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The fascinating history of an ex-libris

The fascinating history of an ex-libris
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Palina Dolia

We love buying books even more than reading. After all, who doesn't dream of your own home library? Acquiring a new book is a very special excitement, the feeling of having something truly amazing, a whole world in paper. And, of course, on such important things, one involuntarily wants to write in big letters "MINE". Humanity has courteously taken care of this. Keep your sense of beauty and possessiveness at the ready: today we will look at a brief history of ex-libris.

Let's start, as usual, from the basics: what exactly is an ex-libris?

Ex Libris literally translates as "from books", that's all. In essence, this is an illustrated note about whose library this book belongs to. It was common for wealthy readers to have personal ex-libris in order to mark all copies in their extensive collection in this way, but they want to mark them beautifully and tastefully. This is how ex-libris became a real work of art, reflecting the preferences, interests and even social status of their owner. Mostly social status.

История экслибриса_экслибрис бэйкона.pngSo, it seems logical that ex-libris have always been a seal with the owner's coat of arms and surname. In fact, everything is more complicated. Yes, coats of arms, of course, have always remained a win-win option, but less obvious themes were often used: for example, ancient castles (even if the owner of such a castle does not have such a castle), ships at sea (even if the reader actually suffers from seasickness and does not was swimming), cats (okay, almost everyone had them), the starry sky and even just books. An ex-libris with a book is a rather mundane option. Moreover, in different periods of history, certain themes of drawings were popular, so that from the image on the ex-libris one can roughly represent the date of its creation, the area and even establish the owner.

Why do we need ex-libris?

Nowadays, of course, signing every book in a collection seems childish and strange. But this tradition is much older, which means that it has its own prerequisites. What kind? It’s easy.

For a long time, books were a rarity, an expensive pleasure, their production cost colossal efforts and money. This means that they were stolen no less often than classic jewellery. Thus, every owner of a book would like to declare his rights to own it, for a book, where its belonging to the library of a certain nobleman is so clearly expressed, is much more difficult to sell imperceptibly. And, of course, the brighter and more noticeable your bookplate, the more likely it is that the book will come back to you from friends who took it to read it.

История экслибриса_экслибрис хильдебранда.png

A very brief history of the ex-libris

One of the earliest known bookplates dates from 1480 and belonged to a Cartesian monk, his name was Hilprand Brandenburg. This man was not just a churchman, but also the second son in a very wealthy family from Biberach, so in 1506 he donated more than 450 volumes of various literature to the Carthusian house in Buxheim, Bavaria. Each book had Hilprand's coat of arms. All images were hand-painted and were accompanied by the personal signature of the owner - along with an inscription, kindly asking to return the borrowed books to the library.

There is nothing surprising in the fact that the first ex-libris was a monastic one. Yet monasteries were almost the only place where people could get access to books, each of which cost a little less than the entire settlement. Books were even chained, and this was the first level of protection. The ex-libris became the second.  

История экслибриса_exlibris england.pngHistory of the ex-libris. So, for a long time ex-librises, like books in general, were the privilege of rich and very rich people, and therefore they did not meet so often. Their popularity grew in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It becomes easier to start a library, and a sense of self-importance becomes stronger, so many owners of book collections have a desire to imitate the famous aristocratic families - to get their own bookplate. Moreover, the hobby began with the UK, from there spread to the USA, and then echoed around the world. Moreover, during this period ex-librises also become collectable items.

Until the 1920s, many book lovers celebrated their libraries with ex-librises, from scientists to silent film stars. They became more and more personalized and no longer meant belonging to the family book collection, but to the personal collection of a certain person. So, in addition to the surname, the owner's name also appeared on the ex-librises.

История экслибриса_экслибрис чарли чаплина.png However, the popularity of ex-libris began to decline already in the 1950s: the appearance of paperback books, the Great Depression, World War II and many other factors made rich people a little less rich, deprived the work of artists specializing in ex-libris, and in general everything in this the sphere spoiled. But it's too early to bury ex-librises! Readers all over the world still lovingly mark their books as a tribute to an old and very important tradition.

