FROM A WUNDERKAMMER?
Playful, extravagant, costly, luxurious and, above all, marvelous, six-fold backless bindings entered the collections of north German Protestant princes and patricians from the 1570s to the 18th century. They are also known as tease books, Vexierbücher and reliures à surprise.
When lying flat, three books can be opened independently — the top left and right halves (sextodecimos) and the uppermost book running the length of the binding in the middle (one octavo). By rotating the binding one hundred eighty degrees top to bottom, the other three books can be similarly opened: the left and right sextodecimos and the other octavo in the middle. Single-volume backless bindings and two or more volumes bound back-to-back (dos-à-dos) present more modest iterations of this same tradition.
Though six-fold bindings typically contain devotional literature, hunting books, vocal music and woodcut books were also included. Two six-fold bindings are known with game boards in the middle and compartments for playing cards on the top left and right.
Exceptionally, all six volumes in the present example are blank. Is this an elaborate album amicorum? a commonplace book? a lover’s storehouse of sentiments and secrets? One clue may lie in the late 16th-century German manuscript waste used for the pastedowns and as reinforcement, where the internal components attach to one another. Could it be a binder’s sample to tantalize (or inspire) customers? an apprentice’s demonstration of competence to become a journeyman? Only one in Köster’s census of twenty six-fold backless bindings was blank, and that an album amicorum with the components assembled from various sources.
Inherently fragile, nearly all surviving six-fold backless bindings have been extensively restored. Here THE ELEMENTS ARE INTEGRAL AND THE BINDING AND CONTENTS IN ORIGINAL CONDITION (the “bottom” cover is somewhat abraded, its joint cracked), from the library of J.W. Six de Vromade (1872-1936) with his bookplate (Catalogue (1925) 115 & pl.).
Köster, “Mehrfachbände und Vexierbücher. Materialien zu Einbandkuriosa des sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhunderts” in Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens 14 (1974) 1879-1936; Grimm, “Gekoppelte ‘Zwillingsbände’ verschiedener Formate aus dem 16. Jahrhundert” in Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens 5 (1964) 1241-48; Schaer, Tous les savoirs du monde (1996) 288,36 & illus.; Fletcher et al., The Wormsley Library 34.