These days we tend to shelf books ‘spine out’ and publishers, conveniently, usually reproduce the title, author and other helpful details on the spine so that we can easily run our eyes along a shelf to find a particular book. But it wasn’t always thus!
This 17th century painting by Guercino shows the Italian lawyer and one time governor of Cento in northern Italy, Francesco Righetti, at home in his library. Righetti is surrounded by his law books, speaking to his learning and erudition. But his books are shelved ‘tail end’ out, with the titles written on the base of the text block.
Look too at this engraving of the poet William Cartwright (printed in 1651 as a frontispiece to his ‘Poems and Plays’). Again, he’s in his library and his books can be seen – this time with the fore-edges facing out from the shelves and the spines neatly tucked in against the rear walls and hidden. This was a common practice in the 16th and 17th centuries. Imagine shelving books with gilded page edges in this way – they would have gleamed and glistened, catching the candlelight, in quite a glorious way. Some medieval manuscripts and early printed books now in rare book collections have the title and other details written on in several different places, reflecting changes in shelving the preferences of owners and book collectors over time.