A beautiful edition of Vondel’s 'Gysbrecht van Aemstel'

‘Back in the good old days one still knew how to make beautiful books’ is often heard when people get the chance to browse through old printed works. A book for which this remark certainly holds true, is the reprint of Joost van den Vondel’s Gysbrecht van Aemstel which appeared in two volumes with the Haarlem publisher Bohn in 1900. This monumental edition is characterized by a beautiful design and wonderful ornaments, illuminations and letters. A tour of a ‘monument of decorative art’ …

‘Community art’

At the end of the 19th century two movements related to book design were widely accepted. On the one hand the idea of ‘the book beautiful’, which was produced with purely typographical means such as fonts, layouts, paper types and printer’s ink. On the other hand ‘Community Art’, propagated by the avant-garde which combined contributions from various creative arts. This reprint of Vondel’s historical tragedy Gysbrecht van Aemstel displayed here is above all an expression of ‘Community Art’, made for and supported by a ‘community’ with common ideas, ideals and interests.

Famous names

The ‘community’ around the reprint of the Gysbrecht van Aemstel contained many famous names. The initiative for the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel cooperative project came from the journalist and drama critic Leo Simons (1862-1932), the subsequent publisher of the Wereldbibliotheek (‘World Library’). In 1890 he invited the then internationally renowned composer of ‘Dutch’ music Bernard Zweers (1854-1924), the architect Hendrik Pieter Berlage (1856-1934) as well as the structural engineer draughtsman and lithographer August Reijding to cooperate in the publication. As early as 1892 Reijding withdrew his cooperation. In his place Antoon Johan Derkinderen was asked, who was noted, among other things, for his mural paintings in the town hall of ’s-Hertogenbosch, his native city, and in Berlage’s Stock Exchange building in Amsterdam. The combined efforts of these men should result in ‘a publication that through the cooperation of distinguished artists, researcher and printer would in itself become a monument of decorative art, a joy to the readers and beholders, an inspiration to the actors’.

Based on medieval manuscripts

Derkinderen was one of the founders of what is known as 'monumental' art in the Netherlands. Social and religious aspects form an important motive for his work. In his opinion, Vondel's tragedy, written in 1637 for the opening of the new city theatre in Amsterdam, was a complex of feelings and ideas that would be of lasting value to the whole of humanity, regardless of its time and setting (Amsterdam in the late Middle Ages). To be able to express this universal relevance Derkinderen used medieval manuscripts as a basis since it was, in his opinion, precisely in medieval art that complex ideas were summarised as simply and succinctly as possible. His borrowings from medieval book art bear witness to an eclectic approach: Carolingian miniatures, late-Celtic interlaced motifs and late-Gothic tracery served as examples. In the illustrations, whole text passages are summarised by one symbol. The stage scenery designed by Berlage and the music of Zweers and Diepenbrock support this symbolic unity of text, image and sound.

Published in instalments

The two-volume luxury edition of Gysbrecht was published in two series of ten separate instalments, between March 1894 and December 1901, by the Haarlem publishers Heirs of F. Bohn, where J.K. Tademan and his son J.L. Tadema were in charge (the latter from 1899). The title page, on which the year 1893 is mentioned, had been designed long before the first instalment came from the presses, hence the discrepancy. The first instalment contains the preliminary pages with the title in French, a circle with the 'Amsterdam cog' (the coat of arms with the medieval type of ship) surrounded by dragons, and the title page, as well as the official dedication to the Amsterdam city fathers, presented in the form of a charter. This is followed by a literary treatise on Gysbrecht by Leo Simons and, finally, by the text of the play.

Five acts

The text consists of five acts, which, with the exception of the final act, are each concluded by a choral hymn. These hymns are introduced by ornamental bars with inscriptions and closed by summary symbolic representations. Changes of scenes and characters are indicated in wide ornamental bars with the names of the characters or their weapons. Each character’s text is indicated by dark green 'medieval type' letters drawn by Derkinderen. After each name the line is padded out with a 'personalised' ornamental band. For example, the protagonist, Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, always has a chain of square links after his name, while the spy Vosmeer sports a type of Celtic interlaced decoration. The play's text is followed by seven plates by H.P. Berlage: one with the Amsterdam city map, the others with scenery designs. The exceptionally complicated typesetting of the text in the first volume was carried out by the Heirs of F. Bohn’s own publishing house, while the transfer of Derkinderen's drawings to litho-stone was done by Tresling and Company in Amsterdam.

The second volume: music

The second volume contains the music specially composed for this edition by Bernard Zweers and Alphons Diepenbrock (1860-1921). The latter, a close friend of Derkinderen, composed the music for the choral hymns, which was added at a late stage. Because of its specialist character, the printing of the score was contracted out to the firm of Röder of Leipzig.

Dubious sales techniques

Six hundred copies of the monumental work were printed. Of these, 598 were sold by subscription by an Amsterdam door-to-door salesman, Salomon van Raalte, who worked for Bohn. In view of the price of the book, sixty guilders for a copy made with ordinary paper and 120 guilders for a copy made with Japanese paper, this is quite an achievement. It should be mentioned, however, that Van Raalte used a number of extremely dubious sales techniques. Under current legislation on door-to-door sales he would have been reprimanded regularly.

Book bindings

On many of the preserved copies the binding is missing, or they never had a binding. The work originally appeared in separate instalments in blue-grey paper folders designed by Derkinderen, all with an imprint (of the Amsterdam cog), initially in ochre, but dark green in the later editions. After the completion of the last instalment the binding was done by bindery Elias P. van Bommel in Amsterdam. The subscribers who had decided to have the volumes bound could choose between a number of more or less expensive variants: the simplest version came in unbleached linen with an imprint in greyish-green, described in the prospectus as 'material of grey batik'. The Utrecht University Library copy is in a binding of this type. For the luxury edition a choice was available between white calfskin, white pigskin and parchment. The front board of each of the volumes of this work, which was of such importance to the revival of interest in Dutch books, again shows the Amsterdam cog, while Gijsbrecht van Aemstel's castle features on the back board.

Further reading

1893-1901
Book
LKB (MvE ed.), February 2015
Binding volume 1 'Gysbrecht van Aemstel'
Title page volume 1 'Gysbrecht van Aemstel'
Set designs map of Amsterdam volume 1 'Gysbrecht van Aemstel'
Music page 1 first play volume 2 'Gysbrecht van Aemstel'

Gysbrecht van Aemstel. D'ondergang van syn stad en syn ballingschap. Treurspel / Joost van den Vondel. 2 vols. Haarlem : Heirs F. Bohn, 1893-1901. (With an introduction by Leo Simons, stage decorations by Hendrik Pieter Berlage, and book decorations by Antoon J. Derkinderen. Vol. 2: music by Bernard Zweers and Alphons Diepenbrock) (Utrecht UB, MAG: AF fol 48).

  • Binding: Original binding by the firm of Elias P. van Bommel, Amsterdam. Natural linen with an imprint in greyish-green over pasteboard.
  • Provenance: Acquired in 1976.