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Collection of Italian opera libretti now accessible through database

By Alicia Dietrich

Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice, Florence, 1600.
Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini's L'Euridice, Florence, 1600.

A major collection of Italian opera libretti is now accessible through an online database. The collection of 3,421 items was donated in 1969 by New York rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus. The collection consists primarily of texts of Italian operas but also includes Italian cantatas, serenatas, oratorios, dialogues and Passions. The collection, which dates from the 17th through the 20th century, documents musical performances by Italian, French, German and Austrian composers performed in numerous Italian cities and elsewhere. Learn more about the collection.

The Curious Colophon: Some Observations of HRC 44 in the Ransom Center

By Micah Erwin

Micah Erwin is a student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin specializing in rare books and special collections librarianship. He earned a masters degree in medieval studies, and his research interests include the preservation and cataloging of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. He shares some discoveries he made about a medieval manuscript in the Ransom Center’s collections. HRC 44 is the unique number assigned to this particular manuscript in the Center’s Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Collection. Early manuscripts in the Ransom Center’s collections are often identified by a unique number called a shelfmark that is assigned during the cataloging process.

There were many manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages whose scribes remained anonymous. For this reason, it is interesting when one stumbles upon a manuscript text that can be attributed to a particular scribe. The best form of evidence for the origin of a manuscript and its creator is a scribal colophon—that is, an inscription that a scribe writes at the completion of a manuscript in which he or she provides information about when, where, and by whom it was created. An early sixteenth-century northern European manuscript in the Harry Ransom Center presents just such a case. Although in this case, the identification of the scribe based upon the colophon happens to be a particularly tricky task.

HRC 44 contains a single, complete text in Latin: Tractatus de Preparatione ad missam Johannis Bonaventure. The well-known author of the original work of this text is St. Bonaventure, a doctor of the Catholic Church (1221-1274). St. Bonaventure is known for his great philosophical and mystical writings. Tractatus de Preparatione ad missam is a short treatise on how properly to prepare oneself for the reception of the Eucharist at Mass—a relevant topic at the time that HRC 44 was produced, as the Reformation was just beginning to take hold in Europe.

A number of factors allow us to conclude that this manuscript was produced no later than the year 1520: a watermark is located in the center of the gutter of every other leaf that can be identified with paper produced in Paris between 1468 and 1515; the text is written in a hybrida or semihybrida script, which was developed and popularized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and the scribal colophon itself contains a date. The unusual part about the manuscript is that it contains not one, but two colophons.

The first colophon is written in a Late German cursiva hand, and there is a strange zoomorphic doodle around it . Curiously the text has been literally scribbled over. No date is legible:

Folio 11v of HRC 44
Folio 11v of HRC 44

Here is a translation of the first colophon:

“Here ends the tract on the preparation for the mass by the seraphic master Johann Bonaventure[…………..]”

The second colophon appears to be much like the first, except for one very important difference: the addition of a name and a date. It is written in a secretary hand—an even later script than the first colophon. The translation is as follows:

“Here ends the Tract on the Preparation for Mass by the seraphic master Johann Bonaventure written by me, brother Johann Laenstein a Carmelite of Boppard, [in the] year 1520.”

The work of Franze-Bernand Lickteig, an extensive study of German Carmelites in medieval universities, records a certain “Joannes Laynstein de Boppardia” as a monk who studied at Cologne between 1520 and 1522. It is possible that he copied the colophon from the exemplar manuscript, realized his error, and perhaps later wrote a new colophon with his name and the date of its completion.

Based on the above evidence, HRC 44 was therefore produced by a Carmelite monk named Johannes Laenstein from Boppard, Germany, in 1520. It was either copied in Paris (where the paper was made), Cologne (where Laenstein studied), or at the priory of Boppard itself. If we are not convinced of the date 1520, then we can use the watermark evidence to suggest that it was produced no earlier than 1468.

I believe that HRC 44 represents a fascinating example of manuscript book production post-1450. Scholars interested in the production of manuscript books after the invention of the printing press will likely benefit from an examination of HRC 44 and should conduct further research to identify other works produced by its scribe. Additionally, the presence of three different types of script (the text and two colophons on folio 11v) on the same page make this an excellent manuscript for students of paleography.

