, in South America, India, and Africa. A community of enterprising travelers and cartographers, the Dutch engaged in the exploration of the New World just as they were rediscovering the legacy of classical antiquity. They were thus the principal audience for the Theatrum Civitatum et Admirandorum Italiae, whose first three volumes, originally published in 1663, have recently been acquired by Dumbarton Oaks. Usually translated as the “Town Book of Italy,” this project was a brainchild of the leading Amsterdam mapmaker Johannes Blaeu (1599–1673), who ran one of the city’s largest printing establishments. Published in Latin, which was still the lingua franca at the time, it was intended as a cultural and historical guide as well as a cartographic atlas for the educated elite, curious about the past and present of one of the heartlands of European civilization.

Blaeu, Rome Map This highly detailed color map shows noteworthy monuments of ancient Rome.

Blaeu’s original idea was an ambitious publication that would have comprised a total of ten volumes, five of which were supposed to deal with the monuments of ancient Rome, organized into specific types, and another five with the main attractions of various states of seventeenth-century Italy. Nine years after the appearance of the three initial volumes, however, his main workshop was destroyed by fire, with much of the material ready for publication irredeemably lost. Blaeu’s heirs continued his work, adding in 1683 two more volumes on Piedmont and Savoy, but were unable to complete the full series. Yet, even in this incomplete form, the “Town Book of Italy” was a success, as attested by subsequent editions produced by other Amsterdam publishers well into the eighteenth century.

Blaeu, Roma Nova The volume on the Papal States features this highly detailed depiction of seventeenth-century Rome.

The three luxurious volumes at Dumbarton Oaks, bound in the original Dutch vellum with gilt borders, feature over a hundred engraved plates (mostly maps and views), some of which are hand-colored. The first volume, dealing with the cities of the Papal States, is a rich visual and textual introduction to their main monuments and landmarks, beginning with a brief outline of the pivotal historical events, the leading local families, and other important characters, followed by the survey of the principal buildings. Some illustrations also represent major gardens, such as those of Frascati and Tivoli, as well as sacred and devotional sites located in the immediate vicinity.

Blaeu, Tivoli This print, from the first volume on the Papal States, depicts the waterfalls of Tivoli. Though most of the books’ text is in Latin, this illustration is titled in Italian.

The second volume, on the monuments of ancient Rome, includes sections on circuses, theaters, and amphitheaters; its important focus, however, is on Egyptian obelisks with meticulously recorded hieroglyphic inscriptions, a source of scholarly fascination throughout the seventeenth century. A special highlight is an account of the moving of the Vatican Obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the greatest engineering feats of the sixteenth century, carried out in 1586 by the papal architect Domenico Fontana. For Blaeu and his readers, the glory of the ancient Rome, therefore, was always interlaced with the achievements of the modern city.

Blaeu, Obelisk A four-leaf-wide pull-out section illustrates the moving of the Vatican Obelisk.

Finally, the third volume, which deals with Naples and Sicily, pays much attention to the natural attractions of these regions, especially the unique geology and vegetation in the areas of volcanic activity, such as Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields.

Blaeu, Naples The books feature beautiful typography, most in early modern Latin, as here: “Neapolis [modern-day Naples] is a highly celebrated city, situated on the coast of the sea and at the bases of the loveliest of hills—no wonder, then, that even in ancient times there were those who lived there.”

Blaeu, Vesuvius The workshop somewhat fancifully depicted the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, with peasants fleeing in the foreground.

For Dumbarton Oaks, the acquisition of these three fascinating volumes coincides with the increasing focus of its Garden and Landscape Studies program on urban landscape studies, supported by a generous grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. By putting this rare and incredibly rich resource at the service of scholarship, we hope to promote a deeper understanding of the intricate and dynamic relationships that exist between the natural environment and urban form, putting them in a broad historical perspective.

