American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

To the Peaks of Elzivir

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1932

To the Peaks of Elzivir

J. Monroe Thorington

“I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading ; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.”

—Charles Lamb.

LIKE the Alpines of Tarascon my bookshelves are neither very difficult nor very high, but imagination has supplied them with fabulous names, such as “Le Pic-des-Elziviers” or “Le Mont-Froschouer à Zürich.” The books which fill them are like the pebbles and stones that one brings back from mountain tops; perhaps they are the mountains themselves, or even men ; for books once were men.

In any event, they afford a pleasant form of winter mountaineering (indeed, to the chagrin of folk more gregariously sociable, it can be indulged in during other seasons of the year), requiring none of the “double-muscles” of Tartarin, little skill, and no innate qualification save that of enthusiasm. The latter, on occasion, must be politely but firmly repressed, for the technique of provenance, privately printed edition and uncut copy, is at first terrifying to the innocent bystander. It is only after much experience that one knows what a pleasant game it is for cabbage- rabbits—who stay at home and have an extraordinary horror of fatigue and draughts.

Against all modern rules of cataloguing, chronological arrangement of books on a shelf has its advantages. It brings good fellows together again who lived and wrote in the knowledge of their own days ; and, in passing along the volumes, one sees more clearly the evolution resulting through the passage of time. The size of books also enters into arrangement; duodecimos do nicely on upper shelves and are less likely to produce catastrophic avalanches, while stout folios are best placed near the ground, where they may tumble against each other in friendly groups like aldermen after an all-night spree.

That is why I have put Sebastian Münster, Johann Stumpf and Athanasius Kircher together on the lowest shelf; I like to look at them often and to have them within reach. Münster, who wrote the Basle Ptolemy, produced his Cosmographia Universalis in 1543. My copy, from an ancient monastery, has clasps of brass, and borders of saints stamped on the pigskin-covered boards. It was printed by Heinrich Petrus, who used the border designs of Holbein for the title-page and the maps. There is a world map, with ships and sea monsters and cherubic blowers-of- winds, and a map of the New World, with Yucatan as an island, and a cannibal hut in Brazil with an appetizing leg, hung like a Christmas stocking on a leafy branch. The first woodcut of the text shows the Creator, resting on the Seventh Day on a cloud between the sun and the moon, looking down at the new earth, with birds and bears and stags and fishes, and seeing that it was good.

What a fairy-tale life those men lived. The map of Switzerland is oriented to the west, and is described as modern! There is a bear softly footing it through the Frutingen valley, and chamois are bounding on the peaks between Brigue and the Furka. On the Septimer pass a man with bow and arrow is shooting a fearful black beast. The map of the Valais is oriented toward the east, and a fat chamois guards the mountain-tops between the St. Théodule and Simplon passes. On the pages that follow are woodcuts of the alpine animals: a giant ibex; slender, high- stepping chamois; and a sedate marmot. Further on, before the mirror-drawing of Lucerne, William Tell points his crossbow nonchalantly at a chubby boy who balances an apple on his head— a feat which always impresses me as being the most adroit part of the performance. Did you ever try to balance an apple on your head ?

Stumpf was the foremost authority on the history of Switzerland until the beginning of the eighteenth century, his Chronick appearing in Zürich, in 1548. Early in the book one finds a quaint cordiform map of the world, and many battle scenes with cavalry charges and forests of spears. The map of Switzerland is oriented toward the south and a fleet of ships sails majestically up the lake of Geneva. The main range of the Alps crosses the top of the map, and names of the passes are inscribed on flourished scrolls. Animals of the Alps are depicted in an extensive series, among them two dragons, the text informing us that even snow- covered mountains have sun-warmed caves on the south side, where such monsters may bask in all the heat of India.

Most exciting of all is the picture of an avalanche, the snowball with embedded trees knocking down horses and riders. So delicately may the snow be balanced, says the author, that it may be set in motion by an echo, or the passage of a bird. This woodcut appears to have been copied from Hans Burgkmair’s drawing for Theuerdank, which appeared in Augsburg in 1517, its tradition being carried over into the illustration in David Herr- liberger’s Topographie der Eydgnossenschaft (1754-73), and made more graphic by a whirling ball of snow, houses and cattle falling upon a peaceful village in the valley.

The Mundus Subterraneus of the Jesuit, Kircher, is interesting not only because it contains a chapter on the Alps and is the first physical geography, but also on account of huge plates, showing eruptions of Vesuvius and Etna; and the Mountains of the Moon, oriented to the south and with fearsome crocodiles swimming in the sources of the Nile. Francis Edwards once sold a copy of the first edition (Amsterdam, 1665) completely colored by hand and heightened with gold.

