A Genuine Binding by the Forger Joni

Alessandro Piccolomini (1508–1578).
Della grandezza della terra et dell’acqua.
Venice: Giordano Ziletti, 1561. (17615)

Icilio Federico Joni (1866–1946) was a notorious forger who openly discussed his deceptions in his autobiography. A skilled producer of imitation "Gothic" altarpieces, he received a commission c. 1890 to create a book cover in imitation of those found on Siena’s Tavole di Biccherna, the elaborately gilt and painted fourteenth-century tax registers. Without ever seeing a real Biccherna, he established a lucrative business of faking Biccherna covers. Joni later boasted of incidents in which the local police were alerted to books purportedly stolen from Siena Cathedral or the state archives, only to discover that they were by Joni. A number of book collectors were deceived by Joni’s creations, and several of his works were published as Gothic originals. Today, Joni’s forgeries are highly valued in their own right.

Bridwell Library possesses what may be one of the rarest of all nineteenth-century bindings – a “genuine” Joni, that is, a binding not intended as a forgery. Here Joni did not pretend to be a late-medieval binder; instead, his work evokes the world of the book’s sixteenth-century author, Alessandro Piccolomini. The painting on the upper wooden cover depicts Piccolomini seated at his reading desk. Two roundels on the lower cover contain a coat of arms and the title of the work. This is one of the few bindings Joni produced to accompany a specific book, and it appears to have been a commission from Joni’s friend Count Cecchino Piccolomini.

In his autobiography Joni discussed his methods for antiquing the covers by mixing soot, turmeric, chrome yellow, and gilding gesso with gum arabic to produce the patina on the gold. The bosses were bathed in ammonia and the clasp plates were dipped in iodine, “which rusted them in just the right way.” Displayed for comparison is one of Joni’s heavily “damaged” forgeries, which shows the remains of a Renaissance-style profile portrait on the upper cover, dated “MCCCCXXVII,” while various coats of arms decorate the lower cover. Note that Joni’s boards are simply glued onto a rough leather spine; he apparently did not know how to replicate a fifteenth-century sewing structure.

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The Nineteenth Century
Binding by the Forger Joni