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Dumbarton Oaks at the Rio Olympics

Margaret Mee’s Painting Included in the Opening Ceremony

Posted on Aug 04, 2016 03:45 PM by Lain Wilson |
Dumbarton Oaks at the Rio Olympics

If you look carefully at the stage set at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, you’ll see a suite of eighty brightly colored collages of plants in the background. Among the illustrations of plants, which come from a number of sources, is one delicately shaded and photorealistic example from the Rare Book Collection at Dumbarton Oaks.

The artist Margaret Mee created strikingly accurate gouache paintings of rare Brazilian plants during her lifetime, twenty-one of which were acquired by Mildred Bliss for the Garden Library at Dumbarton Oaks. Graphic designer Olivia Ferreira has incorporated one of these paintings into several panels of her backdrop for the Olympics: Mee’s depiction of the Nematanthus fluminensis, a red-leaved gesneriad native to Brazil. The original, unaltered image will also be printed in the program for the ceremony.

Mee worked extensively in the Amazon rainforest over the course of her life, participating in fifteen major expeditions. She moved to São Paulo in 1951 and made her first trip into the forest in 1955, earning praise for her illustrations first from local botanical experts, and soon from artists and botanists throughout the world. Mildred Bliss began her and Dumbarton Oaks’ relationship with Mee in 1967, when Bliss purchased three paintings from the artist’s recent expedition and invited her to Dumbarton Oaks to exhibit her work and lecture on her experiences in the field. She continued to buy Mee's paintings, and purchased the Nematanthus in 1969.

In 2013, Dumbarton Oaks made available high-resolution images of the twenty-one paintings in the collection, accompanied by information about Mee and her relationship to the institute. Dumbarton Oaks also holds a number of books relating to Mee’s work, ranging from catalogues raisonnés to a volume of poems inspired by her paintings.

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From the Rare Book Collection

The “Useful Art-Book of Gardening”

Posted on Oct 15, 2015 03:55 PM by Lain Wilson |
From the Rare Book Collection

As part of an occasional series, we’ll be highlighting individual rare books from the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection that have been digitized so that anyone, anywhere in the world, can read them at any time through the Harvard University Library Page Delivery Service. You can find a list of all the online rare books from Dumbarton Oaks at this link.

Hans Puechfeldner, Nützliches Khünstbüech der Gartnereij (probably 1593)

At roughly the same time that Shakespeare wrote his plays in the England of Elizabeth I, the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (ruled 1576–1612) in Prague drew a constellation of artists and intellectuals of the highest caliber. Despite Rudolf’s relative haplessness as a politician and ruler, he had exquisite taste and a curious mind: he carved out a home for the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, for masters of occult arts, for the great Mannerist painters Bartholomeus Spranger and Giuseppe Arcimboldo. He also amassed an enormous Kunstkammer—a collection of art, curiosities, treasures, and rarities that included amulets, scientific devices, exotic weapons, more than three thousand paintings (including works of Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein the Younger), unicorns’ horns, mandrakes, and many, many books.

Rudolf inherited a library of at least twenty-six hundred volumes, and commissioned more over the course of his thirty-six years on the throne. Many of those books were opulent creations—one-of-a-kind manuscripts full of illustrations and bound with the richest of materials. One of these is a book now in the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection: the only copy of the Nützliches Khünstbüech der Gartnereij, or “Useful Art-Book of Gardening,” authored and drawn in pen and bistre by Hans Puechfeldner, the emperor’s gardener. (The entire book, scanned at a high quality, can be viewed at this link.)

The book consists principally of hand-drawn plans for garden features of great complexity that wend their way around ornate buildings rendered in fine detail. (There are also three pages of dedicatory text addressed to Rudolf II, and several overhead views of arrangements of trees.) An air of fantasy hovers around Puechfeldner’s wilder imaginings: palaces stretch indefinitely in the background, and lacy patterns of grass and hedge iterate opulently outward, longer than practicality might suggest. To the best of our knowledge, none of the plans were ever realized, and it would require a massive fortune to build the scenes suggested. None of the diagrams are marked with notes that would point in the direction of implementation, such as a fixed scale or suggestions for kinds of trees. The bulk of the drawings are done from a one-point perspective that suggests we are looking over these imaginary gardens from a very tall tower, and shading is minimal and careful, as if the view were from the middle of the day.

