The Decameron: Florence to Maynooth via Louvain

By Darren Sturdy, Special Collections and Archives

Title-page from the Russell Library copy (1587).

Among the gems in the historic collections in Maynooth University Library are two editions of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).  A 1602 edition, published in Venice, is held in the St. Canice’s Collection, in the John Paul II Library.   

The second one is a fourth edition, published in Florence in 1587 held in the Russell Library at Maynooth. The title pages use the word rassettatura, or ‘tidying’ by the philologist Lionardo Salviati (1540-1589), under the protection of Jacopo Buoncompagni (1548-1612), a son of Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585), Pope from 1572.  

Signature of James Cowan, 1791.

The Russell Library copy is signed by the Franciscan Fr. James Cowan, 1791.  Fr. Cowan was connected to St. Anthony’s College in Louvain.   Louvain, the first of the Irish Franciscan continental colleges, became an active centre for Irish studies. The activities of the college were slightly curtailed under Emperor Joseph II in 1782. During the French Revolution, the seals of the Republic were attached to the door of the college in 1793. Over the next few years the guardian, Fr. James Cowan, endeavoured to keep the building in Irish hands. The college was finally sold in 1822. 

Decorative initial.

The Decameron was considered one of the most influential books in world literature and was inspirational to Chaucer and Shakespeare. It had a major impact on Renaissance literature throughout Europe. Composed between 1348 and 1353, the author sets the scene for the ten young protagonists (7 women and 3 men) who have fled plague stricken Florence in 1348. Each tell their stories, containing tragic and comic views of life, every night over ten nights. Each of the days, ends with a canzone (song) for dancing sung by one of the storytellers, and these canzoni include some of Boccaccio’s finest lyric poetry. The word Decameron comes from the Greek ‘déka’ (ten) and ‘hēméra’ (day). 

Salviati’s work on Boccaccio’s Decameron included an expurgated edition (1582) designed to bring the work back into print. In 1559, The Decameron was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list that the church compiled of forbidden books considered to be of dubious morality. The Church was offended by the portrayal of clergy in the original stories. However, it could not be suppressed as it was a highly regarded piece of literature and was also widely available. The clerical characters in the stories were changed to lay characters and professions.  

Statue of Giovanni Boccaccio, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Boccaccio, an Italian poet and scholar, was the son of a merchant. His father hoped he would go into the family business. Boccaccio was more interested in writing prose and poetry. He was heavily influenced by Dante (1265-1321) and became great friends with the renowned poet Petrarch (1304-1374).  Together they laid the foundations for the humanism of the Renaissance and raised vernacular literature (1304-1374) to the level and status of the classics of antiquity. 

More information about the Decameron can be found on the Decameron Web, a project of the Italian Studies Department’s Virtual Humanities Lab at Brown University:

  Decameron Web | The Project (

‘Observations on Nature’ Heritage Week in the Russell Library

Post by Saoirse Reynolds, Special Collections & Archives

The Secretary of States’ House at Palmerston
 Published by J. Fisher 1792


me and os
Ordnance Survey Map of Kildare

On August 21, 23 & 24 the Russell Library took part in Heritage Week with an exhibition exploring nature through the historical print collections of the Russell Library. Books on gardening, botany, agriculture, husbandry and medicinal plants were on display some of which referred to the local area.

A 6inch Ordnance Survey map of Kildare was on display as well as items from our Special Collections in the John Paul II Library.

One of the most visually interesting and beautiful books which was on display was William Hanbury’s, A complete body of planting and gardening published in London in 1770-71. Hanbury was a Church of England clergyman and horticulturist, was born at Bedworth, Warwickshire in 1725.  He matriculated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1745 and graduated in 1748. The degree of MA was subsequently conferred on him by St Andrews University on 11 November 1769 in recognition of his achievements in planting.

cortusa hanbury
Image of Spotted Cistus, Purple Cortusa and Double Blossomed Cherry
 In ‘A complete body of planting and gardening’ by William Hanbury


A Rare Book from the Russell Library which was on display was Scenery of Ireland: illustrated in a series of prints, of select views, castles, and abbeys, in this kingdom by Jonathan Fisher. The book was printed in Dublin in 1792 and has beautiful illustrations of castles and abbeys of Ireland. Fisher was an Irish painter and was born in Dublin in 1740. He is first recorded in 1763 when he was awarded a premium by the Dublin Society for a landscape. He is best known for his fine engravings and aquatints of Irish scenery. He travelled all over Ireland and published views of Killarney in 1770 and 1789. He lived at Great Ship Street, Dublin, from about 1778 until 1805, when he moved to Bishop Street, Dublin, where he died in 1809.

scenery fisher
‘Scenery of Ireland’ by Jonathan Fisher


Another beautiful book we had on display from our Special Collections was Ireland’s wild orchids /orchid portraits by Susan Sex with accompanying text by Brendan Sayers. It was printed by Nicholson & Bass in Belfast in 2004 and is a limited edition of 700 signed and numbered copies.

Two volumes of Charles Henry Dessalines d’Orbigny’s Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle were on display also. D’Orbigny was a French botanist and geologist

Images of colourful butterflies and a rose
in d’Orbigny’s ‘Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle’

specializing in the Tertiary of France. He was the younger brother of French naturalist and South American explorer, Alcide d’Orbigny. At the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, d’Orbigny identified many of the flowering plant species returned to France from his brother’s natural history collecting journeys through South America.

