Small university exhibition spaces, and even small galleries in large museums, can accommodate focused explorations of complex, specialized topics that larger spaces cannot. Without the need to charm broad swaths of the infotainment audience, a scholarly show can delve deep into questions and, as here, open avenues of inquiry. At the heart of this exhibition was the assembling and especially the binding of the codex as it developed during Late Antiquity into the predominant book format that is still in use today. Although a great deal of attention has been devoted to the historical circumstances in which the codex came to supplant the scroll, little attention has been paid to the development of its manufacture.1 This exhibition and its catalogue, based on original research by the curator Georgios Boudalis, Head of the Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory of the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki, reflect current attention to the production of material culture and the burgeoning study of craft.2 The catalogue offers more detailed and fully documented considerations of the categories of evidence presented in the exhibition, an illustrated checklist, a rich bibliography, and an index.
In two display areas (an introduction and the main exhibition space), the exhibition charted the adaptation of traditional techniques primarily from textile- and leather-working (Fig. 1).3 Upon entering the second-floor hallway, the visitor encountered a bright display on the ancient development of the codex through such visually striking artifacts as a Classical red figure kylix depicting a schoolboy with a simple codex of tablets encircled by a strap with another strap for a handle (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund acquisition 17.230.10).4 Overall, the introduction presented variations in formats from paired and stacked tablets to the single gathering of pliable pages in use from antiquity, to the multiple gatherings developed during Late Antiquity. Utilizing the full range of the types of objects (artifacts and reproductions), images (photographs, diagrams, comparisons), and text panels (quotations about the manufacture and use of books presenting distinctive late antique voices), this introductory display established the pre-history of the late antique codex to be explored in the main gallery. The introductory didactic panels made clear that most of the late antique artifactual evidence—in the fragile organic materials of textiles and leather—has been preserved in Egypt from Christian monastic settings.
In the more dramatically lit main gallery, artifacts and reproductions demonstrated innovative uses of the traditional craft techniques developed for constructing the covers, spine, and closures of the multi-gathering codex. Near the entrance, an interactive panel presented an elegantly animated diagram of the techniques explored in artifacts and reproductions throughout the gallery. The artifacts, featuring local-area collections, included rare and rarely seen early books and book covers for monastic codices dating to the eighth and ninth centuries from the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum; these were shown alongside ornate leather shoes and other fancy objects and ornaments of everyday non-monastic life using the same combinations of techniques such as gilding and cut-out openwork sewn to painted leather (Fig. 2). Techniques developed from textile working for book binding such as cross-knit looping, twining, weaving, and sewing were compared to their use for late antique textiles. A fascinating facsimile reconstruction of the binding of the fifth-century Glazier Codex (Morgan Library and Museum, MS G.67) was shown open alongside a photograph of it strapped closed (Fig. 3). Although art museums rarely utilize such reconstructions, they are effective didactive tools, especially for premodern material culture, because of the way they separate technique from the distractions of other artistic features as well as the deterioration of artifacts.
In order to ensure clarity of expression, a small exhibition that tackles a large subject must impose limits on the themes to be explored. Yet silence may suggest a lack of significance: this exhibition's absence of commentary on the dense concentration of auspicious and protective motifs on the late antique book covers and clasps, textiles and leatherwork, might suggest to the uninitiated that these compositions were merely decorative.5 In some ways in this exhibition the book as object stood apart from the book as expressive medium. One introductory wall panel mentioned the use of codex “notepads” for such useful texts as school exercises and household accounts, but the emphasis on form, craft, and the exterior of the codex to the exclusion of interior text and image left room for thinking that content was not a factor in the development of codex formats or their decoration.6 Indeed, legible text and inner decorations were absent from view and the pages of facsimiles and reproductions were blank. Through the deliberate and strategic focus on craft, however, the exhibition both complemented traditional art historical concerns and implicitly demonstrated how much of the social art history of the codex during this formative period remains unexplored, such as, for example, comparisons of the locations and circumstances of the production of luxurious shoes and monastic devotional books.7 The display of these objects and crafts also underscored the potential for inquiry into venerable associations of materials and media like those connecting text and textile, parchment and flesh.8
An enormous map covered the wall opposite the first display. Fully visible as the viewer entered or exited the main gallery, the map charted the expansion of monasticism from Egypt throughout the wider world of Late Antiquity and seemed to identify monasticism as the main mechanism for the spread of the developing crafts of the book (Fig. 4).9 The map graphically summarized historical context without explaining or complicating the exhibition's very long view of Late Antiquity. Ethiopia, for example, was not marked on the map, although it was represented in the exhibition: an eighteenth-century Ethiopian psalter and its leather satchel (Morgan Library and Museum MS M.911), visible in Fig. 2 and the right edge of Fig. 4, described as illustrating the preservation of “techniques that remained unchanged for centuries,” seemed to suggest a passive conservatism without hinting at the possibility of meaningful archaism. A similar map in the catalogue (figure 3, at pp. 4–5) makes the same suggestion.
Just past the introductory display and map was a final room with the attraction of a large luminous screen playing a color video of hands at work making a codex (Fig. 5). The video, a terrifically useful teaching tool that effectively underscores the emphasis on craft, is now available through the web page for the exhibition.10 In this room, labeled as the “Haptic Learning Lab” (clearly identifying this as an intellectual venture), samples of wood, papyrus, parchment, and linen cloth invited the viewer to touch and imagine working with these materials. Sharing space in this learning lab were displays relevant to the exhibition on Balinese textiles on the floor below (“Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles”), linking the two exhibitions through a focus on weaving. A “Reading Room” on the first floor also linked the two exhibitions, inviting viewers to sit, read, and “delve deeper into the work of contemporary textile artists and bookmakers.” And, viewers did. At an event held in that space for textile artists and poets, I overheard and was told of interest in and enthusiasm for the exhibition. On several visits, I found a rapt, if small, audience, despite a lack of reviews in the popular press.