The Elzevier cabinet
THE ELZEVIER CABINET
Located in the book room on the middle floor of the Museum Meermanno, beside the window, are two small low bookcases. The right-hand case contains – on five shelves, three rows deep – well over four hundred Elzevier editions.
The Elzeviers were a celebrated family of printers and publishers. Between 1580 and 1712 they were active in Leiden, The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht. The Elzevirs acquired an international reputation from 1625 onwards, when Abraham and Bonaventura Elzevier started to publish series of classical texts and descriptions of countries in well-made little books; thankfully the small format made them relatively cheap to buy.
At the end of the 18th century, but especially in the nineteenth century, it was all the rage to collect these small Elzevier editions. Because the little volumes were hand-printed and often only bound afterwards by order of the buyer, different copies display great variation in the quality of the printing, the kind of binding and the width of their margins. The more white there was around the type area, the greater the value of the little book.
Finding the rarest and best copies became a veritable hunt, a pursuit that was nicely parodied in 1832 by the Paris librarian and author Charles Nodier, himself a formidable hunter. The chief character of Bibliomaniac goes into a coma when he learns that it is not his Elzevier copy but someone else’s that has the largest margins.
As a collector, Baron van Westreenen was in this respect a child of his time. He added a separate list of Elzevier editions to the handwritten catalogue of the finest works in his collection. He counted 417, which are now standing side by side in cabinet number 8.