Saturday, March 25, 2006


One of the roles of that the theatra machinarum fulfilled was as gifts. They could have served as valuable and meaningful gifts to be exchanged between aristocrats and leaders. Natalie Zemon Davis provides a very thorough discussion of the role that books such as the theatrum machinarum may have played in sixteenth-century France.

She notes that books were valued not just for their appearance but for the knowledge contained within their covers:

"The point of all this is that sixteenth-century authors, book-producers and book-possessor inheritors not only patterns of gifts, but also a belief that property in a book was as much collective as private and that God himself had some special rights in that object. By this argument, the book was it its best when given, should not be sold beyond a just price and never be hoarded." (p. 72)

The actual exchange of books wasn't the only way in which books could serve as gifts. Dedications served as a very important means of requesting and securing patronage. Authors and translators, for example, weren't necessarily paid for their work by publishers but were given free copies that could then be given as gifts. Indeed, Bagioli discusses how Galileo used his Siderius Nuncius as a means of securing patronage from the Medicis, and how the Medicis were able to regift the work as a means of securing reputation throughout Europe.

Davis discusses various ways in which dedications could be used as gifts:
  • The publisher uses the gift to entice additional work from authors or publishers.
  • The gift could also be used to express intimate relations "among members of a family, while still calling attention to wider cultural values." (p.78) Davis gives the example of Fathers dedicating works on virtue to daughters. These dedications served as an introduction that established a theme for the works.
Books were valuable as gifts in ways that other items weren't:

"The book in fact had an advantage over the traditional gifts from city governments to monarchs and high officials fro whom they sought public benefits. Golden statues, ups, capes and barrels of fine wine did not necessarily carry with them the message about the hoped-for reform or action, and were more likely to be given away or returned that was the presentation of a copy of a book." (p. 79)

In this context, works by authors like Besson and Ramelli could indeed be very valuable.

Their role as gifts was also an important component of their dissemination. As gifts, books crossed borders and made their way to the countryside. Books also had tremendous value as neutral objects. Their message was explicit rather than symbolic. Davis notes that a gift of eggs at Easter had a very specific contextual and gendered meaning that a book did not.

It should be noted that not all books were used as gifts or carried extensive dedications. Common-place works such as pamphlets, royal edicts and decrees, Book of Hours, or similar "modest works" were not used as part of the cycle of gifts. The theatrum machinarum, however, could in no way be considered modest.



Davis, Natalie Zemon (1983). "Beyond the market: Books as gifts in sixteenth-century France." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series. 33: 69-88.
Davis, Natalie Zemon (2000). The gift in sixteenth-century France. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press.


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