About ex-librises, coats of arms and astronauts

As mentioned earlier, at some point (in the 1900s) ex-librises became collectables. The older the copy, the more expensive and important it is, as in all collections.

So, according to patterns, illustrations and general themes, it is really easy to track in what period a particular ex-libris was created. For example, you will unmistakably recognize the copies created in the Jacobin period of England (1567-1625): they are executed in the form of elegant engravings with an unimaginable number of ribbons, and in addition to the coat of arms of the owner of the book, there is also a motto on it. Until the 1800s, ex-librises were generally distinguished by their splendor and detail: the more references to a noble family, the better.

История экслибриса_экслибрис климук.png

As soon as ex-librises ceased to be the prerogative of the aristocracy, their appearance became much simpler, and references to the profession of the direct owner began to appear in motives. Sounds good? Then you will definitely like the book "Space Ex-libris" in 1986 - a whole collection of ex-libris created by artists for Soviet cosmonauts. Fascinating and futuristic. Want something less futuristic? Urgently to the NLB! You might not have guessed, but her collection contains hundreds and thousands of unusual ex-librises, you just have to search.

Ex-libris in Belarus

The history of the Belarusian ex-libris begins in 1533, from the library of Bishop of Lutsk and Vilnius, Pavel Golshansky. Some books from this collection were marked with "Kitovras", the seal with the coat of arms of the princes Golshansk. That is, a centaur shooting a bow. An excellent and even epic start for the Belarusian ex-libris.

История экслибриса_экслибрис радзивилла.png

As in the rest of the world, in Belarus for a long time, almost until the 19th century, heraldic motifs prevailed, however, there are no ships, no seals, extremely serious coats of arms. But later, with the invention of lithography, the circle of owners of bookplates began to expand rapidly. Not only the Radziwills and Sapieha families, but also smaller families can celebrate their books in this way, for example, the Tyshkevich brothers had their ex-librises. And, unlike Western copies, story-book ex-librises were popular in the Belarusian territories, Alexander Mikhail Sapieha got it back in the 18th century.

История экслибриса_экслибрис рыжий.png However, the real flourishing of Belarusian ex-librises fell on the 1920s. For a start, the Association of Bibliophiles has appeared, and where there are ardent book lovers, there are also book seal fans. Belarusian artists threw their energies into creating ex-libris. And the world appreciated their efforts: at the World Book Sign Exhibition in Los Angeles in 1927. A real sensation.

How much has changed since then? Yes, but the Belarusian ex-libris is still alive and developing. This year, within the framework of the Minsk International Book Fair, Borisov Central Regional Library named after I.H. Kolodeeva presented an exposition of a modern Belarusian bookplate, and this is a magical sight. Literally: mythological and fairy-tale motives are very popular in ex-librises. Among the Belarusian ex-libris artists are Y. Yakovenko, A. Yaroshevich, A. Tikhonova-Yordanova, T. Siplevich, V. Savchenko, O. Krupenkova, N. Ryzhy and many others. Maybe the art of book prints has faded into the background in the world, but in Belarus, ex-librises are taken seriously. And with love.

История экслибриса_экслибрис фитцджеральда.pngThe future of ex-librises 

At first glance, it seems that such a sign of belonging to the library is an archaic thing, outdated and finally left in the past. Not at all. History is cyclical, and today bookplates are back in the reader's fashion. They have become much more elegant and simple, often use floral motifs, got rid of mottos, but they continue to remain very personal. If you've been looking for an unusual gift for wild book lovers for a long time, your own ex-libris will definitely delight them. Yes, now it is unlikely that someone will steal your book, there is no point in chaining it to the shelf and covering it with notes with your last name. But ex-librises are a tribute to traditions, a tribute to the aesthetics of the past. And for a modern person, there is nothing more important than aesthetics.

Sign your book, design your ex-libris, print it, post it on the inside of the cover - and voilà: you are a part of an amazing book story. A story that continues to unfold before our eyes.

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