Ex libris as an art form has been around for at least six centuries. It usually takes the shape of an ornate paper bookplate pasted on the inside of the cover and identifying the owner of the book in an individualized and unique way. They range from elaborate pen and ink drawings to simpler, more professional designs, such as the Miami University Libraries bookplate. Many owners of ex libris are distinguished people and institutions, whose collections are significant enough to convey their ownership. Royalty, famous writers, political leaders, and important collectors are among them. However, many of the bookplate designers are distinguished artists themselves. Albrecht Dürer, Marc Chagall, M.C. Escher, Rockwell Kent, among others used this art form. Because bookplates are pasted onto inside cover of the book, some see them as book vandalism. Others, however, think of them as hidden pieces of art or use them to trace the provenance of the book. In the case of some books in Special Collections, such pieces define their value.
Two of my favorite, and probably the most exciting ones, are found on the three-volume edition of “Istoriia Apsheronskago polka, 1700-1892” (“History of Apsheronskii regiment, 1700-1892”), a large and beautifully gilded set.The ex libris on the inside of the front cover belongs to Alexei, the Tsesarevich and heir apparent to the throne of the Russian Empire. Suffering from hemophilia and being the youngest child and only son of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra, he was referred to as “baby” by the rest of the family. This treatment was intensified by his affectionate and playful nature. At the age thirteen in 1918, he was murdered with the rest of the Romanov family by order of the Bolshevik government. His remains were not discovered until 2007. In the context of his fate, his ex libris depicting a winged woman holding a shield and radiating light takes on a feeling of sadness and hope.
On the end paper following the inside front cover is a drastically different and minimalistic seal. Interlaced Cyrillic “N” and “A” under an imperial crown is the symbol of Nicholas II. Unlike Alexei’s ex libris, Nicholas’ is very simple and plain. The stamp was sometimes used in gold on book spines and sometimes as a round bookplate. Most often it is a seal in blue raised ink, such as the one in our books. In addition to the luxurious edition of “Istoriia Ashperonskago polka” the bookplates of the last tsar of Russia and one belonging to his son make it an undeniable treasure.
Submitted by Masha Stepanova
Catalog & Slavic Librarian