The last time we talked about the production of books in the Middle Ages, and I mentioned that ivory plates were often used to decorate the lids. Yes, even then elephants had to give their lives because their teeth were desired. After all, for the cover design, here and there they used already existing boards; so they recycled instead of killing. Nevertheless, ivory remained such a rare and precious material that even friendships were put to the test.
A friend, a good friend…
At least there is a nice story about it from the chronicle of the monastery St. Gallen, written a hundred years after the event, but certainly happened exactly the same way as described there: Hatto I, Archbishop of Mainz, was on his way to Italy in the 890s, and since he did not trust the Mainzers, he had taken everything he possessed in treasures with him. In Constance he made a stopover with his close friend Bishop Salomon and thought that his valuable possessions would certainly be safer with him than dragging them all the way to Italy and back again. In the event of his death, the bishop should distribute the treasures among the poor at will. Salomon, less just, but just as clever as his patron saint, let a month pass until he had the rumour spread that his dear friend from Mainz had blessed the temporal. In deep mourning he fulfilled Hattos last wish and donated his treasure to various institutions. On his return, Hatto was of course little amused, but Salomon drew his attention to the fact that only that almsgiving was really one thing – and would find recognition in heaven – that represented a painful loss.
The elephant, the unknown being
Two ivory plates from the treasure of Hattos had gone to the monastery of St. Gallen, which were of such “incomparable size” that “the elephant armed with teeth must have been a giant among its peers”, as the chronicler of the monastery, Ekkehardt IV, noted impressed. Now one can ask oneself how he, his contemporaries and ancestors actually imagined an elephant. That they had seen one themselves is very unlikely. Anyone who wanted to paint or draw one had to resort to descriptions from travel reports, existing pictures and hearsay. It is always easy to make fun of the people of “Back then” and their knowledge or ignorance – which I don’t want to do here. But it is simply funny, which beings have been formed from these inaccurate sources and have been reflected in numerous illustrations. The special characteristics of an elephant were apparently known: a lot of body, long canines and a trunk (whereby one can ask again whether the medieval human could do something with the term trunk). And the sound of his trumpet must have been handed down as well, because if it is not a trunk in the true sense of the word in the pictures, it is in many cases a trumpet-like something. The appearance of missing parts was supplemented by the appearance of native animals. Thus interesting, partly rather strange mixed creatures developed: A sheep with a dog’s head and the size of a horse, with a turned, trumpet-like nose process for example. Or an animal of the size and physical shape of a wild boar with paws, including bristles, to which not only a trumpet was mounted as trunk, but also as ears. Other illustrations, on the other hand, are surprisingly close to the original. – Was it based on a source whose author had actually seen a real elephant?
After all, about 90 years before Hatto’s journey, the first (and for a long time the last) pachyderm as a gift of the caliph Hārūn ar-Raschīd marched from Baghdad through Europe to Aachen (accompanied, of course), where it was given to Charlemagne in 802 as a gift. The animal had certainly attracted a lot of attention, perhaps draughtsmen at the emperor’s court had made portraits of him – we don’t know. It has been known since Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 B.C. at the latest that elephants can walk long distances and through various climatic zones. The 37 pachyderms who were carried along survived the hike over the mountains (but died in the winter).
Off into the box
That brings us back to the subject of books. Because it seems as if an elephant is going through a mountain rather than getting an old book from A to B. For example, the one whose cover is decorated by the two ivory plates from the (former) possession of Hattos I of Mainz. A few years ago I was lucky enough to be there unpacking this Gospel Longum – the people of St. Gallen trusted (rather the loan contract with the Mainz Museum) that the book would go back to them after the exhibition. Although the people of Mainz still think that at least the two ivory plates actually belong to them…
The lending of an exhibit is an extensive undertaking. It starts with the inquiry to the owning museum and, if it gives its OK, with the exchange of the signed loan contract. The loan period, the condition and the conditions for the loan are specified. The latter include, for example, the climate and light intensity in the exhibition rooms, insurance clauses, who is responsible for the transport (there are companies that specialize in transporting art) and whether or not a courier from the house should be present on the trip (which once led to me being allowed to spend four days in New York). A transport box is built for each (each!) object – works of art do not adhere to standard sizes – and lined so that the object does not wobble and hit the box from the inside. In the case of climate-sensitive exhibits such as old books, the box has special interior insulation. This ensures that the external climate does not penetrate directly into the box. This so-called climate box is placed with an open lid in the room in which the object is located approx. three days before transport in order to accept its atmosphere. Then the restorer puts the book – let’s stay with it – into the box with gloves under the strict eyes of a museum employee. Most of the time a little acid-free tissue paper comes around (this increases the tension when unpacking and simply looks prettier) and absolutely the condition report in the box before it is screwed together. Because it is particularly terrible to have damaged an object from one’s own house, only the gentlemen of the transport service carry the box from this point on. Then geht´s with the transporter or truck on the journey (or with the airplane, but that is still a much longer procedure). Arrived at the borrowing museum, the program is rewound again. First of all, the box is locked in the room in which the object is to be shown in order to accustom its interior to the new climate. If the way was long, the courier can be happy because he has two to three days to look at the surroundings. Then comes the great moment that everyone is looking forward to (especially the borrowers) – and before which everyone is trembling (especially the lenders): the book is unpacked.
Of course with gloves on and under the strict eye of the courier and the person in charge of the museum. It follows, this belongs to the protocol, a long “Aaah” and “Oooh” on the part of the borrower and a proud blush on the part of the lender.
Even though I have just sounded somewhat ironic, it is always a special experience for the common art historian when such an original work lies completely unprotected in front of you. One can rightly speak of the breath of history that blows over one and makes one shudder in reverence. After the storm of enthusiasm one becomes objective again: The book is examined according to the state protocol and then comes into the showcase, which must be closed under the eyes of the curator. Once the exhibition is over, the procedure is unwound again.