The Art of Bookbinding

The MAKK’s high quality collection of historical book covers points to outstanding artistic and artisanal skills

that, in a time of functional covers and paperbacks, are no longer at the centre of public attention. Yet, this sophisticated art form is still of great importance, and not only in bibliophile circles. For centuries, books have contained precious sacred or profane texts, either in handwritten or, after Johannes Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of movable type (approx. 1450), in printed form. Book covers had the purpose of communicating, in an appropriately visual way, the immense importance of holy scriptures and prayers and of the intellectual effort manifested in the text. The oldest example in the museum’s collection dates from the Romantic period and shows, in finely carved ivory, Christ among his apostles.

In the following centuries, cut, engraved and partly gold-plated or painted leather and, later, vellum became the predominant cover materials. Figurative and ornamental decoration followed the general development of different styles, with the museum housing many outstanding examples.

Apart from a few exceptions, the masters of bookbinding only started to sign their work in the 20th century. The museum owns a few very fine examples by artists ranging from Joseph Zaehnsdorf to Otto Dorfner. Book covers are still important today as bibliophile collector’s items, in the area of artists’ books and in the field of design.