Album amicorum -- or, the Renaissance Facebook

Humans are deeply social, and we've probably valued our friendships for almost as long as we've actually been human. But our means for expressing that affection have varied over the years, and I love stumbling upon artifacts that echo our universal urges in a format that's unique to the time period.

Before we get to friendship, though, I have to say: the Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland is gorgeous. (It's also free and open to the public, so if you're in the neighborhood, you should go.) But of course, it's not just a beautiful room. It's a room full of books, from the mundane to the fascinating.


In the anteroom before the main library, they're currently hosting an exhibit of some of the rare books in the Peabody collection. It's called, fittingly, Book Madness. But the best part of the exhibit wasn't the fanaticism or even the multiheaded monster (more on that later). It was the friendship books.

Remember autographing your friends' yearbooks? Hundreds of years ago, travelers, scholars, and collectors might carry around small books bound with blank pages so their beloved friends or admired noteworthies could contribute a hand-drawn portrait or autograph. The Peabody has a few beautiful exemplars of these autograph books.


The one above, with the stunning colored painting, looks like an illustration in a printed book. But it's an album amicorum owned by Friederich Castellio, sometime between 1592-1603. Don't you wish you could sit down and flip through the pages, learning about Friederich's travels and encounters?


Above are three more examples, these from Heinrich Horn (Germany, circa 1640-1660). People would fill the books with everything from their autographs to learned quotes to little messages. In the book that's open, Zacharias Eckhart Waltserhus in 1638 made the acrostic MUSICA from the first letters of the name of the prayer, Mea Unica Spes, Iseus, Christus, Amen. Above that are two closed, lovely friendship books, owned by Heinrich Horn also, I think.

In addition to the albums amicorum, there were other stunning books in the collection, like this gorgeous miniature (the illumination is about four inches tall, I think):


But I was most moved by the reminders of how we love our friends and want to carry them with us. I can imagine traveling the world, feeling lonely, and wanting to flip back to see my best friend's careful handwriting on a single page. And even if some mementos might be just a way for our friends to show off, the urge to impress one another and to be reminded of our connections, is deeply human.

Unlike this monster.

A Hydra in Albert Seba's "Hall of wonders," 1734-1765, Amsterdam.

A Hydra in Albert Seba's "Hall of wonders," 1734-1765, Amsterdam.




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