( This book belongs to … / Este libro pertenece a … )
The variation of a bookplate created by my friend Rita, see below, reflects very well my feelings after having lent some of those books that deserve to be shared but are never returned. Believe me, my good friend Rita has a very dark sense of humor, but she would not kill a fly. However, why should I feel so possessive about a book that I might not read or consult for years?
The fact is that long ago, before me and my friend Rita, others had the same possessive feelings towards particular books and the ex libris was a way of making these feelings visible.
Ex libris is a Latin expression that describes a small, often artistic print, which looks like a large postal stamp, without the perforated edges, containing various decorative embellishments. On this is printed the term ex Libris preceding the name of the owner.
These little works of art, used to be pasted onto the reverse cover or onto one of the first pages of a book to indicate its ownership. This is not only a declaration of ownership, its shows a deep interest in possessing a book, just as others may write the name of the owner on the first page with the similar intention, perhaps, to safeguard against its loss or to even deter its theft.
I have been generally ‘happy’ to share my books, particularly during my youth. However, in time, I experienced that terrible loss when loaned books were never returned home; and whilst some books that contain knowledge should be shared, I confess to becoming more selfish in my habits and loathe to lend those of particular importance to me.
Ex libris translates into Spanish “de [entre] los libros de …”, in other words: “este libro pertenece a …” ; which in plain English would mean “this book belongs to.”. In English they are also known as bookplates.
Whether made by an anonymous hand or a great artist, they have become a tiny yet highly collectible piece of art. Some ex libris were made by well-known artists, belonged to renowned writers, great personalities or members of the aristocracy.
Germany was the cradle of printed books as well as the first printed ex-libris. The first printed ex libris originated in 1470, by a Bavarian chaplain, Hans Igler . His beautiful woodcut print depicted a hedgehog (Igel is German for hedgehog); and the illustration was crowned by a pun “Hanns Igler das dich ein igel kuss”, “Hanns Igler gives you a hedgehog kiss “.
The earliest designs, those from the XV to the XVIII century were mostly made depicting heraldic shields reflecting the fact that private libraries belonged to the nobility and the clergy.
During the XVII century slowly ex libris’ illustrations reflected the social changes of the time with an emerging educated middle class. These new manifestations were full of allegorical or symbolic content and idealized landscapes, at times accompanied by a slogan. Images diversified to include those related to professions, businesses, crafts and hobbies of a particular owner. Some even were of an erotic nature.
By the end of the XIX century, influenced by the emergence of modernism and later by Art Noveau designs; and of the Spanish Modernist School (such as the contributions of Alexandre de Riquer i Palau), there was a renewed interest in these little prints. Those depicting legendary or mythological figures as sirens, minotaurs and tritons; as well as colourful nature or figurative art nouveau designs have always caught my eye.
Ex libris have evolved in design and execution techniques: etching, woodcut, engraving, lithography and later photo-offset, silkscreen and digital have all been used. The variety of design is so vast that it would be a challenging activity to attempt to classify them all. They range from commemorative, music, erotic, the macabre to the comic, and from mythological to Masonic.
It is not a surprise that there are avid collectors of ex libris all over the world and Latin America has its fair share of collectors too. The largest collection of ex libris in Latin America belonged to María Magdalena Otamendi López de Olaciregui containing more than 25.000 pieces. Her collection was donated to the Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno, Argentinean National Library, in Buenos Aires, where a selection is currently on show to the public until 12 July 2015.
Books have the magic to inspire huge political changes as well as the creation of this minimal art, which can become an obsession for some. I would like to give special thanks to my friend Rita López for the illustration at the beginning of this article. On a final note, if it happens that you have reached the end of this article and you have borrowed a book of mine: you are respectfully invited to return it to the owner …