Archival Project # 1: Recreating Johnson’s Library

While exploring Johnson’s copy of Iani Gruteri Pericula, I began to wonder how this small copy of Latin elegies affected his works. In revisiting the idea of collage and scrapbooking, how does exploring and recreating Johnson’s library give us insight to a man who is long dead? In order to begin to accomplish such a task, a more than one book was necessary. I was fortunate enough to find another book that had Ben Johnson’s signature and motto on the title page in the Boston Public Library. Johnson supposedly owned a copy of M. Viruuii Pollionis de architectura libri decem or Vitruvius The Ten Books on Architecture. This is a well-known book within the realm of classical studies and his copy is a fairly large folio. While Iani Gruteri Pericula was valued for being Ben Johnson’s copy, this copy of Vitruvius has Johnson’s motto, but his signature has purposely been scraped off. Both these books vary in size, content, and value, but together they work to create a bigger picture. In revisiting the concept of Johnson’s library as a scrapbook, we as readers have the privilege of viewing some of the inner workings of Johnson’s thoughts and inspirations.

Garvey states that “the scrapbook was understood as a metaphor for the knowledge, reading, and taste stored up over a lifetime”(Garvey 11). To begin understanding Johnson’s library as a scrapbook, it is necessary to look at his education to further understand his priorities in his scholarship. Johnson was born one month after his father’s death and “although Johnson never knew his father, he seems clearly to have identified with his father’s status as an educated gentlemen” in comparison with his stepfather, who was a bricklayer (Summers 9). Johnson began at a private school in St. Martin Church, but in 1583 he had the opportunity to attend the prestigious Westminster School, where his professor, William Camden, was known as one of the greatest classicist, antiquarians, and teachers. “The young master taught the boys in his charge to keep commonplace books, encouraged them to compose poetry by first drafting a prose version, and instilled in them a profound love of the classics”(Summers 9). Johnson’s love for scholarship, which was a central aspect of his writing, came from his early influences and “it has been suggested that the school gave Johnson ‘his first introduction to the intricate and often apparently meaningless division in the Elizabethan hierarchy’” (Donaldson 70). This education set a base not only for his taste in books, but the choices he makes in his literature, whether reading or writing, for the rest of his life. Iani Gruteri Pericula and Vitruvius are both pieces of Latin classical literature and lend themselves to the culture of educated gentlemen. These early influences dictated what he might have kept in his library and the books he collected over the years.

The structure of both these books, supposedly from Johnson’s library, are folios and bound in calfskin, but they vary in size drastically. While Iani Gruteri Pericula is pocket sized and modestly decorated, Vitrivius is not only a fairly large folio, but also uses a lot more gilt and intricate designs on the spine of the book. Both share similar fonts and similar styles in printers’ marks, but as far as decorated capitals, the ones located in Vitrivius are historiated and far more complex. While Iani Gruteri Pericula uses only woodcuts, Vitrivius uses intaglio as well and has far more detailed illustrations. The reason for a difference in decoration and images I believe is due to the notoriety of each book. While Iani Gruteri Pericula is a small book of Latin elegies written by a not well-known author, Vitruvius was one of the most famous texts in the history of western landscape architecture. Such works were rediscovered by Renaissance thinkers in a period “of national self-awareness, global exploration, and intellectual ferment,” known as the Elizabethan Age (Summers 1). The size and format of both these books lend to a different type of reading and would have served a different purpose in Johnson’s library. While the book of Latin elegies would possibly serve as a book of leisure and enjoyment that could fit in his pocket, Vitrivius had to be read on a stand due to its size and content. A large folio like this one lends itself to a level of prestige possibly like “ the work involved in setting the Shakespeare First Folio was more than thirty times that of setting one of the plays in quarto” (Gaskell 160). This level of work and readership was one of an educated gentleman. Whether Johnson was reading this large folio with others or by himself in his study, it still took a tremendous amount of effort and posture to focus on such a large classical book. Vitruvius makes it clear “that the field of ‘architecture’ covers the entire built and mechanical environment and is an art of great complexity and one of the most essential of the arts of social humanity” (Rowland 13). This positions Johnson engaging in a variety of genres and different styles of reading that would have contributed to the way he viewed the world and this would have influenced his work.

One of the most intriguing differences between both these books is the manner in which ownership affects its value. While Iani Gruteri Pericula is valued and sold for its ownership, in Vitruvius, its subsequent owner hid Johnson’s ownership. While his motto was left intact, his signature was purposefully scraped off. Johnson has written three notes in this book, but the rest the book is heavily annotated by another early modern hand and initialed with the letters “AR”. Almost every page is heavily annotated with notes, for Vitruvius served as a textbook. I believe that there is a high chance that the hand that wrote these notes was the hand that scraped off Johnson’s signature. Annotating a book this much says so much about this individuals perceived notion of ownership and to have Ben Johnson be the previous owner must have also impeded on his or her own ownership. How could they take this classical book as their own if Johnson’s name is a constant reminder of their possible inadequacy? Although both these books supposedly come from Johnson’s library, over the years they have been treated differently because of Johnson’s ownership. As both these books served a different purpose in Johnson’s library, his ownership served a different purpose as well. These books, like a scrapbook, “holds its maker’s past and embodies a life of reading and saving” (Garvey 14).

