Thursday, December 20, 2012

Alsace 1727

The History of the Province of Alsace from the time of Julius Caesar up to the marriage of King Louis XV was written in 1727 by Louis Laguille (a Jesuit priest – at a time when the Jesuits possessed considerable political clout in France) and printed in Strasbourg by Jean Renauld Doulssecker. It featured a two-color title page embellished with rococo copper-engravings. The size of the volume and elaborateness of the production suggest official government support (probably as part of some ongoing territorial claim-staking process, Alsace being a border region often contested between Germany and France right up through the 20th century). 

DOMINUS PROVIDEBIT (God will provide) reads the ribbon motto above the title-page vignette, God's intention to provide being represented in this case by a three-masted merchant vessel, illustrating the happy marriage of capitalism and religion long before our own money-pious age.

The cherubs (immediately above) with globe, reference books and surveying instruments made a special trip all the way from Heaven to establish the all-French identity of Alsace (cherub at far left with calipers and pen is working on plans for military fortifications, not coincidentally). Cherub-colleagues elsewhere in the full-page frontispiece deploy the cornucopia of abundance, offer the crown of sovereignty, blow the trumpet of divine approbation and support those cumbersome swags of drapery that accompanied almost any assertion of hierarchical power in olden-days Europe – as certainly as a cavalcade of armored SUVs with blacked-out windows proclaims the presence of the mighty in our own world today.

The most spectacular feature of this book is the fold-out map tracing the course of the Rhine along Alsace's eastern edge. Fully extended, this representation is almost four feet tall. No press of the period could have printed a single engraving on such a scale. The present example was skillfully (almost invisibly) pieced-and-glued from three separately-printed sheets. Maps such as this one have a sad tendency to disappear  from copies of old books – mainly due to dealers engaged in the unethical practice of removing them and framing them and selling them separately on the print market, where prices are higher than book trade prices.