Yet the book is titled Nützliches, “useful.” Erik de Jong, former Garden and Landscape Studies Fellow and Senior Fellow (2001–8), has done extensive research on the manuscript and writes that Puechfeldner’s book is best seen as an attempt to draw the practices of the influential Brussels gardener Hans Vredeman de Vries eastward into Central Europe. Indeed, for decades the book’s catalog entry had attributed authorship to Vredeman. But de Jong matched it with two siblings, also by Puechfeldner, in Vienna libraries—thus clarifying the use of “HP” and “Hans Puec” monograms in the drawings, and supported by an entry for “drei garten buchs” by Puechfeldner in the court accounts for 1597. Puechfeldner copies Vredeman in using perspective in his designs; Vredeman in turn had gotten the technique from Italy. De Jong argues that the curious abundance of Puechfeldner’s sketches, which at first “may strike us as superfluous,” makes sense as an attempt to demonstrate proficiency in applying Vredeman’s theories, which are themselves an adaptation of classical architectural theory to garden design. Hence, “nützliches”: the sketches themselves are an application of concept. (De Jong was involved in the restoration of the gardens at the Paleis Het Loo in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, which gives some sense of what Puechfeldner’s ornaments like Puechfeldner’s might look like in practice.)

In addition to the Puechfeldner volume, the Rare Book Collection includes four treatises of Vredeman, the earliest of which dates to 1583. Vredeman’s work also influenced a number of other Northern European garden designers and theorists roughly contemporary with Puechfeldner whose books can be found at Dumbarton Oaks, including the Dutch artist Crispijn de Passe’s 1614 Hortus floridus and German architect Joseph Furttenbach’s 1640 Architectura recreationis.

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Washington Rare Book Group Visit

Posted on Dec 13, 2013 04:59 PM by Lain Wilson |
Washington Rare Book Group Visit

The Washington Rare Book Group includes librarians, collectors, conservators, book artists, and book dealers who frequently visit area libraries and private collections, and who host programs on topics of interest to rare book professionals. On November 14 they visited Dumbarton Oaks for a tour of “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century” exhibition. After introductory remarks by Linda Lott they toured the exhibit with its curator, Sarah Burke Cahalan.

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Good Ink

Dumbarton Oaks in the news

  • The role of Dumbarton Oaks—and of Director of Byzantine Studies Margaret Mullett—in the continuity of Byzantine Studies and in fostering the field is mentioned in G. W. Bowersock’s review of two recent books by Judith Herrin, “Storms Over Byzantium,” in The New York Review of Books 60, no. 18.
  • The Friends of Music concerts of November 3rd and 4th by pianist Joel Fan were recently reviewed in the Washington Post.
  • The October symposium on "The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century" and Linda Lott's Four Seasons of Flowers were reviewed by Patricia Jonas in the Newsletter of the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries, no. 131 (November 2013).

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Maria Sibylla Merian

A new online exhibit from the Rare Book Collection

Posted on Dec 10, 2012 03:15 PM by lisaw |
Maria Sibylla Merian

In 2012 the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection participated in a project, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, to celebrate works by great women artists in Washington, DC museums. The artist we selected is the naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), and specifically her 1719 publication Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (first published in 1705).

To accompany Dumbarton Oaks’ participation in the NMWA exhibition, the Rare Book Collection presents an online exhibit featuring information about the artist and images from, among other sources, Merian’s Metamorphosis.

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Now on View: The Ancient Future

Mesoamerican and Andean Timekeeping

Now on View: The Ancient Future

The Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations used complex and multiple timekeeping systems for purposes of agriculture, worship, and political authority. Because little of the material record of the pre-Conquest peoples of the Americas survived, scholars through the ages have had limited primary sources to study in order to reach a comprehensive understanding of timekeeping in the Americas.

The Library’s newest exhibit was prepared to coincide with the recent Pre-Columbian Studies symposium, "The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas." The online exhibit further explores these themes.

