Julius S. Held Collection of Rare Books

Art historian Julius S. Held (1905–2002), professor at Barnard College, Columbia University from 1937 to 1970, was renowned for his scholarship in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art and in particular for a wide-ranging approach that included the study of social history, analysis of iconography, and exacting connoisseurship.

Many of the extraordinary books in his collection were acquired for their illustrations by artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Dürer, and Anthony van Dyck. The collection is also rich in books by noted printers, such as Plantin Press and Elsevier.

The subject matter is wide-ranging and eclectic in scope, including works by Virgil and Ovid and versions of Aesop's fables as well as titles on astronomy, religion, natural history, and anatomy dating from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. The equally comprehensive range of languages includes Greek, Latin, German, Italian, English, and French. The collection includes important art histories and early treatises on iconology and emblems.

A jewel in the crown of the Held collection is James Barbut's Les genres des insectes de Linné (1781), with its exquisite images of the insects of England.

Another fascinating work of natural history is Gesner's Medici Tigurini Historiae Animalium (1558) on animals of the sea and seashore, illustrated with woodcuts of recognizable sea creatures, such as the octopus below, as well as more fanciful illustrations of mermaids, a seven-headed hydra, and other marine wonders.

The Held Collection contains numerous illustrated books on the related sciences of anatomy and medicine. In the image below, from Hieronymi Mercurialis Foroliviensis De arte gymnastica libri sex (1672), the physician gestures approvingly toward the athletic woman striding confidently forward, while skewering with his caduceus the drunken, dissipated figure lying on the ground at his feet.

Another treasure of the Held collection, Opticorum libri sex (1613) unfolds, in six books, the science of optics. Each of the six books is headed by a playful illustration of putti busily exploring and learning the subject (such as the two at right examining the eye socket of a cyclops). The splendid title page below, by Rubens, contains myriad images that symbolize seeing, illumination, and the study of optics.

Dürer's studies illustrate the intersection of art and anatomy. In Alberti Dureri Clarissimi pictoris et geometrae de symmetria partium in rectis formis humanorum corporum (1532-1534), his sketches show the measurements and proportions needed to translate the knowledge of anatomy into accurate representations of the human figure.

Around the beginning of the sixteenth century new symbolic forms were being created that constituted a systematic program of composing, compiling, and recording allegorical imagery. Emblem books illustrate a phenomenon that decorated every aspect of European Renaissance and Baroque domestic and civil life. The emblem consists of three parts: a motto, a picture, and an explanatory text. The Julius Held collection includes many important emblem books, including three below by Jacob Cats (1712), Otto van Veen (1615), and Adriaan Hofer (1635), respectively.

Julius Held’s collection of illustrated fables and myths, in addition to being beautiful works of art, are important texts that represent the mores of their time and allow scholars to study period iconography.

In Aesop's fable Cupid and Death (Ogilby, 1668), Cupid and Death exchange arrows, to disastrous effect: the old people that Death shoots fling aside their crutches and fall in love, and the young people that Cupid shoots die. The two illustrations that follow are from Metamorphoses d'Ovide (1640) and Cento favole bellissime (Verdizotti, 1661).

This image from Heraeus’s Annales ducum seu principum Brabantiae (1623) conveys the power of the dynasty of the duke and duchess of Brabant. Begga was the daughter of Pipijn van Landen, first duke of Brabant, and Ida of Nijvel, who was later declared a saint. She married Ansegisus, son of Arnoldus van Metz, who was also granted sainthood. Their son, Pepijn van Herstal, founded the Carolingian empire and was the grandfather of Charlemagne.

Illustrated travel books enabled readers to experience sites and cultures beyond their orbit in time and space, whether exotic locales such as China, India, or Syria (Gedenkwaerdig bedryf der Nederlandsche Oost-Indische Maetschappye, 1661), ruins of the ancient world in Rome (Vestigi dell'antichità di Roma, 1618-21), picturesque places closer to home such as Holland (Picturesque tour through Holland, Brabant, and part of France, 1790), or the décor of contemporary royal residences (Gallerie du Palais du Luxembourg, 1710). 

Explore the Collection

Julius S. Held’s bookplate is an image of Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. He is depicted as having two faces, often a young face that looks to the future and an old face that looks to the past.