Rosenbach Celebrates Restored 15th-Century Chumash

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There is something both intimidating and transcendent about being in the physical presence of a book that was printed in the 15th century.

There is something both intimidating and transcendent about being in the physical presence of a book that was printed in the 15th century.
Though I’d washed my hands as requested, and was therefore allowed to handle the book, I let Judith Guston, the Rosenbach’s curator and director of collections, do all the page-turning of the newly restored Bologna Pentateuch.
I only touched the historic volume, printed in 1482, one time, venturing a tiny swipe with an index finger only after Guston, perhaps sensing my hesitation, said, “You can touch it.”
It was an early morning before the Delancey Street library and museum opened to the public, and Guston and I were alone in a third-floor room of the nationally registered townhouse that once belonged to the Rosenbach brothers, book and art dealers who amassed a vast and impressive collection.
The room was silent and warm with wood, like the perfect library warren. Behind the glass doors of an antique China cabinet, shelves were lined with the leather-bound volumes of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach’s personal collection of Jewish texts, including some very, very old Hebrew printed books.
“These books are typically called, in the world of printing, ‘incunabula,’ which means ‘from the cradle,’ and they are the earliest printed books in general,” Guston explained. The Gutenberg Bible, which is what most people know of as the earliest book, was printed around 1450. “Gutenberg was printing around Germany, or what were the German states then. Jews in that area couldn’t join guilds, they couldn’t go into business, they couldn’t borrow or lend money, so it made it really hard to have a business or become a printer. You don’t find Jewish printing until about the 1470s, and that happens in Northern Italy.”
As Guston turned the gilded, vellum pages of the Bologna Pentateuch, a printing of the five Books of Moses known collectively in Hebrew as a chumash, she further explained the significance of the volume, whose recently completed conservation will be unveiled and documented at a special event at the Rosenbach next month.
“It’s the first time the Bible is printed along with the scholarly apparatus, with Rashi and with the targum onkelos next to it,” she said. “Previously people would have a manuscript Bible — there were plenty of those around — and then the commentaries were separate.”
She pointed to the distinct layout: the central block of biblical text, Rashi above and below, and the Aramaic translation in a bar next to the central text. “This is the first time someone thought, ‘Let’s put all those things together,’” Guston said.
Though the text looks like Hebrew to the layperson’s eye, sections of the book are actually written in a non-extant Aramaic script. Guston also pointed to the extra letters the printer added to various lines in order to get the text to justify, as well as vowels and cantillation marks that were not correctly lined up.
“It’s awkward,” she said of the Bologna Pentateuch’s print job, “but this is a first shot at doing this kind of page setup.”
The Bologna Pentateuch was acquired by Dr. Rosenbach in 1924.
“He used to regularly make buying trips to Europe,” Guston said. On one of those trips, “some guy,” as Guston put it, walked into Rosenbach’s room at the Carlton Hotel in London carrying the ancient book. “That’s all he knew about it.”
But using part of a grant for the book’s conservation, Guston and company have been able to get more information about the volume’s provenance. On one of the book’s first pages, in fact, there’s a list of names.
“We paid a person who’s an expert in researching provenance; he translated and researched all of the visible writing on this to see who owned it,” Guston said.
Some of the names were known, like heads of synagogues, while others were less certain. But tracing the book’s ownership allowed the researchers to chart a parallel course between the book’s journey and known periods of upheaval for Jews in Europe.
“We know what happened to populations in Europe and where they went when they were sequentially moved from certain areas and to certain areas. Books went with them because we care so much about our books.”
The restoration of the book itself was no simple task.
Prior to the work completed by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Center City, the Bologna Pentateuch “was bound in what I thought was hideous red velvet binding,” Guston said. “Since I’ve been here the binding has been falling off, and you can see from the edges that it had been gilded, which it wouldn’t have been when it was printed. It was meant to be a scholarly book — it’s not meant to be fancy.”
Guston believes that someone in the late 19th or early 20th century “decided to dress the book up” in velvet and gilding after they understood its importance as a first and a rarity. For the current incarnation, Guston decided to attempt something more authentic.
“I found in the Library of Congress another sort of high-end prayer book that was used at that time in Northern Italy not too far from Bologna,” she said. “We looked at all the details — what kind of leather, what kind of end bands, and how was it configured.
“We knew we weren’t going to fool anyone — it doesn’t look like an old original binding, and it’s always going to have this gilding — but we’re a teaching institution, and we want to teach people what books looked like. We looked at the decoration, and we looked at how the leather was dyed. We looked at the colors that would have been present in the original end bands.”
The somber but beautiful new binding, a subtly decorated brown leather, is a more faithful representation.
“It more accurately reflects the difference between what you’re trying to achieve as a luxury buyer versus as a scholar or an academic or a family that just wanted to have a printed Bible,” Guston said.
Now when she gives hands-on tours of the Hebrew books collection, she’s able to contrast the Bologna Pentateuch’s style with that of a luxury Hebrew printed book “so we can see what the different markets were like if you were Jewish and buying a Bible.”
Another part of the conservation project was digitization.
“It is now up online — the only complete version of this book in the world to be online,” said Guston, though surely she’d admit there’s no question that seeing the book in person — and touching it, if you dare — is a unique experience. For a Jew, engaging with the physical book places you in the long chain of Jewish people who have been devoted to text, to language, to words and to books.
It’s a celebration of tenacity, too.
“A lot of these books went through tough times,” Guston said, making an encounter with the Bologna Pentateuch today, in the Rosenbach’s pretty little room, all the more amazing.
For more information about the Rosenbach’s hands-on tours, call 215-732-1600 or go to rosenbach.org/handsontours for schedules and reservations.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747

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