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Engravings of North Africa

A featured item from the Library exhibit Rome Re-Imagined

Posted on Jun 04, 2012 02:27 PM by lisaw |
Engravings of North Africa

Sarah Burke Cahalan and Deb Brown

Historical and archaeological research into the ancient and medieval periods of the Maghreb must confront the legacy of nineteenth-century colonialist enterprises. In honor of the Byzantine spring symposium, "Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic North Africa, 500-800," a rare-book exhibition in the Library invites viewers to reflect on the nineteenth-century authors and publications that contributed to this legacy.

Featured item

Captain Robert Murdoch Smith (1835–1900) and Commander Edwin A. Porcher (1824–1878), History of the recent discoveries at Cyrene: made during an expedition to the Cyrenaica in 1860-61, under the auspices of Her Majesty's Government. London: Day & Son, lithographers to the Queen, 1864.

Cyrene is one of the most famous ancient cities of North Africa. It was founded around 630 B.C.E. and abandoned sometime after the Arab conquest of 643 C.E. The extensive ruins of the city and its necropolis left a distinctive mark on the landscape. The ancient name for the surrounding territory, Cyrenaica, was still in use in the nineteenth century, when the region was nominally controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The visible ruins of the famed city attracted a handful of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European travelers, who described the necropolis and fountains, produced paintings and book illustrations, and dug in various spots for collectible antiquities. Robert Smith and Edwin Porcher were the first team to approach Cyrene with the expressed purpose of "scientific" exploration and mapping of the ancient city. The British government and the British Museum sponsored their project during the years 1860 and 1861. The museum received many of the finds from their excavations.

Porcher himself produced the drawings and watercolors that were later lithographed by T. Picken and produced for publication by Day and Son—it is worth noting that Day and Son, lithographers to the Queen, was the same lithographic firm (soon to become Vincent Brooks, Day & Son) that in 1852 produced the chromolithographs in Gaspare Fossati's Aya Sofia, Constantinople: as recently restored by order of H. M. the sultan Abdul-Medjid, also in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library. Porcher's original watercolors are now in the collection of the British Museum. The published chromolithographs (one of which is reproduced here) are valuable archaeological documentation of the site before the many excavations and restorations that followed. They also typify the picturesque quality of nineteenth-century images, frequently featuring small details that would increase their charm to casual viewers. In addition, the team used a camera, supplied by the British Foreign Office, but their publication includes only a few black-and-white photographs of statues which were found at the site.

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Now on View: Rome Re-Imagined: Antiquarianism and Colonialism in the Nineteenth Century Maghreb

Rare book exhibition in the Dumbarton Oaks Library

Posted on May 04, 2012 05:10 PM by lisaw |
Now on View: Rome Re-Imagined: Antiquarianism and Colonialism in the Nineteenth Century Maghreb

Deb Stewart

Historical and archaeological research into the ancient and medieval periods of the Maghreb must confront the legacy of nineteenth-century colonialist enterprises. In honor of the Byzantine spring symposium, "Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic North Africa, 500–800," a new rare book exhibition in the Library invites viewers to reflect on the nineteenth-century authors and publications that contributed to the creation of this legacy. Featured items include Alphonse de Lamartine’s Voyage en Orient, Charles Tissot’s Exploration scientifique de la Tunisie, Nathan Davis’s Carthage and her remains, the Beechey brothers’ Proceedings of the expedition to explore the northern coast of Africa, Smith and Porcher’s Discoveries at Cyrene, and items by Adrien Berbrugger, Stephane Gsell, and other influential nineteenth-century scholars of Roman Africa. The exhibition will be up through July 15 in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.

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Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Archives join Facebook

Launch of the official Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook page

Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives are pleased to announce the launch of the official Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook page created by the library and archives staff. This page represents the wide variety of collections and projects from the Research Library, Rare Book Collection, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, and the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. Through this page we hope to further the overall mission of Dumbarton Oaks by sharing information about our multi-formatted collections, as well as the institutional history of Dumbarton Oaks.

Our page officially launched April 14, 2012, on the 104th wedding anniversary of Robert and Mildred Bliss, who were married on April 14, 1908.

Please visit, “Like”, and share our new Facebook page!

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