Cataloging the Morris L. Ernst papers

By Jennifer Hecker

In the spring of 2009, the Harry Ransom Center received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to catalog the Morris L. Ernst papers. The collection will be closed to researchers until the project is completed in the fall of 2011. During that time, a team of one full-time project archivist and two part-time assistant archivists will arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. They will also produce a standard finding aid (or guide to the collection), which will be available online.

During the cataloging process, the archivists aim to achieve two goals: access and preservation. The Ernst papers, despite being uncataloged, have been used frequently since their acquisition. Several lists and indexes to the papers exist, but they are incomplete, unreliable, and difficult to navigate. This project will replace those various guides with a standardized, online finding aid, which will be searchable and generally much easier to access and use.

The other goal is to make the physical material last as long as possible, so that the information contained in the papers will remain a part of the cultural record. To this end, project staff will re-house the papers in acid-free boxes and folders. At-risk items—those that have been damaged by water, age, or other environmental factors—will be treated by the Center’s Conservation Department. The Ransom Center has a state-of-the-art lab where materials can be stabilized for long-term preservation.

When the cataloging project is complete, the Ernst papers will be housed with the Center’s other collections in secure temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks, ensuring the papers’ availability to researchers.

“Existentialism for Beginners”

By Alicia Dietrich

Franco-Mauritian author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wrote his first book at the age of eight, published an award-winning first novel at 23, has garnered comparisons to Albert Camus, and won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Decades prior, Le Clézio spent time as a scholar in residence at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more about this lauded author and see his reading list for a 1976 University of Texas seminar on modern French literature in Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article “Existentialism for Beginners.”

Fellows Find: Fannie Hurst and Diets

By Harry Ransom Center

Before the Atkins, South Beach, and Cabbage Soup diets was the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet from the 1920s, which demanded fewer than 600 calories per day. One of its earliest practitioners was American novelist Fannie Hurst, who wrote extensively about her weight loss struggles in the early 20th century, when obesity began turning into a cultural stigma. As a Fellow at the Ransom Center last year, Dr. Julia Ehrhardt, Associate Professor of Honors and Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma, studied Hurst’s papers for her upcoming book about the literary history of dieting in the United States. Ehrhardt’s fellowship was funded by the Henriette F. and Clarence L. Cline Memorial Endowment Fund.

In 2007, I spent a fabulous two months in residence at the Ransom Center, thanks to the generous research fellowship program, which allowed me to travel and live in Austin in close proximity to the Center. My research project concerns the relationships among body weight, dieting, and American literature from the turn of the last century until 1939. The book that I hope will result from my research will discuss the emergence of dieting as a widespread cultural practice in the United States and the ways in which authorial concerns about excess weight manifested themselves in American drama, short stories, novels, and memoirs. I am also particularly interested in how the rise of mass-market fiction—a genre that many renowned American authors and critics believed was wreaking havoc on literary taste—Influenced cultural ideas about weight and writing.

I first became interested in these issues when I read Fannie Hurst’s dieting memoir, No Food With My Meals, published in 1935. Although Hurst is best known today as the author of the bestsellers Imitation of Life, Back Street, and Lummox, she was equally known in literary circles as an avid dieter. I applied for a Ransom Center fellowship knowing that the majority of Hurst’s personal papers and memoirs were housed there, and hoping that I might find materials relevant to my project in the archive.

Click image to see larger version of this document
Click image to see larger version of this document

On the very first day of my fellowship, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of weight-loss pamphlets, printed diets, and calorie charts that filled an entire box in the Hurst collection. As I continued my research in the vast collection, I found letters Hurst composed to friends, relatives, and editors about her struggles to lose weight and to maintain her svelte figure. I also learned from Hurst’s correspondence that several prominent members of the writer’s social circle—including Irvin Cobb, Blanche Knopf, and Helena Rubenstein—regularly commiserated with her about dieting and gave her their sympathy as well as their own weight-loss hints. My research in Hurst’s date books and diaries indicated that she was a diehard devotee of a popular 1920s fad diet known as the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet, and I also found a fascinating folder of letters about Hurst’s concern about the cover image her publisher had selected for the hardcover version of No Food With My Meals.

