Navicula sive speculum fatuorum. (Strasbourg, [Johann Prüss the elder], 16 January 1511)




Woodcut on title-page of the Ship of Fools, full-page woodcut and 112 woodcuts in the text, all with ornamental side borders, 73 attributed to Albrecht Dürer, with the others mostly by the Master of Haintz Narr and the Master of the Gnad Herr; an additional woodcut pasted on flyleaf (Christ encountering Zacchaeus by Hans Franck, with a woodcut portrait of Geiler after Tobias Stimmer pasted on verso, with the date of his death 1510 inked in.

4to (208 x 146mm). [280]; LXXXIII, [5] ff. Parisian binding of c. 1550 for Jean Grolier (1478-1565) by the ‘Cupid’s Bow Binder’, tan calf over pasteboard, covers decorated in gilt to a design of curved and interlaced open strapwork creating a three-dimensional illusion, tooled in the centre of the upper cover with the book’s title, “Io. Geileri Caesarem (sic) Stultorum Specv/lvm”, and at the foot, “Io. Grolierii et Amicorum”, the centre of the lower cover tooled with Grolier’s motto, “Portio mea, Domine, sit in terra viventium”, background stained dark brown, single open floral corner tool [not in Nixon], green silk headbands, gilt edges, vellum pastedowns, paper flyleaves with pot watermark (spine restored and retooled, discreet repairs at corners and other small areas of covers); modern morocco-backed box.

A fine Parisian strapwork binding for Jean Grolier ‘prince of bibliophiles’, by the ‘Cupid’s Bow Binder’, housing an important illustrated book with the full suite of woodcuts used in the Ship of Fools, many by Albrecht Dürer.


The deceptively simple strapwork (or entrelac) design, devoid of additional tools save at the corners, creates an impressive illusory effect. The pattern is identical with that found on Grolier’s copy of Fabricio da Luna’s Tuscan vocabulary, Naples, 1536, now in the Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austin 551). The latter, however, is also decorated with the ‘Cupid’s Bow Binder’s’ azure tools. It also has strong similarities to the central strapwork pattern found on Grolier’s copy of Marliani’s Urbis Romae topographia (Rome, 1544), also from the ‘Cupid’s Bow’ shop, ex-Chatsworth and now at the British Library (Austin 326). The fashion for this intricate strapwork design in French bindings of the 1540s and 1550s had its roots in the “School of Fountainbleau”, a movement inspired by Italian Mannerism, which heavily influenced the decorative arts in France for the rest of the century.


The ‘Cupid’s Bow’ bindery produced the majority of Grolier’s bindings between 1547-1553 of which around 45 examples survive, following those commissioned from Jean Picard and overlapping those by Gommar Estienne. Grolier’s usual ownership style of gilt lettering on the bindings, which began in the mid-1530s and became more or less standardised soon after, is seen here: the book’s title in the centre of the upper cover, at the foot is his ownership inscription “Io. Grolierii et Amicorum”, while in the centre of the lower cover we have his motto, adapted from Psalm cxli, verse 6, “Portio mea, Domine, sit in terra viventium” (Let me, o Lord, have a part in the land of the living). The shop is named after a distinctive tool, an almost naturalistic bow quite different from the other open and azured arabesque tools it normally used, but unfortunately it appears on only a few bindings such as the Marliani noted above. As well as Grolier, the bindery also received commissions from Catherine de Medici, Louis de Sainte-Maure, Anne de Montmorency, and a large group for Marc Lauweryn.

TEXT: First illustrated edition, second in all, of Geiler von Kayserberg's sermons delivered at Strasbourg based on the immensely popular Ship of Fools, written by his fellow humanist and friend Sebastian Brant.  

The present edition follows an unillustrated one of 1510, the year of Geiler’s death, and is newly illustrated with the ground-breaking woodcut series commissioned for the first edition of Brant's biting satire (Basel, 1494), which includes 73 woodcuts now recognised as the work of the young Albrecht Durer, resident in Basel for several months in 1494.   The highly innovative series perfectly complemented Brant’s original text, “the woodcut illustrations created for the Das Narrenschiff are of immense density and tenseness. Since there was no iconographical tradition for this newly conceived text, the subjects and scenes of the illustrations had to be created entirely new. The images presented are of such convincing force that their equal in design had never before been seen” (A Heavenly Craft, p. 63). Prof Ulinka Rublack describes the woodcuts as “dynamic, densely contextual images, rooted in recognizable references from everyday life, [which] made it accessible even to those with few literary skills” (Emprynted in thys manere: Early Printed Treasures from Cambridge University Library, pp. 154/5).  

The idea of the Ship of Fools, Narrenschiff or Navicula stultorum flourished at the end of the Middle Ages and is encapsulated in the celebrated book by the Strasbourg lawyer and writer Sebastian Brant (c. 1458-1521), which described the moral and religious failures of men, and in particular attacked clerical abuses. First published in German in 1494 it was an immediate best seller and went through a number of editions in various languages, many illustrated with the same blocks or copies of them.  

