To approach the rare book is to approach a fossil. In the particular case of the Florentine Sonnets by William Leighton, housed at the Ringling Library, we are offered a chance to look at a rather enigmatic set of remains. Bound in faded vellum and leather evocative of clasps, yet not functional, with the word “Florence” in gothic script at the center of the cover, Sonnets is a mire of myriad intention. Intentions, of the author, the publisher, the reader, and the archiver all become tangled here in this peculiar text.
Perhaps it may be best to begin, not with the text, but the book itself. Terry Belanger refers to the analytical bibliography as “the study of books as physical objects” and here we must examine the structure and composition of the material book. The exterior of Florentine Sonnets is mottled beige, well worn vellum. Strips of leather loop through the vellum, binding it together. A closer look at the leather reveals what is presumably the original coloring of the cover. Underneath the leather, the vellum shifts from the worn beige color to a crisp eggshell white. This was likely the look of the book’s cover when the it was first published over a hundred years ago.
When seen with other books of the same era, Florentine Sonnets looks out of place. The vellum, the strips of leather, and the overly elegant script are simply not representative of book production at this time and there is a reason for this. Sonnets is meant to look old. Specifically, it is meant to look olde. The book is purposefully made to look archaic. The gothic lettering and artistic flourishes were out of fashion by the time of publication, but clearly printed by a press. Florentine Sonnets is a bizarre chimera of old and new. On the one hand is this outdated style, on the other the modernity of its production. If we are to view the contents of the book, we find this same schism. Alternating throughout the book are a series of black and white photographs of Florence and Petrarchan Sonnets about the city. Again there is the dichotomy between a very obviously modern medium (photography) and an antiquated art form (the Petrarchan Sonnet).
What could be the reason for this bizarre contrast? In order to find anything resembling an answer we must stray from the material book and look at both its text and its context. Firstly, there is the question of edition. According to the Ringling Library, this copy of Florentine Sonnets was published in 1911. A quick scan of other existing copies reveals that this date would make it a third edition. However, closer of the examination of the book reveals a typographical error. The colophon on the final pages contains the following text.
“OF THIS BOOK ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY COPIES HAVE BEEN PRINTED AT FLORENCE ON NOVEMBER THE FIFTEENTH IN THE YEAR NINETEEN HUNDRED AND FOUR, AND ARE TO BE FOUND AT THE SHOP OF GIULIO GIANNINI IN THE PIAZZA PITTI”
This is especially strange as the copies listed as first edition contain the inscription “MCMVI,” or to translate it out of Roman numerals, 1906. This discrepancy seems to be universal among listings of Florentine Sonnets. It would appear that, of all the versions of Florentine Sonnets stored in the various digital archives of the internet, the copy housed at the Ringling library is unique. It is both the oldest available and may perhaps be the reasoning for the many false “first” editions. Since it has long been listed by Ringling as a 1911 copy, scholars may have used this information to speculate that the 1906 edition was the first printing. So what does that make the copy of Florentine Sonnets housed at the Ringling Library? Well, apart from an inaccurate publishing date and a listing as rare, there is very little information on how Florentine Sonnets arrived at the library. All we really know is that this copy somehow came into the library’s collection and was catalogued as Florentine Sonnets by William Leighton with the publishing date of 1911. Do we have here a phantom zeroth edition or is there some other explanation?
In the study of archeology there is frequent debate over the synonymity of fossil specimens. Most recently, there was debate over the authenticity of Triceratops as a distinct species. Detractors argued that existing Triceratops fossils were instead the remains of immature Torosaurus. While the issue remains unresolved, it shows the pitfalls of labeling things no longer actively existing. Variations of the same thing can be misidentified. I would now posit that this copy of a book that is referred to as Florentine Sonnets has not only been misdated, but also misidentified. The reason that this copy was published before the supposed first edition of Florentine Sonnets is that this is not a copy of Florentine Sonnets. It has the same content as Florentine Sonnets, the same author, and the same publisher, but it is not Florentine Sonnets. Instead it is the book that has been identified as Florence; fourteen sonnets a book that was originally printed in 1904 and later reprinted as Florentine Sonnets. This later reprinting was much more widely produced and is far more common in libraries. This is likely the reason for its cataloguing as Florentine Sonnets. This Florence is very similar to Florentine Sonnets and thus carries much of the same convoluted intention as its sister book.
Now that the issue of edition has been resolved, we can return to the context of the book. This newly identified Florence is still a chimera of archaism and modernity. Perhaps the most glaring is that fact that an Italian book, about an Italian city, published by a clearly Italian publisher is written in english. This offers a clue as to intended audience of the text, especially when coupled with the unorthodox manufacturing. Florence appears to be a souvenir piece, marketed specifically towards wealthy english tourists. The publishers, Giulio Giannini and Sons, are still in existence and support this theory, saying that their store was frequented by rich Victorians and was a “shopping area, famous for the book signature and albums from photographs.” This also provides an explanation for the archaic aesthetic of the book.
This book is meant to look old fashioned because it is targeted toward people who would view the city itself as old fashioned. With its many photographs and descriptive sonnets Florence reads almost like a guide book. This was a book purposely made to seem rustic, yet able to be cheaply produced. The is even more true for its reprinting as Florentine Sonnets.
So when we approach this book, this fossil, we are provided with a look at the environment contemporary to Florence. Like an extinct species demonstrates the environment it was adapted to, the quirks of Florence shows the bibliographical niche it filled. The many intentions that surround it paint, in broad strokes, a picture of the souvenir market in Florence and what appealed to tourists of the time. Perhaps most interesting is it’s archival misidentification. This mistake has altered how both Florence and Florentine Sonnets have been preserved. While the synonymity of the texts is very important to the archival work surrounding the books, it is still important to acknowledge that they are not identical. If anything, Florence can be viewed as a prototype to the very commercial Florentine Sonnets.
Belanger, Terry. “Bibliography Defined.” The Bibliographical Society of America. n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.
“Florentine Sonnets / written and illustrated by William Leighton.” Hathitrust Digital Library. n.d, Web. 14 Jan. 2015
“History.” Giulio Giannini e Figlio. n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2015
“Florence; fourteen sonnets.” USF Library Catalogue. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2015