Wednesday 18th of November, 2.10pm, sees our last public walking tour of the 2015 Dublin Decoded season. It’s a really good one, featuring an one-hour sociable walk of the historic Liberties full of detail and social history, followed by a rare chance to visit the stunning Worth Library- perhaps the most interesting collection of books in Dublin, housed within the 18th century Steevens’ Hospital.
Any visit to this historic library is a rewarding encounter, on many levels. The volumes themselves are old and beautiful. They are contained moreover in a rather lovely 18th century room, which may be designed by Edward Lovett Pearce, (the pioneer who introduced Palladian architecture to Ireland and architect of several magnificent palazzi on Henrietta St, as well as Castletown House and the old Irish Houses of Parliament.) Seeing old printed illustrations- from across Enlightenment Europe and Renaissance France- of maps, of plants, wild animals and ancient cities- also tends to be pretty exciting.
Tickets for this event must be purchased in advance please. We recommend purchasing as soon as possible as places are limited in number. (We want to inform the Library of numbers in advance, so if you wish to attend, please purchase at least 24 hours prior to our walk, as ticket sale ceases then.) Link to tickets is here. There is more information on the amazing Worth Library, and one of its most spectacular books just below. For those who can’t make this walk but would like to be on our mailing list to get advance notice each month of our walking tours, when we resume them next Spring, the link to subscribe to our mailing list is here.
For more information on the Edward Worth Library, just continue reading below.
Most of the books in the Worth Library date from the 17th to early-18th century, the Age of Enlightenment when learned Europe shook off the vestiges of medieval superstition and religious dogma to embrace scientific enquiry in all forms. Other tomes date from the Renaissance-era. These were were already old and valuable even before this remarkable library was formed.
The man who assembled it was Dr. Edward Worth (1678-1733) He was a typical learned product of his era, having matriculated from Oxford, then completed a further degrees in medicine at Leiden and Utrecht, before returning to Dublin a doctor and building a successful practice here. He was also an MP and knew many of the most celebrated people of the age, including Jonathan Swift.
He was highly esteemed by his peers; evidenced by his election as head of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, as a Fellow of the Royal Society and MP in the Irish House of Commons, representing New Ross.
He was appointed a Trustee of the board of Steevens’ Hospital, guiding the construction of the new charitable institute. In fact, it had barely opened by the time of his death.
Although Steevens’ in no longer a working hospital, (it is now the HQ of the HSE) they still maintain his library. The renowned Georgian architect Edward Lovett Pearce (of Dublin’s old Parliament-fame) was first commissioned to design the room. But Pearce died around this time so it’s unclear today exactly how much influence he exercised on the final result, a space which- save for a carpet and some discreet modern lighting- has barely changed since 1733. We can assume he had some input however, and it entirely possible the design in its totality is his, albeit completed after his death.
Quite apart from the sheer quality of the individual books here, another unusual and highly distinctive feature of the library is just how unaltered the book collection remains as a whole. It is effectively frozen in time, with not a single volume added or taken away. That in itself makes it a fascinating resource for scholars interested in the materials and transmission of ideas during the early modern period. For this reason, and for what the library can teaches us about the thoughts and preoccupations of that age, Dr. Muriel McCarthy, writing in 1984 for The Irish Arts Review, described it as “a fossil library, in the best sense”
A large oil portrait of Dr. Worth (see above) hangs high over a substantial, classically-themed carved oak fireplace (which most probably is to a design by Edw L. Pearce). From within the portrait Worth looks down upon on his treasured collection, his stern face reminding today’s readers of their responsibilities and duty of care, while a plaque hangs on the wall above a second door with a Latin inscription….
Translated, this inscription reads: –
For the curing of the ill and wounded,
Richard Steevens, M.D. presented the revenues,
His surviving sister Grizel this building,
And Edward Worth, head physician, the library you see here,
Scholarly, glittering and polished.
“Scholarly, glittering and polished” – one has to love the laudable lack of any false modesty. This is a superb collection, and Edward knew it. He collected books on a vast scale, and to the highest standards. There are around 4,400 volumes in the Worth library. Many date from his own era when books remember, even new editions, were still very expensive and luxurious items. Others were already old, rare and even before he purchased them when purchased. (There is a stellar example in the passage below) Edward was a man of his own time. He was an accomplished mathematician, familiar and current with the latest thinking, including Newton’s theories on Gravity and Optics, and indeed with the new forms of calculus Newton developed to support those theories. (To find out more see the ‘Newton at the Worth Library’ webs exhibition: http://newton.edwardworthlibrary.ie/Home)
Because of the size and quality of its collection, which is in superb condition, the Worth library is – you will not be surprised to hear- of enormous interest to antiquarians in the field of bookbinding and to scholars of book-history generally.