For more information on any of these items please contact us:

Special Collections John Paul II Library

Phone: 01-4747423, e-mail:

Russell Library

Phone: 01-7083890, e-mail:

A Christmas Book – Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

By Yvette Campbell, Special Collections & Archives

SP 22767 Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie; Illustrated by Arthur Rackham –  SP 2767.

Here in Special Collections we have a beautiful copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (UK Hodder and Stoughton 1907) bound in russet cloth with gilt illustration and lettering to the front cover and spine. This wonderful book contains 50 hand mounted Rackham colour plates consisting of one frontispiece illustration and 49 others grouped together at the rear of the book, all with tissue guards. Besides the date and minor differences in title-page layout, this edition is similar to the 1906 first edition.

In 1906 Barrie sanctioned the publication of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, in which Peter is a seven-day-old infant. The 1906 limited first edition is illustrated with about 50 colour plates by illustrator Arthur Rackham Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was originally part of an earlier work, The Little White Bird by J.M.Barrie. The Peter Pan chapters were extracted and published as a separate work in 1906. The colour plates to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by Arthur Rackham made the book immediately popular, and drew attention to Rackham, who was not well-known before then.

photo 7
“They all tickled him on the shoulder.”

In 1905 J. M. Barrie visited the Rip Van Winkle exhibition and was so taken with Rackham’s artwork that a meeting was arranged to discuss collaboration on a Peter Pan book. The “boy who never grew up” had first appeared as one of many stories in The Little White Bird (1902), and became a successful theatrical production the following year. But it was the partnership between Rackham and Barrie that made Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the “outstanding Christmas gift-book of 1906″ and one of the most beloved of all 20th-century children’s books. It was also one of Rackham’s biggest financial successes, reprinted numerous times and leading to the production of the Peter Pan Portfolio, a selection of twelve of the artist’s favourite illustrations reproduced in their original sizes.Barrie was so pleased by this gift, and by Rackhams’ work, that he replied in a letter,

My dear Rackham, It was immensely good of you to put that delicious little picture in my copy of ‘Peter’. I have been a wreck with colds and coughs for six weeks which is why I have not written you sooner, especially about the exhibition. It entranced. I think I like best of all the Serpentine with the fairies, and the Peter in his night-gown sitting in the tree… I am always your debtor, and I wish the happiest Christmas, and please, I hope you will shed glory on more of my things.”

photo 12
“Put his strange case before old Solomon Caw.”

It tells the story of how Peter left his family as an infant, became a friend of fairies, and (re)learned to fly. The text of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was originally published in 1902 as chapters 13-18 of Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird, a semi-autobiographical fantasy about an unnamed gentleman and David, a little boy he befriends; the Peter Pan story is something he tells to the boy (or the boy to him) in that story.  The Little White Bird was published as a novel for adult readers; Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was published with 50 colour illustrations by Arthur Rackham, ostensibly as a children’s book, but in a fancy hardcover edition that was more likely to end up in the library than the nursery.

The story is set in Kensington Gardens, a famous park in London, mostly after “Lock-Out Time”, when the park gates are closed to the public, and the fairies and other magical inhabitants of the park can move about more freely than during the daylight, when they must hide from ordinary people. Fairy inhabitants of the gardens are first described in Thomas Tickell’s 1722 poem Kensington Gardens.

The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up - Kensington Gardens London. Picture courtesy of Yvette Campbell
The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up – Kensington Gardens London. Image courtesy of Yvette Campbell

The turning point for Rackham came in 1900, when he met his future wife, Edith Starkie, who was living in the house next door to his Hampstead studio. Starkie was also an artist and was developing a considerable reputation as a portrait painter. “His alliance with this gay artistic Irishwoman brought out the best in Rackham; for she was always his most stimulating, severest critic, and he had the greatest respect for her opinion” (Hudson, p. 56).

Most critics agree that it was during Rackham’s courtship and early marriage that he matured fully as an artist. Previously he had focused on line drawings, but from his wife he learned to use colour, particularly watercolour, much more effectively. This talent was developed at a propitious time, as technological advances dramatically improved the quality of book illustrations, allowing his art to achieve its fullest expression.

photo 14
“He passed under the bridge and came within full sight of the delectable Gardens.”

Unlike previous illustrators, who relied on an engraver to cut clean lines on a wood or metal plate used for printing, Rackham could have his pictures photographed and mechanically reproduced. This change removed the middleman between Rackham and his finished product. In particular, it allowed Rackham to display his particular gift for line, which an engraver, lacking Rackham’s talent, likely could not render onto a printing plate.  (Central Michigan University Library)

photo 13
“Peter Pan is the fairies’ orchestra.”

This type of printing required glazed paper that had to be pasted in (“tipped-in”) after the text was printed. Although this made publications more expensive, “the result enhanced the appearance of books and helped create the early-twentieth-century market for gift-books” (Central Michigan University Library).

A contemporary review of this book published in “The World” reads “Mr. Barrie has done what no one else has done since the inventor of “Alice”, he has invented a new legend, a modern folk story which comprehends all the innermost secrets of the modern child, be he four or forty. Mr. Rackham, for his part, has been bewitched in his cradle: he does not dream of fairies or hobgoblins, he knows them.”

If you would like to see more of Rackham’s artwork in our collections, check out our 1920 copy of Irish Fairytales by James Stephens.

photo 4
“The Serpentine is a lovely lake, and there is a drowned forest at the bottom of it. If you peer over the edge you can see the trees all growing upside down, and they say that at night there are also drowned stars in it.”