La Preuve par les fleurons? Analyse comparee du materiel ornemental des imprimeurs suisses romands, 1775-1785 (review)
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Libraries & Culture 36.3 (2001) 478-480



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Book Review

La Preuve par les fleurons?
Analyse comparée du matériel ornemental des imprimeurs suisses romands, 1775-1785


La Preuve par les fleurons? Analyse comparée du matériel ornemental des imprimeurs suisses romands, 1775-1785 (Identifying presses by their ornaments? A comparative analysis of typographical ornaments used by Francophone Swiss publishers, 1775-1785). By Silvio Corsini. Ferney-Voltaire: Centre International d'Étude du XVIIIe Siècle. xii, 204 pp. 50 euros. ISBN 2-84559-000-8. Distributed by Aux Amateurs de Livres International, 62 avenue de Suffren, 75015 Paris, France.

This is the first book published by the new International Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies, appropriately situated at Ferney-Voltaire outside Geneva, where [End Page 478] Voltaire lived from 1760 to shortly before his death in 1778. Silvio Corsini, rare-books curator of the Canton and University Library in Lausanne, is well known as the author of a number of meticulous studies centered on Swiss bibliology.

La Preuve contains the following main sections: (1) an introduction; (2) reproductions of single-piece ornaments except for small ornaments or flowers used singly or in composite decorations; and (3) biographical and professional information concerning the printers studied, each with a bibliographical list of works examined. The third section complements the second, for at the end of each notice, Corsini has selected a number of representative composite ornaments and flowers with which to round out his discussion.

In the introduction, the author presents the many problems facing the bibliologist who would identify the printer of a given eighteenth-century book based on the evidence of ornaments. The reader of this review would want to know that the printers in Switzerland churned out many of the books of the French Enlightenment, some highly important, meant for consumption around Europe, including, of course, France, where not a few of them were banned. Many of the imprints that graced these books are false. The years on which Corsini chose to concentrate his efforts were important ones for French culture, the universal culture of the Western world. In 1775 there was great hope in France centered on the person of the new monarch, Louis XVI. Just a decade later, the Revolution was fast and inexorably approaching. There was turmoil in the printing trade too, in the production and circulation of banned books, of those that were only tolerated, and so on. Coupled with these factors, artistically, there was a move from the rococo to the neoclassical that was reflected in printing styles.

In Switzerland, the rococo was predominant from 1775 to 1785, as can be readily ascertained by glancing through the reproductions in La Preuve. The neophyte would be led to think that it would not be very difficult to associate individual ornaments with a given printer. Not so, Corsini points out, opening his discussion with an examination of a supposed "London" edition of Voltaire's Prix de la justice et de l'humanité. At first Corsini thought he had the answer, but he came to the conclusion that his initial identification was flawed, and he explains why in a detailed and illuminating fashion.

Ornaments were copied. Multiple copies were produced at the same time and sold to different houses. Ornaments were loaned. Second-hand ones were flogged at sales and ended up where one would not expect to find them. The best way, perhaps, to identify or associate a given ornament with a printing shop is if it has undergone an accident (a crack, broken bit, etc.), but even then it could have been sold off or loaned. Such accidents were relatively rare. Although the preference was for woodcuts, from the late seventeenth century, certain type-founders were producing metal decorations, which, of course, could have been produced en masse.

There are many other problems outlined by the author, especially that of shared printing, books produced by more than one shop. There can also be puzzles to solve when books are made up from mixed sheets, that is, copies...