The most important discovery I made at the Ransom Center were several draft versions of an autobiography Hurst composed in the early 1940s and intended to title Self-Portrait. In the approximately 350 pages of this manuscript, Hurst tells the painful story of growing up fat in the era when thinness emerged as an essential component of normative American identity, and describes the lack of self-confidence she felt as an overweight child and young woman. This manuscript and others attest that even when celebrating her many literary accomplishments, unless a coincident weight loss accompanied them, Hurst would berate herself for not achieving the artistic and personal goals she had set out to realize. Her personal papers thus demonstrate the immense power weight wielded over her self-perception and her identity as an author—a story that is sadly not a unique one during the era I am researching.

Thanks to the Ransom Center fellowship, as well as the staff members, archivists, librarians, and other fellows I met who shared my enthusiasm for the materials I found, my book manuscript now includes extensive discussions of materials I never imagined existed. I hope that my research will help scholars in a variety of disciplines re-think their ideas about weight, authorship, and citizenship during the Modernist period, and to appreciate the fascinating life and work of Fannie Hurst as well. I also look forward to making future visits to the Ransom Center, one of the best literary archives in the world.

Fellow’s Find: Screenwriter Warren Skaaren

By Alison Macor

What do Batman, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop II have in common? All were rewritten by versatile screenwriter and “script doctor” Warren Skaaren. As a fellow at the Ransom Center last summer, Alison Macor, independent scholar and former film critic for The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, immersed herself in the Ransom Center’s Warren Skaaren collection. Macor shares her experiences working in the collection in preparation for her upcoming biography of Skaaren:

This summer I spent five weeks at the Ransom Center with the support of a Mayer Filmscript fellowship. I worked in the Warren Skaaren collection in preparation for my new book, In Batman’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren.

In addition to writing original screenplays, the Austin-based Skaaren worked as a script doctor—rewriting screenplays by other writers—on many 1980s blockbusters, including Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Batman (1989). By the time of his death in December 1990, he was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

I approached the collection chronologically because I thought it was important to trace Skaaren’s development as a writer. In some cases he spent years nurturing projects like The Freddie Steinmark Story, a biopic about The University of Texas safety who lost a leg to cancer, only to see them never get made. But with each new project Skaaren perfected his writing process and style. He drafted finely detailed character sketches and elaborate “intensity” charts that measured a story’s dramatic highs and lows. Ultimately it was his ability to create multifaceted characters that caught Hollywood’s attention.

I spent most of my time reading multiple drafts of each screenplay. This can be an exciting but also painfully slow process, and the beauty of the Ransom Center fellowship is that it gave me the luxury of time in an environment conducive to such work. Because Skaaren was often hired as a script doctor and reworked screenplays initially created by others, the assignment of writing credit became a particularly delicate issue and influenced his future assignments, pay rate, and reputation. Every studio project that Skaaren worked on went to arbitration, and he kept voluminous notes and copies of all correspondence pertaining to each case. The arbitration of Beverly Hills Cop II, for instance, was especially heated because, as a sequel with a built-in audience, the film was expected to do very well, and literally millions of dollars were at stake for the writers. Indeed, the writer who worked on the screenplay prior to Skaaren (and who received a shared credit with Skaaren) sued the Writers Guild over its decision to split the writing credit. The case was still being appealed at the time of Skaaren’s death—three and a half years after the film’s initial release.

Thanks to the Ransom Center’s Steve Wilson and Katie Risseeuw, who oversaw the digitization of some of the collection’s sound recordings, I was able to hear Skaaren on tape interviewing retired British and Nepalese soldiers and even a witch doctor in preparation for his original screenplay Of East and West, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in England and Nepal. Not only did this provide the opportunity to “hear” Skaaren for the first time, but it also gave me a sense of the intense preparation that he cultivated throughout his writing career. These recordings offered a glimpse of the charm and confidence that so many of his friends and colleagues have mentioned when describing his personality and, ultimately, his success.

Watch this video as Macor further discusses her work in the Skaaren collection:

Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

By Richard Oram

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.