My copy of Matthew Merian’s Topgraphia Helvetiae belonged to Daniel Burckhardt, of Basle, who, on November 1, 1769, painted a fine crest on the flyleaf. The book had then been in existence for 127 years and contains the earliest picture of a glacier, the lower Grindelwald. Glaciers were things to be feared in those days, but this scene is comparatively accurate except for the accompanying legend, which presents the novel theory that the ice grows out of the ground ! One may spend pleasant hours with such a book, filled as it is with fascinating pictures of towns and costumes.

While I have not a complete copy of Theuerdank, I am the proud possessor of ten leaves from the first edition of 1517. They are framed in double glass and hang beside Lucas van Leyden’s forceful portrait of Emperor Maximilian. Thus one may see at a glance the black-letter of the Augsburg press, with all its splendid flourishes, as well as the woodcuts with their thrilling depiction of climbing and hunting adventure.

Conrad Gesner’s De montium admiratione still lies beyond the horizon, but pride of my lower shelf are the three folios of his Historiae Animalium, which the Froschouer press of Zürich brought out in 1551-58, nearly twenty years before they published Josias Simler’s classic Vallesiae Dcscriptio. All of the pictures, including the initial letters, are hand-colored. A whole chapter is devoted to the chamois and the legends about this animal. The last plate in the first volume shows the Creation, in the Garden of Eden : the sun and the moon are in the same sky ; God brings forth a patient Eve from the side of a pained Adam, while the birds and beasts, including the unicorn, are grouped about in a wondering circle. Volume two contains a portrait of Gesner himself, who died of the plague in his fiftieth year. The title- pages show a naked cherub riding a great green frog under a spreading tree, the mark of this famous press of the sixteenth century.

It was the Elzivirs who began the trouble on my top shelf and have done untold damage to my exchequer. The Leyden press which first originated the duodecimo habit could not have foreseen what collectors would be let in for. The Helvetiorum Respublica stands beside Simler’s Vallesiae et Alpium Descriptio, together with Fortunatus Sprecher’s Rhetia and Lambert vander Burch’s Sabaudiae Respublica et Historia. All of these are in vermilion morocco with the bookplates of the Syston Park collection,1 and I like them so well that I have placed behind them the same volumes in original bindings. But these are by no means the earliest books.

Among the small volumes is an early vellum-bound copy of Descriptio de Situ Helvetiae, by Heinrich Loriti of Glarus, a man who was one of the first to apply scientific principles to the construction of globes. In the Basle edition of 1554 (it was first printed in 1515), this is a Latin poem in hexameters, illustrated with the quaintest pictures of Swiss cities, with mountain backgrounds, that one can imagine. Now Loriti was the tutor of a young man named Aegidius Tschudi, also of Glarus, who wrote a description of his travels in Switzerland about 1528. Some years later he loaned the manuscript to Loriti who, in turn, showed it to Sebastian Münster. Münster promptly borrowed it, rushed back to Basle and printed a German and a Latin edition without so much as asking permission of the author. But for Münster, however, this earliest Swiss topographical work, De prisca et vera- Alpina Rhaetia, might never have been published. My copy of the

Latin edition (Basiliae, apud Mich. Isingrinium MDXXXVIII) is a beautiful piece of printing, with little initial letters, depicting gnomes and animals, indenting the paragraphs.

Next to these is Johann Leopold Cysat’s Beschreibung des Luzernersees, printed in Lucerne in 1661 and containing plates of dragons which surely added to the inspiration of Dr. Scheuchzer. Then comes Marc Lescarbot’s Tableau de la Suisse, which Adrien Perier printed in Paris, at the Golden Compass, in 1618, in which the whole history of Switzerland and the Alps—with an appreciation of glaciers—is summed up in a lengthy poem. My copy was sold as a duplicate by the British Museum in 1787, the year in which de Saussure ascended Mont Blanc.

This brings us to Simler, whose Vallesiae Descriptio of 1574 has been described elsewhere.2 I have placed the armorial binding of De Thou beside another copy from the Froschouer press in its original vellum. Then there are two copies of his Republique de Suisse, newly translated into French, one edition printed by Jacques du Puys in Paris, 1578, containing the same views of Swiss cities as Loriti’s book.

