Incunabula – the publications of the XV century – are the rarest and most precious in the library collection. Incunabula (from the Latin "a cradle, early childhood") are the books printed in Western Europe, from the first experiences of Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440s and until January 1, 1501. The end of the XV century was a very interesting period of co-existence and the same popularity of manuscripts and printed books. The first printed books were initially similar to manuscripts: no title pages, hand-written initials and headings and so on. But, with the further development of printing, specific features characteristic of the printed book appeared: a title page (1476), engraved and cast initials, engraved illustrations; serif used along with the Gothic script. The Western European incunabula played a significant role in the development of the material and spiritual culture of the XVI century. They were widespread in Belarus too. Incunabula had been first brought to Belarus in the 2nd half of the XV century. Thus in the XVI-XVIII centuries the Western early-printed books were an integral part of Belarusian libraries.
Among the numerous documentary monuments stored in the National Library of Belarus, a small collection of incunabula – 43 editions (45 copies) – is of a significant cultural and historical value. The NLB collection covers the period from 1470 to 1497 and is the largest collection in Belarus. The most representative part of the collection is the editions of German publishing houses, for it was in Germany that the history of the West-European book-printing started. The earliest edition stored in the NLB is a unique book of Johannes Nider Praeceptorium divinae legis sive Expositio decalog, printed by Berthold Ruppel circa 1470 in Basel.
The oldest of precisely dated publications in the NLB collection is a German translation of Apollonii regis Tyri, a Greek novel which was very popular at the time. The first translation into German was released in 1471 by the publishing house of Günther Zainer, who came to Augsburg at the end of 1467 and was not only the first printer but also the first to start publishing books with color illustrations and engraved initials.
The Herbarius comes from the famous Nesvizh book collection of the Radziwills. This book was published by Peter Schöffer in Mainz in 1484. The Herbarium is a collection of data on herbs and their medicinal qualities. Authors are not specified, but presumably the book was written by the Frankfurt doctor Johann Wonnecke von Kaub, and the publication was initiated by Bernhard von Breidenbach, the Dean of the Mainz cathedral. Perhaps he asked the doctor to compile a herbarium, using the works of famous doctors of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Herbarium comprises 150 woodprints (148 in a copy stored in the NLB), with an explanatory text.
Anton Koberger was one of the most successful publishers in Germany. He founded a publishing house in Nuremberg since 1470, which in the late 1470s had become one of the largest in Europe. For more than thirty years Koberger had published about 235 titles, mainly large-scale and well-illustrated books. The NLB collection includes seven books released by Anton Koberger. Among them, the famous Liber chronicarum of the Nuremberg doctor Hartmann Shedel, published in 1493, is particularly interesting. The publication is considered one of the best books of the XV century. Its geographic part is advised and edited by H. Munzer. The Chronicle text is characterized by the scope and accuracy of material though the author remained faithful to the medieval tradition of the World Chronicles that described the biblical and classical history. The book was designed by artists M. Wohlgemuth and W. Pleydenwurff – the Liber chronicarum, for the first time in the history of the printed book, provides information about the performers of wood engraving. The young Albrecht Dürer worked in their workshop as well. The artists made 645 original plates for the publication, with which they printed 1809 illustrations. Due to its smart design and masterful printing, the Chronicle became a masterpiece of the time, an outstanding monument of the book art.
The Italian book-printing is represented by five printing centers – Bologna, Venice, Rome, Treviso, Florence (11 printing-houses). The book-printing in Italy century was a predominantly foreigners business who reissued the works by classical authors in the XV, so the colophons of Italian publications presented in the NLB collection feature the names of publishers such as Nicolaus Jensen, Eucharius Silber, Johannes Rubeus, Tomas de Blavis, Erchardus Ratholt, Johann von Koln, and also Johann Manthen. Among them, the most prominent was Nicolas Jenson, a Frenchman and representative of the first generation of Italian printers, whose publication Gregorius IX, Papa. Decretales (Venice, 1475) is now stored in the NLB Bibliology department.
The most interesting item in the NLB collection of Italian incunabula is the publication of the famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy (La commedia), which was published in Florence. The Comedy presented in the NLB collection was the first book printed by Nicolas De Lorenzo in the hometown of the poet, and one of the earliest editions with engravings on metal, which became popular later in the middle of the XVI century. This edition of the Comedy features the engravings performed by Mazo Finiguerra, the master of Baccio Baldini’s school, on the basis of the drawings by the famous painter Sandro Botticelli. There are between two and twenty engravings in various copies of the publication preserved in the world. The first two engravings were printed along with the text (you can find them in the NLB copies), and the rest were released separately and then pasted in the appropriate place.
Also the National Library keeps the popular XV century editions which represent the Swiss city of Basel: Ambrosius, episcopus Mediolanensis. Opera (1492), Augustinus, Aurelius. Epistolae (1493), Bernardinus Senesis. Sermones de evangelio aeterno (ca 1490/1495), Gregorius, Papa. Moralia sive Expositio in Iob (1496) etc.
The French part of the NLB collection is represented by the publications from the printing-houses of Johannes Mentelin, Martin Schott and Heinrich Gran, which were located in two centers – Strasburg and Haguenau.
The library collection of incunabula comprises books with various contents. It features biblical texts with commentaries, works of philosophers Aurelius Augustine, Aristotle, Plutarch, Peter Lombardi, Thomas Aquinas, Cicero and others, and also fiction, legal and historical works.
It is no coincidence that the most part of the collection – 30 items – are theological books. Firstly, the printed book in those times was supposed to win a reader accustomed to the richly decorated manuscript of theological or liturgical texts. Second, the purpose of the first printers was reprinting previously written books, for which demand remained dissatisfied. In addition, reprinting manuscripts was cheaper and easier than searching for new authors.