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The Art of the Facsimile


A facsimile, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an exact copy.” In the twenty-first-century Digital Age, creating a facsimile is commonplace, especially in digital format. Another era of revolutionary innovation in the history of the facsimile was the Early Modern period, which saw the invention of the printing press and the possibility of making “an exact copy” of a hand-crafted and hand-written object in large quantities. But what does “an exact copy" mean? Until the Industrial Age, each print was produced manually and could differ from run to run.

      In the late nineteenth-century, printers produced deluxe facsimiles, or replicas, of historic and treasured books, frequently those that featured stunning imagery. Exclusive bibliophile organizations, the famous Roxburghe Club (founded in 1812) and the Folio Society (founded in 1947), produced hand-fashioned copies, thereby launching the manuscript facsimile.

      These luxury books allowed prestigious society members and art collectors to posses via surrogate some of the most precious medieval manuscripts. In the course of the last century, publishers began to specialize in the fabrication of manuscript facsimiles that ranged from black-and-white copies of each folio printed in large format to richly accurate replicas. Most of these facsimiles were of medieval manuscripts, though recently Renaissance printed books and codices from cultures across the globe have received facsimile reproduction. These facsimiles, like their early forerunners, are limited in number, expensive, and exclusive. Deluxe facsimiles, which replicate the exact current condition of a manuscript including irregularities, damage, and even the binding, can cost $5,000-$25,000. Like the objects they replicate, these books, and even those considerably more affordable, remain the prerogative of collectors or the special collections of university and institutional libraries. For the latter, these facsimiles are research and teaching tools, giving students and scholars access to rare originals frequently housed in distant foreign repositories. 

      In the advent of the digital revolution, which has led to the creation of thousands of medieval manuscripts and rare codices, what will be the role of the deluxe facsimile? Do we now see the facsimiles as more than replica? In the history of text technologies, there have been four major developments: the invention of writing systems, the invention of the codex, or book, the invention of the printing press, and the digitization of texts. The object-ness of facsimiles as contemporary books and art objects in and of themselves sheds light on the changing roles of physical books in the dawn of the digital age.  

Curator: Dr. Karlyn Griffith

Assistant Curator: Tania Kolarik

Department of Art Education and Art History, College of Visual Arts and Design, University of North Texas 

This digital exhibition is the culmination of a semester long class project for AEAH 4805: The Art of the Book: Medieval to Modern. 


The Art of the Facsimile