Portals Into Other Civilizations
Manuscripts and early printed books remain unique artifacts of historical eras and bear the tangible evidence of their long lives. To see this, observe, for example, whether the binding has received decorative embellishment, wear and tear, marks of ownership, or perhaps it was replaced at a later date. By looking at books as individual objects, the lives of these books can be explored by their ability to act as unique portals into past civilizations.
The Maqamat of al-Hariri manuscript consists of short stories about hero Abu Zayd written by Abu Muhammad al-Qasim ibn Ali al-Hariri (1054-1122). The particular version shown here in facsimile allows contemporary, physical exploration of a nearly exact replica of the original, which was made in 1237 in southern Iraq and now resides in the National Library of France as MS. arabe 5847. With exquisite exactness, the facsimile gives a window onto culture of the Late Abbasid Empire, but also to the text and image design of the original book’s creator al-Wasiti. In another example, the Relacion de Michoacán, commissioned by the viceroy Antonio de Mendoza of New Spain and completed from 1539-1540 by an unknown friar, documents the practices of the Tarascan peoples. The manuscript and facsimile provide insight into the world of the European conquerors of the region, that is to the makers rather than the subjects.
The Bibla Pauperum, or Pauper’s Bible, offers a glimpse of medieval Europe by allowing the contemporary viewer to comprehend physically the grand size of this book and to imagine how this bible would have been propped up and used as a teaching tool before large crowds. Tangible facsimiles, like their manuscripts originals, enable not just seeing or reading, but experiencing the comprehensive lives of books and the cultures that produced them, from their first owners to even their facsimile replications.