My copy of Dr. J. J. Wagner’s Mercurius Helveticus is in the third (duodecimo) edition of 1701. When it first appeared in 1684 it was the first real Swiss guidebook, and contains charming engravings after Merian. An early book describing the routes across the Splügen, Simplon and Mont Cenis passes is The Voyage of Italy, printed both in London and Paris in 1670, written by Richard Lassels, “Gent, who Travelled through Italy Five times as Tutor to several of the English Nobility and Gentry.” “It was toward the very beginning of October,” he tells us, “when we passed that way (the Simplon), and therefore found that Hill in a good humour; otherwise it is froward enough. Haueing in one Houres time crawled up the steep of the Hill, we had two houres more rideing to the Village and Inn of Sampion: where arriueing, we found little meat for our great stomacks, and cold comfort for all the hot stincking Stoue” Of another route (Aiguebelette) he writes, “This is a pretty breathing hill, and may be called the Alps foule ouer, or the Alpes in a running hand and not in that fair Text hand which I found the Mont Cenis to be in. It hath all the lineaments and shapes of the great Alpes, that is, much winding and turning; deep precipices, Marons, or men with little open chairs, to carry you up and down the hill for a crowne; and much stumbling worke. In fine this hill resembles Mont Cenis, as a proper man may do a Gyant.”

Finally, my 1610 edition of Les Voyages du Seigneur Villa- mont, published by Jacques Besogne, rue aux juifs, près le Palais, Rouen, contains the author’s account of his ascent of the Roche Melon, near Susa, which the knight, Rotario, climbed in 1358. Villamont was there in the summer of 1588, guided by two marons who carried provisions for two days and told him that the mountain was almost four leagues in height. He used climbing irons on his hands as well as on his feet, but rejoiced at the view of Piedmont and Lombardy, hurrying down to Novalese and the city of Susa the sooner to enjoy their delights.

Villamont was followed in 1608 by the first English traveler to visit the Roche Melon: Thomas Coryate, whose Crudities Hastily Gobled Up was for many years the only handbook for continental travel. It was so read to pieces that only a few perfect copies of the 1611 edition are known. The plates of the coy author with the Venetian courtesan, and the Strasburg clock are often missing; and the collector may well be content with the reprint of 1776, containing the account of this Odcombian Leg- stretcher’s death in India.

The portrait of Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, framed with an autograph letter, has been smiling down from my wall this many a long day. His bookplate is in the first edition of his Letters containing an Account of What seemed most Remarkable in Switzerland, but it was I who put it there. The first edition was published in Rotterdam, in 1686, with a second issue the same year at Amsterdam. The second edition and a French translation were brought out in 1687, none of them in England as, at the time, he was a partisan of the Prince of Orange. The Bishop is remembered by mountaineers on account of an uncomplimentary reference (not original with him) to Mont Blanc: “One hill not far from Geneva, called Maudit or Cursed, of which one third is always covered with Snow, is 2 miles of perpendicular height, according to the observations of the incom- parable Mathematician and Philosopher Nicolas Fatio Duiler, who at 22 years of age is already one of the greatest men of his age, and seems to be born to carry learning some sises beyond what it has yet attained.” Burnet’s son, William (by his second wife), was Governor of Massachusetts, 1728-29, and in 1701 had visited the Grindelwald glaciers. His descriptive letter to Sir Hans Sloane appeared in the hundredth number of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, with the earliest published view after Merian’s.

The eighteenth century ushered in even more important books. In 1714 the famous London press of Jacob Tonson published anonymously An Account of Switzerland, now known to have been written by Abraham Stanyan, who had been Lord of the Admiralty and was then envoy to the Swiss cantons. Samuel Johnson praised the work, which is one of the best ever written by an Englishman on Swiss political matters. Two French translations appeared in the same year, but the author’s name never occurs on the title-page. My copy has the fine armorial bookplate of Dacre.

In 1708, at the Sign of the Falcate Moon in St. Paul’s Churchyard, London, Henry Clements brought out the Itinera Alpina of John Jacob Scheuchzer, who dedicated it to Isaac Newton. Peter vander Aa, of Leyden, in 1723 published the enlarged work in two volumes, covering the doctor’s journeys during the years 1702-11. My copy once belonged to Samuel Wegg, Esqr., who later became Governer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and contains the amusing plates of dragons and the glaciers of Grin- delwald. Scheuchzer, one suspects, did not want to believe in dragons, but the evidence of their existence was too much for him. There were the pictures in the books of Cysat and Wagner; the dragon “stone” in the Lucerne museum, known as a universal panacea for everything from stitch-in-the-side to plague ; and, finally, attestations from all over Switzerland by members of the clergy and other trustworthy souls who had actually seen the monsters. Many of the plates in Scheuchzer’s work were contributed by prominent fellows of the Royal Society, and their names are engraved upon them, but Dr. Scheuchzer was skeptic enough to play safe and consequently all of the dragon-plates are anonymous.

