The Philosophy of the Book Collection

The genesis of the formation regarding the collection dates 1970s. At that time there was no specific reasoning behind it, and the books acquired during that period were of a varied content of subjects: historical, literary and encyclopaedic. However, from the middle of that decade, through associating with the people of the world of books – such as Maria Koutarelli, who inherited and accrued the collection of books and manuscripts of Spyros Loverdos – my bibliophilic interests changed radically. In those years also, the Hellenike Etairia Bibliophilon (Hellenic Bibliophile Society – 1975 Statute) was established, founding members of which were eminent personalities of the intellect and the arts, bibliophiles and collectors, under the Honorary Presidency of Constantinos Tsatsos. Among the members of the Society, I should like to mention Loukia Droulia, Ekaterini Koumarianou, Hadjikyriakos Gkikas, Rena Andreadi, Manos Haritatos and, of course, Yiannis Phikioris with whom I pursued another parallel course of bibliophily, at the time when he undertook the presidency of the Hellenic Bibliophile Society. It was a relationship of esteem and friendship, lasting to this day.

The exhibitions of books of the Society (1975) with travellers’ accounts: ‘Travellers in Greece from the fifteenth century to 1821’, or with printed material regarding the chronicle of Greek typography: ‘Outset of Greek typography’ (1976) radically altered my interests as collector and from then on I consciously turned to the study and research of the pioneers of Greek printing and the relations they cultivated with the world of books in Venice and elsewhere.

My acquaintance with Georgios Ladas, who was profoundly conscious of the role played by printed books during the Ottoman domination and who, literally passionately, collected and documented the bibliographic identity of an enormous number of books that came into his hands, empowered my intention to explore the chronicle of Greek typography in greater depth. An initial approach was to record printers’ marks and emblems characterizing printed Greek books, resulting in the planning of the Charta of Greek Printing. At the same time the collection began to take shape, with the purchase of books entirely compatible with the terms regulating the Hellenic Bibliography as recorded by É. Legrand, printed material, that is to say, testifying to the pains and labours of the printing workshops.

My occupation with the history of books endowed my knowledge of the subject, resulting in doors of libraries opening to me, either constituted of documentation for other epochs or belonging to proprietors whose interests coincided with my quest for books. I refer also to the splendid library of Leo Melas, with writings from Ancient and Byzantine literature, exceptional examples of the art of printing of the Greeks. The long-drawn-out dialogue with Lydia Mela in situ was a first-class opportunity to peruse, inch by inch, the shelves of her precious Renaissance bookcase and to admire the highly artistic bindings of the collection’s books. A substantial portion of those books was gradually added to my library, as was the catalogue of the collection handwritten by its possessor.

From the early 1980s, my library had acquired its specific character and became the fundamental tool for my systematic search for every printed book able to cast light on the printing and publishing course taken by Greeks from the years of the Italian Renaissance onward, without any geographic differentiation.

However, the greatest ‘school’ in my quest for books were the two years of my ‘tenure’ in the library of A.D. Hadjidemos, that is from the time his heir Katy Hadjidemos decided in 1979 to proceed to place an invaluable wealth of books on the market, consisting of more than 10,000 tomes and booklets. Chryssa Maltezou witnessed this exceptional and rare experience, as together on an almost daily basis we classified the entire material in thematic entities. This decisively enriched my knowledge, opening a whole world before me, mirroring and reflecting the historical memory and intellectual course of the Greeks from the end of the Byzantine period until the late twentieth century. By consensus of us all who were involved in the venture, we decided to ‘open’ the library, offering parts of it, in thematic order, to foundations and libraries collecting such material: the Gennadius Library and the Library of Parliament, the Library of Rethymnon University, the Merlier Foundation, the Dori Papastratou collection. After that book exploration my personal library was complemented, in regard to the goal of the collection, acquiring a new dimension of comprehensiveness. More than seven hundred volumes were added to its nucleus. Today it still represents the core and backbone of the collection, with especially rare and unique surviving copies of books.

Companions of the road in this peregrination of mine through books over the years were people with whom I became tied with bonds, of friendship, not to say fraternal, persons who nurtured a similar passion for the discovery of every facet of the chronicle of production and diffusion of Greek books, broadening the horizons of my lore. Of them, I mention Philippos Iliou and Dionysios Flambouras. The Hellenic Bibliography of the 19th century bequeathed to us by Philippos Iliou will remain unsurpassed through time, a grand example of his love of books and his in-depth cross-checking of every source that would advance our knowledge.

