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What are the ex libris?

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by dr. Daniela Morosini

(per leggere questo testo in italiano, cliccare qui)

Preceded by handwritten inscriptions, sonnets often with a notice content, ex-libris (leaflets or book labels) were born parallely to the increase of books circulation due to the invention of printing. Their aim was to give to the property of the volume much honour and possibility of distinction in order to make the theft more difficult.

Probably inspired by the so-called “signs of shop” they were born in Germany not only because in that place was originated the printing but especially because, there, the xylography developed extraordinarily. Ex-libris changed under the influence of schools and governments, expressing the tendences, the literary and the artistic taste of different generations.

The most ancient well-known ex-libris belonged to Hans Jgler, chaplain of the Bavarian family Von Shoenstett, whose name is findable in the gothic caracters contained in the cartouche, under it there is a sprig with an hedgehog. This specimen, dated 1470-80, already presents the characteristics of modern ex-libris, rectangular framed format, a central figure in a logical and/or semantic relation to the owner, whose name as written in a caurtoche.

In 1500, the ex-libris assumes the characteristics of a coat of arms with the symbols of the different noble families who, in this period, were the greater owner of libraries. Over the centuries, the leaflet enlarges its sizes and makes its figure more complete and refined. The decoration, rich in the Baroque Age, becomes more essential and simple in 1700, at the same time as the diffusion of Neoclassicism, from which it gets its inspiration in the insertion of the owner name in gravestones or monuments inspired by Classic art.

So over the times the nineteenth-century middle class, not owning noble elements that could be represented on its own leaflets, often resorts to the landscape of the romantic art.

Then, ex-libris know a both qualitative and quantitative development at the end of XIX th century, at the coming and diffusion of Art nouveau.
Right from this time also collecting develops on an international scale with the origin of associations, oriented to increase the exchanges and to stimulate the production of ex-libris. So they commissioned more and more as an autonomous work of art, indipendent from its principal use.
1900 knows the birth of specialized leaflets, too (medicine, pharmacy, eroticism, “ex musicis” and “Ex Foliis”).


Related links:
Advices to a beginner collector, by Benoît Junod;
Symbols for techniques used in printed ex libris, FISAE official list;
The news section Block Notes offers an up-to-date view on the ex libris world.


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