Paris, Richard Breton, 1565.
8vo [160 x 98 mm] of (63) ll., 18th century French polished calf, red edges, arms Sir Charles Bagot on covers, morocco slipcase.
The first edition of this mysterious series of grotesque illustrations “for the recreation of witty spirits.”
The woodcuts are now generally attributed to François Desprez who three years prior provided similar illustrations for different work printed by Breton. While Rabelais is invoked in the title, his name seems to have simply served to advertise the nature of the work – providing a shorthand for a playful, Pantagruelist posture. Some of the iconography can clearly be related to images by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breughel, coming from a longer tradition of absurd and entertaining images which had only somewhat recently been made literary by the work of Rabelais. Much ink has flowed on the potential hidden meanings in these cuts, published in an age when esoteric symbolism was very much in vogue (cf. Cesare Ripas Iconologia and Valeriano’s Hieroglyphica). But there is no reason for not taking the author of the preface at their word when they write that the purpose of this book is to be « an object of laughter, an antidote for melancholy, and a pastime for the young. » lndeed, the afterlife of this work can be felt in both the tradition of delightfully weird children’s books as well as in the imagery of the comic theatre. Jacques Callot’s Gobbi and Balli di Sfessania a century later reveal the link to commedia dell’arte designs and later opera buffa. As the real Rabelais himself wrote, such images were “lightheartedly invented for the purposes of mirth.”
Mortimer French 499 ; Rawles & Screech 113 ; Fact and Fantasy 39.
Extremely rare first edition of the ‘Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel’, the most fascinating, strange and less ordinary of French books printed in the 16th century.
“It is very difficult to find a complete copy of this small volume”, already wrote Brunet in the 19th century, whose copy reached the formidable price of 1 650 F Or at his auction which took place in 1868. A bibliophile book was then traded from 10 F Or.
“Les Songes Drolatiques de Pantagruel” are illustrated “with 120 grotesque figures skillfully wood-engraved, in which one has thought to see an interpretation of Rabelais’ famous novel; ingenious explanations have even been made of each of these prints.” (Catalogue Edouard Rahir 11, 650.)
The 120 figures of astonishing verve reveal “an astonishing caricature genius” (Robert Brun); they are very well engraved on wood by François Desprez, who took inspiration from Pierre Breughel the Old and from engravings by Jérome Cock (see Mélanges Abel Lefranc, 1936, p. 229).
We saw there an interpretation of Rabelais’s work.
This suite was re-printed by Paul Lacroix in 1868, he signals the extreme rarity of the present volume.
These drawings are very curious and correspond so well to the Rabelaisian imagination, that they have, so to speak, taken their place in the work of Rabelais. Brunet, and many bibliographers, including P.P. Plan, have described this collection of 1565; they have provoked an infinite amount of research; one wanted to see allusions to the great characters of the time and resemblances hidden under the strange and grotesque. R. Brun, La gravure française au XVIe siècle, says that these Songes are perhaps due to the same artist who executed the suite of the Diversité des Habits published at the same date by R. Breton. The Bibliothèque Rahir contained the two works bound together (II, 654); and the Bibliothèque Lucien Graux (II, n° 100) the collection of original drawings.
First issue of the compositions engraved on full-page. The drawer identified by Jean Porcher would be François Desprez, artist and embroiderer whose printer Richard Breton had just published the Recueil de la diversité des habits (1562).
“This series of figures reveals a droll imagination, a dizzying caricatural verve. All are of a very firm drawing and a vigorous cutting although they seem to have been engraved quickly” (Brun, pp. 60-61).
“Bibliographer Debure, speaking of the 1565 edition, only in woodcut, says that the famous Callot drew a large part of the attitudes and grotesque turns he gave to his caricatures in Les songes drolatiques de Pantagruel”.
The purpose of this work, which was drawn in Italy, by Rabelais himself, was to ridicule the first personalities of his time, and especially the court of Rome. The author has often departed from the limits of modesty received today, but if we are willing to refer to the time when lived this skillful man, we will find that we had on the thing and the word very different ideas compared to the ones we have now.”
The laughter of Rabelais:
These hybrid figures are inspired by Gothic drolleries, the fashion for grotesques, and the works of Brueghel, but not without insidiously touching on the confessional polemics aimed at the Roman Church; one puppet is adorned with the mitre, another with what looks very much like a tiara; a third, an elephant, sketches the gesture of blessing…
We know today that the printer Richard Breton was a supporter of the Reformation as a Calvinist whose multiple activities covered that of a propagandist of the Gospel. (Wildenstein, L’imprimeur-libraire Richard Breton et son inventaire après décès, 1571, in Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, XXI, 1959, pp. 364-379).
This small volume which by its inspiration relates so well to Rabelais’s overwhelming and thunderous work has always reached high auction results but it is rare.
The Lebeuf de Montgermont copy was thus sold 2 500 F or in 1871, 250 times the basic price of a bibliophile book which was then traded at around 10 F gold.
On November 20, 1985, 37 years ago, a copy bound in the 19th century without the last blank leaf, was sold 400 000 FF at the Hôtel Drouot (around 60 000 €).
In May 2006, 16 years ago, a copy with very short margins, without the last blank leave, was sold 135 000 €.
120 full-page woodcuts of grotesque figures and masquerades (printer’s device on title cut out and replaced with old paper and a small vignette, early German manuscript captions unobtrusively erased).
One of the largest copies known in old armorial binding (height: 160 mm, larger than the famous Solar-Beckford-Harvard copy).
Provenance : 17th century German manuscript captions – Sir Charles Bagot (1781-1843) governor-general of Canada ; supra-libros) – Ralph Sneyd of Keele Hall (« Sporting Ralph » nephew and heir of the great manuscript collector Rev. Walter Sneyd, gilt armorial white leather booklabel, his sale Sotheby’s 16 December 1903) – Edmée Maus of Geneva (booklabel, her library dispersed by Jammes and Engelberts).
Ref.: Brunet, IV.1066, Suppl. II.373 ; Brun, p. 79, 305, leaves E8V – FIr reprod. plate XIX ; Tchemerzine, vol. 9, p. 325, title-page reprod.; Beckford.-Hamilton Palace cat., pt. 3 (1883), no. 1133 not in Murray, Rothschild. For additional references, see Porcher.