Flambouras’s bibliographic interests tended toward the editions of Greek books from the presses of Northern France and Germany mainly, and he found seductive every Western scholar and printer who cultivated Greek letters, while at the same time seeking through them the roots of worship in Greek studies. Books belonging to kings of France and editions of the Renaissance period – and a unique collection of posters from the time of the Occupation as well as more and varied material – marked his voyages of discovery of books. After his death, Maria Flamboura opened up Dionysi’s treasure hoard and encouraged me to complement my library with any books I would consider indispensable. She furthermore let me have his comprehensive archive, a model of bibliographical classification, wherein Flambouras had recorded every fact and everybody who in any capacity dealt with the operation of printing presses of Greek books.

Books, valuable from every aspect, came into my possession from someone who radically altered the sector of research into the world of intellect and literature: K. Th. Dimaras. Among these, and the examples of the early art of printing of Greek books as well as the course of the Greek people toward the Revolution, were the Eirmologion of Venice of 1568 and the Hellenike Nomarchia of 1806.

Liturgical books of the sixteenth century and rare editions from presses with a short-lived activity such as that of Moschopolis for instance, are from the Martakos library. There also arrived editions especially hard to come by of Moscow and St. Petersburg, from the collection belonging to S.N. Dragoumis and Dionysios Loverdos. It is a great pity that G.I. Arvanitides’splendid library was dispersed, most of the books finding their way to university libraries abroad: all the books of the collection were outstanding for their authentic and artistic monasterial bindings, the scrupulous bibliophile care they were given, and their historical dimension, since many of them had belonged to rulers of Wallachia and Moldavia, as for instance Alexandros Mavrocordatos. Part of this library came into my collection, either from auctions conducted abroad, or volumes I acquired from his heirs.

A substantial number of books were ‘repatriated’, enriching my collection, coming from auctioneers in other countries who undertook to auction historical libraries – auctions accompanied by detailed and invaluable Catalogues: Sotheby’s and Christie’s – such as the Chatsworth library of the Duke of Devonshire, Broxbourne Library and others. A further rich source of accrual was the historic bookselling centres: Magg’s and Quaritch of London, Diana Parikian’s in Oxford, Luigi Gonelli’s in Florence and Dinter’s among others.

From 1986 the most representative body of my collection, covering the works and the days of Greek scholars and printers active in the period of the Italian Renaissance (late fourteenth – mid-sixteenth centuries) became the object of exhibitions for the promotion of their work. First editions by Manuel Chrysoloras, George of Trebizond, Cardinal Bessarion, Theodoros Gazis, Zacharias Kallierges, Nikolaos Vlastos and numerous others were presented successively in Florence (1986); the Benaki Museum (1987); Geneva University (1988); Strasburg (1989) and elsewhere. These exhibitions were accompanied by detailed bilingual Catalogues, complied in collaboration with M.I. Manoussakas, with introductory Notes and extensive commentaries for each book. The ultimate goal of these exhibitions was the promotion of the inestimable and decisive contribution of the Greek scholars of the period to the diffusion of Greek letters and to demonstrate: the relations they cultivated with the supreme Humanists of Italy, many of whom had been their pupils.

Subsequently, more representative material, according to circumstance, of the whole collection was brought out in historic libraries and foundations of countries such as Italy, at the Venice Institute for Byzantine and Late-Byzantine Studies in 1993, with landmark editions by Aldus Manutius, the products of literary editors by renowned Greek scholars such as Markos Mousouros and Ioannes Gregoropoulos. In Austria, at Vienna’s Imperial Library nearly all the Greek books published/printed there (1749-1800) were exhibited, which were the most significant examples of the Neohellenic Enlightenment. In celebration of the Five Hundred Years since the establishment of the first Greek printing press (Venice 1499), the Idryma tis Voulis ton Ellinon (Greek Parliament Foundation) assigned to Triantafyllos Sklavenitis and myself the organization of an exhibition of the most important material of the whole period: a considerable number of incunables and printed material deriving for the greater part from my library.

For many years now, whilst the library of editions appertaining to the particular collecting philosophy attained some 1400 titles and more than 2000 volumes, I began to be seriously concerned with its future and the House of Books that would contain its treasures. It is not my view that Greek books should be recycled, that is to say to be returned to the market, since the image typifying Greek libraries – as well as the especially restricted number of copies that have survived from the period – does not accord with their dispersion, all the more because most of these books are totally inestimable for the reason that many of these are unique.

The library in question contains every book touching upon every different facet of expression of the Greek people: language, intellectual tradition, Orthodox faith – it is in short a National Treasure. There is no place here for book-burying customs. This wealth of books belongs to Hellenism and to those who wish to know more about the contribution of Greek thought to the global scene.

The Board of Directors of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation decided to accept the collection under its roof, and, testifying to their acknowledgement of its significance, has put at disposal a particular historic building to house it: a neo-Classical mansion at precisely the borders between Classical and Modern Athens, as marked by Hadrian’s Arch.

I am grateful to the members of the Board of Directors for having embraced and appreciated the efforts of a lifetime as well as my humanistic principles.

Κ. Sp. Staikos