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History of the collection


The incunabula are books printed prior to 1 January 1501.

The Biblioteca Nacional de España has the most significant collection in Spain, with over 3,100 copies, representing the most important Spanish printing houses and most of those operating in Europe.

One of the founding collections came from the library of Juan Francisco Pacheco Téllez Girón, Duke of Uceda, confiscated by King Philip V. However, it was not until 1736 that a true collection of incunabula was brought together at the Royal Library. That year, Juan de Iriarte, with the help of royal librarian Blas Antonio de Nasarre, successfully exchanged volumes with the Dominican Convent of Santo Tomás, in Avila, adding 315 copies of 15th century editions to the royal collection. A great many of these incunabula were immediately turned over to Juan Gómez for binding - some in parchment and others in hardback. The work was carried out in 1740 and 1741.

During the 18th century, the purchase of private libraries from scholars or nobles was the most common method of increasing the collection of the Royal Library: only rarely were incunabula purchased retail from booksellers.

Although the collection of prints increased significantly as a result of the disentailment laws, few prints of this kind were contributed, and the only libraries worth mention in this regard were that of the Capuchin Convent of La Paciencia de Cristo and of the San Francisco, in Madrid. Those copies were added after 1836 and do not bear signs of Royal Library ownership.

The library of the 3rd Marquis of La Romana, Pedro Caro Sureda-Valero y Togores, was acquired in 1865. Once acquired, it remained at the Ministry of Public Works until 1873. This library brought in another significant number of volumes, with imperial binding, in parchment, sometimes mottled, other times polychromic, sometimes including ribbons or Moroccan leather, generally with decorated spine, made by Vicente Beneito, in Valencia. This particular library had included that of famous jurist Fernando José de Velasco y Ceballos, which included some 30 incunabula.
That same year, 1873, within the Department of Prints of the Biblioteca Nacional (the other Department was Manuscripts), Section 2 was created "for rare and precious Books", with no less than 12 subdivisions. The first six were as follows: 1. Select incunabula; 2. Incunabula printed in Germany; 3. Incunabula printed in Spain; 4. Incunabula printed in Italy; and 5. Incunabula printed in other countries. This subdivision is, by all accounts, inexplicable when considering that three years later the collection of incunabula totalled 1,700 copies.

Another moment of interest in the history of the formation of the collection of incunabula at the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE) occurred in 1886 with the inclusion of the library of the Duke of Osuna e Infantado. Another two events merit mention: first, the delivery of the Ministry of Public Works' library in 1888, which included 15 incunabula; and second, an auction held in Paris in 1891 to sell off the library of Ricardo Heredia y Livermore, count of Benahavis, when the Biblioteca acquired a dozen significant copies.

The next big moment in the formation of the collection occurred in 1899, with the addition of the library of Pascual de Gayangos y Arce. The bulk of the assets in the collection come from this source and greatly outnumber those described above.

The collection of incunabula at the BNE has continued to grow with the acquisition of copies found on national and international markets or held by private individuals, but new incunabula have also been found in the Biblioteca Nacional itself. These usually come to light after a more detailed examination of the factitious volumes included in the collection itself, and of the rich collection of “Rare” manuscripts and prints, or what used to be known as the Miscellaneous Section, as well as fragments, both detached from bindings and used as flyleaves.

The collection currently contains two editions of xylographic books, each represented by the respective copy, and 2,298 editions of incunabula represented by 3,159 copies.

Bibliography of the collection

  • FERNÁNDEZ POMAR, José María: "Manuscritos e incunables jurídicos de Santo Tomás de Ávila en la Biblioteca Nacional", Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español, LVI (1986), pp. 863-887.
  • MARTÍN ABAD, Julián: Los incunables de las bibliotecas españolas: Apuntes históricos y noticias bibliográficas sobre fondos y bibliófilos. Valencia, 1996.
  • MARTÍN ABAD, Julián: "Los incunables de la Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid: (Datos para la historia de una colección)", in Martín Abad, Julián - Moyano Andrés, Isabel: Catalogue of Incunabula at the Biblioteca Nacional: Third appendix. Madrid, 2002, pp. 9-27.
  • JULIÁN MARTÍN ABAD. “The Incunabula of the Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid : materials for a History”, Incunabula: studies in fifteenth-century printed books presented to Lotte Hellinga (ed. by Martin Davies). London, 1999, pp. 603-622.
  • JULIÁN MARTÍN ABAD. “En plúteos extraños: manuscritos, incunables y raros de la Biblioteca capitular de Ávila en la Biblioteca Nacional de España” Burgos, 2007.
  • JULIÁN MARTÍN ABAD. “¿Mutatis mutandis, una pequeña desamortización? o Sobre 34 incunables de la BP de Cáceres en la BN de España, y sobre otros acontecimientos bibliográficos”, Revista de Estudios Extremeños, LXIV, I, abril 2008, pp. 201-232.