Considering the Works of Virgil

The Special Collections at the University of Victoria Library holds fifty-four copies of the works of Virgil, no two exactly alike.  In the scope of this project, Brittany and I are comparing two editions. The textual content is for the most part the same, but the actual reading is a vastly different experience.

The Works of Virgil

The first is an octavo printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice, 1545.


The Aldine edition

The “official” title is Virgilius Post Omnes Omnium Editiones Accurate Emendatus. It has 220 leaves, and is about 15cm (previously cut down from 17cm).

The second book looks much more impressive. It is a folio edition, printed by John Ogilby in London, 1663. Titled Publii Vigilii Maronis Opera per Johannem Ogilvium Edita, et Sculpturis Aeneis Adornata. This edition features 104 leaves of plates, with 447 leaves in total and is 41cm high.


The Ogilby edition

If these two books were replicated in digital format, there is much about their physical structure that would be lost in representation. On a screen, the sheer scale of size would be lost. The Aldine octavo edition is significantly smaller than the Ogilby folio edition- in the folio, a single sheet of paper makes two leaves, whereas one sheet equals eight leaves in an octavo.


Not exactly identical

Opening the Book

As old and rare books, a reader today cannot just flip open the book and start reading. It takes a good amount of set up, with cradles and support to put as little stress on the book as possible. In handling books like these, the rader must consider the condition of the book itself. The Aldine edition, for example, had a relatively tight binding that does not open well. Forcing it would damage the book.


Proper setup


As far as it opens

Going Through the Pages

Interacting with books like these is not just about reading the text. It is a different level of experience. There is a significant tactile component. These editions are both printed on handmade rag paper, which can vary slightly in thickness and texture by the page. Etchings and engravings, such as in the Ogilby edition, where typically printed on only one side of a sheet, due to the stress to the paper in the process. There are exceptions, which can impact the condition of that leaf.


A particularly thin sheet


Double sided printing

The paper itself is an important factor in the study of early printing. Paper was an expensive commodity, made by hand a sheet at at time. Papermakers identified their work with watermarks, which are visible and identifiable. Rather like a “Where’s Waldo” game, part of the bibliographic adventure is finding the watermarks, which tell much about the organization of the book. Watermark location corresponds to size and structure of the book, and the position on any given leaf is determined by how many times a sheet was folded. In the folio edition, one sheet was folded once in the middle to form two leaves. The octavo, appropriately, was folded three times per sheet to produce eight leaves, and is consequently much smaller.



Ogilby Watermark #1


Ogilby Watermark #2


Ogilby illustration watermark


Aldus watermark, cut off

What could be the most difficult to covey in digital form are the accidents, the surprises that are found in books that have been around for centuries. Things like funny annotations, mistakes in printing or binding, or external influences. The Ogilby has one page that was cut wrong, and an extra tag of paper remains. The Aldus was printed with blanks left for initials to be added later, but they never were. The Aldus also has a nice dead bug carcass in the gutter of one quire, one can only imagine how long that has been there.




Digitization is not a new endeavor. Many of the problems considered here can be worked out for digital editions. That is not the problem. It is the experience of the book, the sensory elements, that is lost in translation. How can these things be conveyed digitally? Imaged and encoded? How does the presence of a unique object display on a screen?


About Christina Bell

Humanities librarian, digital humanities and #critlib enthusiast, voracious reader, queer femme, feminist, cat person, fan of the Oxford comma.
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1 Response to Considering the Works of Virgil

  1. Rebecca W. says:

    Beautiful images! I love the ghostly show-through from one side of the page to the other

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