Let’s take this book below, in its deep rich red leather binding as a particularly special, indeed spectacular example of Edward’s connisuersship, his deep pockets and his determination to have the absolute best. It is early to mid-16th century (High-French-Renaissance) text and binding and- moreover- very probably commissioned and owned by a member of the court of king Francois I. And that makes this particular volume a rather special book.
François (r. 1515-47) was the king who presided over the great humanist court of scholars and intellectuals preeminent in Renaissance France. It was he for example, who brought the aging Leonardo da Vinci to France, to an honoured retirement in Amboise. (The Mona Lisa incidentally came with the great artist, and so hangs in the Louvre today) It was king Francois and his circle of nobles and scholars who also snapped up the wave of different codex coming west, following the defeat and collapse of Byzantium from 1453. Many of these volumes contained as you know, ancient knowledge, previously unknown or lost to Western Europe.
The French humanists translated from the ancient Greek, (or Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic) into Latin, the language of scholarship, while the glittering French circle also paid for or undertook themselves, the accompanying commentaries, illumination and interpretations.
In doing so they brought classical knowledge and literature, drama, mathematics, science, architecture, history, geography et al from ancient Greece and Rome back to life. Almost as an afterthought, the same scholarship made France preeminent in Humanist Europe. Their work shaped our idea of the era too of course. Think of the very word Renaissance– the term they coined. Significantly perhaps, even the Italian term Rinascimento is a translation from the French word –not the other way around.
This dazzling cultural achievement of 16th century France created another by-product, marking the “Golden Age of the Book”. Not merely the book “as text” but as material object: typography, paper, covers, bindings, illuminations and illustrations, maps and so on. As an avid collector and connoisseur, Worth would have been excited to find and purchase this book. And what is the content inside? It is special edition of Herodotus, commissioned by a member of this French court, accompanied by a 16th century commentary and interpretation by two famous humanist scholars.
Herodotus, the ancient writer from the Greek settlement of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum in Turkey) was of course author of the history of the wars between ancient Greece and Persia – the famous Pelponnessian Wars. His achievement, the first attempt at balanced, written history, often sees him credited as the first historian-proper and led the roman Cicero to confer on Herodotus the title of “Father of History” .
As well as the histories of Herodotus, the same Renaissance book contains a biography of Homer, as well as additional material about the near and middle east. As the icing on the cake, it comes complete with illustrations, in delightful little foldout pages to the back, which I was fortunate enough to to see a year or so back. One of these illustrations is an artist’s impression of ancient Babylon, based on Herodotus’ description of that fabled city.
While the other (below) is of that most celebrated edifice in that ancient and fabled city, the Tower of Babel.
So, the Tower of Babel as illustrated in Renaissance France at the court of king François I (patron and friend of Leonardo) sits before me. And I know it is based directly on an ancient surviving description from 2,500 years ago by Herodotus, contemporary and acquaintance of Pericles, and first great historian of the ancient world.
Not a bad book to have here in Dublin, one would venture In fact, let us be blunt. This is something extraordinary. Yet here it is, right here in Dublin. And all thanks to Edward Worth and his beautiful frozen library. In this fossil library we see here today, still scholarly, still ‘glittering and polished”. -A gift of the mind.
Dublin Decoded will be visiting the Edward Worth Library, as the second half of our Liberties and Library walking tour, Wednesday 18th of November The walking tour meets outside the Newcommen Bank on Cork Hill (please see map on the EventBrite page) and walk commences 2.15 sharp but please note, tickets may sell out and should in any event please be purchased at least 24-36b in advance of the walk please, on EventBrite, The link is to tickets is here.
Arran Henderson is an art historian, writer and teacher, experienced in bringing paintings, art architecture and history to life and helping visitors achieve a richer, more nuanced understanding of history, built and visual culture. Reviews and testimonials may be seen search under the banner Dublin Decoded on Trip Advisor).
Private and custom, pre-booked tours can also be organized for schools, colleges, club or book club. Pre-booked tours for groups can be booked any time via an inquiry to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Prices for the whole group start from as little as €140 for 1-6 people on weekdays/ and €200 weekend days. Inquiries to: email@example.com To ensure speedy attention and reply, please put your preferred dates in subject header, thank you.
The writer is indebted to Dr. Elizabethanne Boran for the information in this article. Any remaining errors are of course, entirely my own. Please note that all illustrations from books here are courtesy of the Trustees of the Edward Worth Library, so many if not all are under copyright. Therefore please do not use or reproduce images here without explicit, written permission from the Worth Library.
I’d urge anyone with even a passing interest in old illustrations and book art, or the history of science, to pay a visit to the regular on-line exhibitions curated by the library. This link, for example will bring you straight to the gallery” page of an exhibition on Botany, And here’s another online exhibition, this time on Astronomy and astronomers: Or just come and join us Wednesday 18th of November on the Liberties and Library walking tour, to see this extraordinary place for yourself. The link again to tickets is here.