The preacher Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg (1445-1510) was a contemporary of Brant, and also a resident of Strasbourg. He was born in Schaffhausen, educated at Freiburg and Basel, becoming rector of the University of Freiburg in 1476. He died in Strasbourg, where above all he had been highly esteemed as a preacher in German, citing biblical texts in an Alsatian German which could be understood today. One of the most influential preachers and religious figures of his period through his published works, it was he who opened for the laity the secrets of Scriptures. Some of his works appeared before 1500 (see GW 10580-91), but it was in the early sixteenth century that editions of his works poured from the presses. This volume has (more or less) the same title as Brant's work: 'The little ship or mirror of fools', and is illustrated on the title-page with a woodcut of the ship containing those very fools sailing 'Ad Narragoniam' 'to the Land of Fools' (a play on the German word 'Narren').  

The work contains 110 sermons, the first given on Quinquagesima Sunday (the Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday) in 1498, and the remainder given on Sundays, feast days and ferial days. Each sermon is divided into alphabetically designated sections. The book, which was translated into Latin and edited by Jakob Otter, who has dated his preface (and epilogue) at the end of January 1510, contains a Table of Contents which gives not only the Latin summaries of the sermons but also their very brief German titles, and an alphabetic subject index (referring to the sermon number and section) with scriptural and historical names as well as concrete and abstract topics, ranging from various vices to the faults of prelates. For example, the second sermon attacks the foolishness of those who have too many books, and the final section lambasts those who delight in 'libri aurati' or fancily gilt books.  

The editor Jakob Otter (1485 -1547) had been a student at Freiburg, and later became a disciple of Luther, and a Protestant preacher. He translated and edited a number of works by Geiler from 1508, beginning with Fragmenta passionis also published by the Schürer press. The second part is the brief life of Geiler written by the well-known Sélestat humanist Beautus Rhenanus (1485-1547), at this point in his career resident in Strasbourg, although the life of Geiler was actually written at Sélestat ('ex lararuio nostro literario in urbe Selestantina 15 May 1510'). The life is very brief, is printed in a Roman type as opposed to the Gothic used for the main text, and on the last leaf there is an epitaph by Beatus, commemorating the lawyer Thomas Wolff who had died a few months short of his thirty-fourth birthday in 1509.  


Provenance: Jean Grolier; James Edwards, his sale, Evans, 5 April 1815 (£43); John Bellingham Inglis, who has, characteristically, pasted in an armorial bookplate not his own, sale Sotheby’s, 31 July 1871, lot 209 (£31-10s. to Ellis); C.G. Boerner, Leipzig, Catalogue XXI, Kostbare Bucheinbande, 1912, no. 14; Jean Furstenberg with his bookplate, binding reproduced in The Book Collector, Winter 1960, 'Contemporary Collectors XXV: Jean Furstenberg', pl. III; Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Amsterdam (bookplate, sale Sotheby's, 6 December 2000, lot 57). 

Jean Grolier (c. 1489/90 – 1565), Treasurer of France and bibliophile. Jean Grolier’s library has been described by Hobson as a “Bibliophilic ‘cabinet’ of fine books” of which around 500 books have been recorded making up possibly three quarters of the original collection. There were three distinct phases to Grolier’s collecting, his Milanese library accumulated while Treasurer and Receiver General of the Duchy of Milan 1509-21, his first French library which was sold in 1536 to clear his debts, and his final library whose origins coincided with his reappointment as a Treasurer of France in 1538 and continued to grow until his death in 1565. Always highly regarded by British collectors from the late 17th century onwards, the exhibition at the British Museum in 1965 to celebrate the fourth centenary of Grolier’s death displayed all 137 books from his library located in the British Isles and Republic of Ireland (24 from Chatsworth alone). As Nixon notes in his introduction to the catalogue, had the exhibition “been extended to include all those which had at one time been in these countries, it would probably have contained nearly half the survivors, for many of those in the United States, and a surprising number of those in France, were in British collections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”. Our example attests to this having been in notable British collections in the 19th century - see below - before returning to the Continent for much of the 20th century, to be housed in the equally important collection of the Franco-German banker and bibliophile Jean Furstenberg.

James Edwards (1757-1816), book collector and bookseller, son of the celebrated bookbinder William Edwards of Halifax (1720- 1808). He was established in London from 1784 and specialized in acquiring fine European libraries, such as the Pinelli and ‘Pa^ris de Meyzieu’ collections, and retired in 1804 a wealthy man, selling his private collection of early printed books and manuscripts in the year before his death (see


John Bellingham Inglis (1780-1870) scholar, linguist and book collector, who in 1832 was the first to translate into English the Philobiblon of Richard de Bury.


Binding ref: Gabriel Austin, The Library of Jean Grolier (1971), no. 209 (apparently mistakenly claiming that this was the La Valliere copy, which was bound in ‘v[eau] m[arbre]’. H.M. Nixon, Sixteenth-century Gold-tooled Bookbindings in the Pierpont Morgan Library (1971), 130 sqq.; P. Needham, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings (1979), nos. 66-68. Cf. also A. R. A. Hobson, Humanists and Bookbinders (1989), App. 7, "Jean Grolier's Binders." A.R.A. Hobson, Renaissance Book Collecting (1999), App. 1, “Jean Grolier’s bindings classified by workshop”.

Ref: VD16 G778. Adams G316. BMSTC German, p. 335. Muther 1424.

Stock Code: 243661

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