Elzevier Printers and the Republica series

It is generally claimed that the quality of printing deteriorated during the 17th century because of the massive commercial success of book production. The craft went from producing quality books in the 16th century, to mass production in the 17th. The merit of this claim is partly true but can also be argued. The printing House Elzevier, active from 1580 to 1712, managed to combine quality with low cost. They basically invented the modern day ‘pocket-book’. A small handy volume by an important author or text. Collecting Elzeviers became soon a craze that lasted for three centuries. During the 19th century, collectors ran around in used book stalls with rulers in their pockets to measure the height of an Elzevier in millimeters. The wider the paper, the more valuable. Much has been written about the Elzevier Press, so I thought that I should just briefly cover their famous series called ‘Republics’ or Republica. The Republics were a series of books on contemporary European territories as well as more distant lands. The books were small 24mo format and tough to read. But they were printed on quality paper and bound in vellum over paste board and glue. The series took its name from Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum first printed in 1583. None were original works, but rather reprints of already existing texts mostly printed in the 16th century. The first appeared in 1625 and the last in 1649. The Elzeviers marketed them as a group under the heading ‘the Republics’ in their stock catalogues and they sold very well. In the picture are three examples; from the left Sweden bound in early 18th century morocco, China in contemporary calf and Italy bound in original vellum. Most of the volumes in the series are not that expensive. Vellum copies at auction are usually offered in groups with three or four in a lot. The condition of the volume and the binding type will obviously impact the price. A few editions such as China, Japan and Persia are rather scarce and worth more. I have only seen one complete set for sale once at a book fair a number of years ago.

4 thoughts on “Elzevier Printers and the Republica series”

  1. I went back and read what Newton had to say about Elzeviers in The Amenities. He mentions it twice, both times with a hint of sadness, it seems to me.

    “…and fashion changes in book-collecting as in everything else. Aldines and Elzeviers are no longer sought…” p.5. Later, “Aldines and Elzeviers have gone out of fashion” p. 88.

    1. He was partly right. The Elzeviers were printed in such quantity that it became difficult for collectors to justify their uniqueness. Looking for copies with ‘wide margins’ really was not enough for many collectors. But I think collecting Elzeviers is a good start for anybody from the younger generation who is interested in collecting old books. Most are not that (comparatively speaking) expensive and the subject matters are rather wide. The Aldines on the other hand are still collectible and quite expensive, especially those printed by the founder who died in 1515.

  2. Neato Toledo! Aren’t they beautiful? Look how far we’ve come. From a loving admiration for the whole book, literally from cover to cover, to the crap mass produced today. I knew none of the info you have provided in this post. Thank you.
    Do you own any, yourself? Just curious, can you provide an image of a title/copyright page?

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