The Pillone Library has long been celebrated. Noted already in the 16th century as a library of ‘molti e diversi libri’, it is celebrated among bibliophiles today for the remarkable, indeed unique, painted decoration of its fore-edges and as a rare survival up to the modern day of a Renaissance library.
The painted decoration is the work of Cesare Vecellio (1521-1601), a cousin and pupil of Titian, in whose studio Vecellio worked until Titian’s death. Among Vecellio’s major paintings is the altarpiece at Belluno Cathedral. In addition to the painted fore-edges executed for the Pillones, Vecellio also painted a room in the Palazzo Pillone with the Four Seasons and the Rape of the Sabines. It was in his famous book on costume and manners, De gli habiti antichi et moderni (1590), that Vecellio mentions the library and other collections of the Pillone family as well as their generous hospitality.
The Pillone Library was formed over several generations, the earliest books acquired in the late 15th century by Antonio Pillone (d. 1533). His eldest son Odorico (b. 1503) expanded the library through numerous individual purchases and with one large group of northern books acquired in about 1550 from his kinsman by marriage, Bonaccorso Grino, who had been in the service of Charles V of Bavaria. It was almost certainly Odorico (or perhaps his son Giorgio) who commissioned Vecellio in the 1580s to decorate the books. For his imagery, Vecellio took the book’s author or content, so here are a series of author portraits: St. Jerome in the wilderness, Erasmus writing at a desk with a book resting on top, Sacrobosco holding an armillary sphere, a sick man lying in his bed; and scenes ranging from sleighing in Russia, to maps of Asia and America, and views of Ravenna. One hundred seventy two volumes were so decorated, 154 with fore-edges painted by Vecellio and 21 with original drawings on their vellum covers by him and other artists.
The Pillone Library, together with the family collections of pictures, medals, armour and relics of Lepanto, remained intact for three centuries at Villa Casteldardo in the foothills near Belluno until they were sold in 1874 in their entirety to the Venetian antiquaire Paolo Maresio Bazolle. The ordinary books were widely dispersed but those decorated by Vecellio were acquired en bloc by Sir Thomas Brooke (1830-1908) of Armitage Bridge House, Huddersfield. In 1957 Pierre Berès bought them all from the baronet’s heirs, and the same year began the library’s dispersal through the gift of 3 volumes to the Bibliothèque nationale and sales from an illustrated catalogue, Bibliothèque Pillone (each book contains a bookseller’s label with its number in that catalogue).
While it is the decoration that makes the Pillone Library unique, no less remarkable is the fact that the books are still in their original bindings. Its stable history, also remarkable, accounts for the superb condition of the volumes. The collection therefore contains excellent, characteristic examples of Italian and German Renaissance binding. Vellum flyleaves in some of the volumes even carry written instructions to the 16th-century binder. The decoration demonstrates that the books were shelved with their fore-edges, not the spines as today, facing the viewer. The present volumes ranged on a shelf recreate the striking, artistic, and colourful aspect the Pillone books presented to a Renaissance audience.
The indispensable study on the formation and later history of the library, and, of special importance, on the classification of many of its Italian and German Renaissance bindings, is A.R.A. Hobson’s ‘The Pillone Library’ in The Book Collector, 7, 1958, 28-37. The references to binding tools relate to plates I and IV in Hobson’s article, the numbering from left to right, top to bottom.
Few have been the opportunities for a collector to acquire en bloc a significant group of Pillone books since the library’s dispersal in the 1950s, and in fact not since 1998 has a group of this size been offered at auction. The following 18 works in 17 volumes represent all aspects of the Pillone library, from its early to later formation, in contemporary Italian or German bindings from each of the main workshops, and including those with original drawings on their vellum covers. Because this is a rare opportunity for a modern collector to acquire a significant portion of a Renaissance library at a single stroke, the Pillone books will be offered first as one lot. They are described in lots 23 to 39. Should their reserve price as one lot not be reached, the books will be offered separately at their individual estimates.