Bound for Napoleon III

Thomas á Kempis (1380–1471).
L’imitation de Jésus Christ texte latin.
Paris: Imprimerie imperiale, 1855. (12301)

This notably extravagant binding is the work of an unknown binder employed by Napoleon III (1808-1873). It is heavily decorated, using nearly every nineteenth-century technique of moulding and tooling. The intention was to display the virtuosity of the contemporary French binder and confirm France’s position as a leader in fine binding while echoing the techniques of the past, such as bindings à la semé and à la fanfare. The result demonstrated that French book production could rival that of the Viennese, and the work in fact garnered France a Great Medal at the Great Exhibition in 1855.

The exhibited binding is one of only a few “deluxe” bindings that were provided for copies of this magnificent and ruinously expensive edition, which totaled 103 copies and cost an estimated 400,000 francs to produce. This is copy number 89, one of thirty sold by the Parisian bookseller Victor Masson for 4,000 francs apiece. However successful a tour de force, the text chosen for the enterprise was ironic, as the Imitatio Christi is best suited for individual contemplation rather than conspicuous consumption.

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