Beside Scheuchzer’s books I place Georg Altmann's Beschreibung der Helvetischen Eisbergen, with the little copper-plate of the Lauterbrunnen valley on its title-page; and Gottlieb Siegmund Gruner’s Histoire Naturelle des Glacieres de Suisse, for which Aberli sketched the frontispiece. This edition is Keralio’s translation (the German edition still eludes me), sold by Pancoucke, in the rue Poitevins, à l’hotel de Thou, Paris, in 1770.

The coming of Pococke and Windham to Chamonix in 1741 drew the attention of the scientific world to the wonders of that valley. Although, according to C. E. Mathews, Peter Martel’s account is very rare, I have had no less than four copies. Two of these I have kept: one because its cover is of saffron damask embroidered with many crimson fleur-de-lys; the other because it was a gift to Elizabeth Astley from Sir Edward Astley, who bound it with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Six Town Eclogues (with the correct names of the scandalous characters added in manuscript), and other pamphlets. One never tires of the Account of the Glacieres or Ice Alps in Savoy, with Mr. Price’s lurid sketch of the Dru and Martel's charming drawing of boquetin, chamois and marmot.

The great days of the Mont Blanc adventure were approaching, with Marc-Théodore Bourrit as unofficial historian. In 1773 his Description des Glacieres was published at Geneva, my copy containing a neat table of elevations in the author’s own hand, dated May 25, 1774. C. and F. Davy translated it into English under the title of Relation of a Journey to the Glaciers in the Dutchy of Savoy. In my large-paper copy of the 1775 edition (Norwich), Samuel Johnson’s name is listed among the subscribers.

The first volume of Saussure’s famous Voyages dans les Alpes appeared at Neuchatel in 1779. When young Frederick Augustus Eschen fell into a crevasse and was killed on the Buet in the summer of 1800, the third volume of the work was found in his pocket. One may well wonder whether this was the quarto edition, and collectors have pointed out that this may be but poetic justice, the penalty of carrying a heavy book on a mountain.

Luck plays a certain part in book-hunting. Classical philology has never enticed me into long excursions, although I once purchased a copy of Strabo’s Geography (the Paris folio of 1620, with armorial title-page, and Greek and Latin text in parallel columns), in order to read book iv (with the aid of an excellent translation) which deals with the Alps. It was pleasant to find the backstrip strengthened by a large slice of an Elizabethan manuscript on parchment.

Then there was the skeptic who doubted my assertion that certain books were hard to find, and who, with a triumphant look in his eyes, at the end of twenty-four hours handed me the 1821 Baltimore imprint of Howard’s Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc, quite refusing to tell me where he had obtained it, except to assure me that it had not been stolen !

There was my own good fortune in securing Mrs. Beaufoy’s diary of her Oberland tour in 1787, after it had been on a dealer’s shelf, completely catalogued, for three months. I once found Bourrit’s rare pamphlet Lettre a Miss Craven (1787), and also a ticket of admission to Albert Smith’s “Mont Blanc,” used as markers in other volumes. Sometimes good things get away, as did the original watercolors and the certificates of the Hawes- Fellows ascent of Mont Blanc, which were recently sold in London. I trust that the present owner will not discover how closely I have since watched for his obituary !

Occasionally long journeys lead to books, as did my search of several years to the discovery of the Howard manuscripts in Virginia. Sometimes books take one on extensive wanderings, as did my copy of Josef Walcher’s Nachrichte von den Eisbergen in Tyrol, with its eighteenth century engravings of the lakes of Rofen and Gurgl, which lured me to the glaciers of the Oetzthal.

If you have followed me thus far, you will realize that I have only been attempting to arouse what every keen collector hopes to see in the eyes of the visitor, a light of murder and robbery. But if, in addition, there be a gleam of sympathy, you will join with me in the inviting shout of old John Fletcher— Lights here, for my study!

1 Begun about 1785 by Sir John Thorold (1734-1815), a collector of Elzivirs, and continued by his son, Sir John Hayford Thorold (1773-1831). The collection was sold in 1884, most of it being acquired by Quaritch.

2 Sierra, xvii, 33; A.J., xl, 141.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.