While the different owners paint a picture of the past, what serves more towards the purpose of recreating Johnson’s library is his own annotations within Vitruvius. While I can speculate what Iani Gruteri Pericula meant to Johnson and his writing, the notes in Vitruvius allows us as reader an inside look to what Johnson may have been thinking while reading this work. On page two and three, Johnson wrote “procemium” or preface where the preface began and wrote “ caput i. Quid fit architectura” or chapter 1 and what is architecture where the first chapter begins. While these notes may not mean much at first glance, the chapter and headings of these books varied. While the preface is not usually labeled, it is difficult to tell where the preface ends and chapter one begins without it being labeled. Although chapter one isn’t labeled, chapter two and on are in book one. Johnson noticed this absence in headings and added his own markers. His notes, most likely, were to make his reading experience a little easier and convenient, which reveals the focus he had on the content. Johnson’s copy of Vitruvius was an imperfect copy and he was most likely aware of this. While most translations took their structure from the Harleian Manuscript 2767, this copy of Vitruvius seems to have some headings missing and chapters structured differently. It seems that chapter headings within copies of Vitruvius had no clear authoritative structure and lacked cohesiveness, but that comes into play with the lack of cohesiveness in editions within printing in the early modern era.

His third and final annotation, on page 284, seems to have the most substance. Although his annotations are located in the fourth chapter of his edition, when compared to the Loeb edition, which I consulted for translation, the section he annotated is located in chapter one. This made translation a bit of frustration, but once I figured out the discrepancies in headings, it made it possible to see what Johnson was reading. He underlined three words: “depressione”, “necessitate”, and “necessitas”. Those translate into depression (as an impression), necessity, and compulsion. He annotated a sentence that was referencing the revolutions of signs and how that rotation controls the rising and setting of the sun. The sentence translates into:

“For whatever part of the last sign driven by its revolution passes under the earth and is concealed by its depression, to that extent the contrary sign forced upwards by the necessity of the revolution is carried round in rotation and from darkness comes to light in the visible heavens. For a single power and compulsion controls simultaneously on both side the rising and the setting.”

The two words he wrote next to this passage is “depressione” and “ vicissitate” which translate into depression and change. With these additions, Johnson must have meant to bring attention to this paragraph. This is the only section that he points out specifically and the only words he underlines. He was bringing to attention possibly the change that happens between the words necessitate and necessitas. Of course I can only speculate on what these notes mean, but I do believe that Johnson took something from this discussion of the sun rising and setting simultaneously through necessity and depression. Another factor to keep in mind is if Johnson was affected by the chapter structure of book nine, while other copies of Vitrivius were structured differently.

While going through these books belonging to Johnson’s library, there is one question that continues to ring through my head. How did these books influence him and his work? “ Preeminently a humanist, Johnson attempted to make popular comedy a more serious mode by adapting classical ideals of comedy to his contemporary material” (Summers 28). Johnson, I believe, prioritized his classical taste and that in itself set a tone for his own writing. With Johnson’s comedies, the neoclassicism present in his works consists “ largely in their observance of the classical unities of time, place, and action in their sense of decorum (Summers 29). While his tragedies adhere less strictly to this type of neoclassicism, including the spirit of the classical lyric enriched his poetry and his prose. He not only “drew from the rich classical traditions, but he also self-consciously added to them” (Summers 147). The influence of his classical education is so apparent in Johnson’s work and that allows us to see that both Iani Gruteri Pericula and Vitruvius fit perfectly in his library. It wouldn’t be surprising that a great portion of his library was inhabited by classical literature. “Even when collage is understood in its narrow sense, as the cutting and pasting of heterogeneous paper fragments onto an underlying support, [one] might say that it was always central to the production and reproduction of the Renaissance culture”(Fleming 445). Scholars have recognized and “defined this period in terms of great materials as well as intellectual repurposing” and this is exactly what occurred with Johnson’s writing (Fleming 445). The novels he read and the classical lyrics and poems he studied were repurposed and added onto in his own way. His works are a collage of all the books he had in his library. This is why his books are of such importance and high value. Johnson’s books provide us with a looking glass into his thoughts, inspirations, and his works.


Works Cited

Donaldson, Ian. Ben Jonson: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Fleming, Juliet. “The Renaissance Collage: Signcutting and Signsewing.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 45, no. 3 (2015): 443. doi:10.1215/10829636-3149095.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.(Brief article)(Book Review).” CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 50, no. 10 (2013): 1833.

Gaskell, Philip. A New Introduction to Bibliography. Reprinted with corrections in 1995. New Castle, Del: Oak Knoll Press, 2007.

Summers, Claude J., Ted-Larry Pebworth, and Claude J. Summers. Ben Jonson Revised. Twayne’s English Authors Series, TEAS 557. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

Vitruvius, and Frank Granger. On architecture:: in two volumes. 2: Books VI – X. Reprinted. The Loeb classical library 280. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999.

Vitruvius Pollio, Ingrid D. Rowland, Thomas Noble Howe, and Michael Dewar. Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.




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