GORLAEUS, Abraham Dactyliotheca seu Annulorum Sigillarium

[Leiden or Delft], [n.pr.], [n.d., c. 1601]


FIRST EDITION. 4to, (xxviii) 16 (xii), 138 unnumbered plates, 1 blank inserted between pl. 111 and 112. Roman and italic letter, woodcut floriated initials, t-p within handsome engraved architectural border with standing personifications of Virtue and Nobility, full-page engraved portrait of author “IDGheyn fe(cit)”, 138 full-page engraved plates depicting 196 Roman and Greek intaglio rings and 148 gemstones. T-p a little dusty with small light ink-splash to lower blank margin. A very good, wide-margined copy, crisp and clean on thick paper, in contemporary calf, covers a bit rubbed, spine with raised bands, gilt floral decoration in compartments. Early ex libris “E(x) bibliotheca Joh Huijssen” to t-p.


A very good copy of the richly illustrated first edition of the first systematic work on ancient intaglio rings and gems.


Abraham Gorlaeus (van Goorle, c. 1549-1608) was a distinguished antiquary born at Antwerp. In 1570, he moved to Utrecht as counsellor to the duke of Nieuwenaer and later to Delft. He was the owner of a spectacular collection of ancient coins (13,260 examples), rings, engraved gems and seashells which attracted numerous visitors and became internationally famous. Parts were bought by European princes, notably Henry prince of Wales, Christina of Sweden and Henry IV of France. ‘Dactyliotheca’ is a catalogue of the engraved gems and rings from Gorlaeus’ personal collection. The first book of its kind, it inspired many others in the following decades. The word ‘Dactyliotheca’ was used by Pliny to describe similar collections, and it comes from two Greek words meaning ‘ring’ and ‘case’. Remarkably, this work is introduced by a series of poems praising the study of gems by some of the most famous classical scholars of the time, including Joseph Scaliger, Hugo Grotius and Daniel Hensius.


The learned preface contains a brief history of rings (only 16 pages), from their origins – “well before the Trojan wars” – to the Roman Empire. This is thought to have been written by Aelius Everhardus Vorstius, professor in Leiden, as Gorlaeus was not proficient in Latin. In this section, the different types of inscribed rings and their functions among the Greek and Romans are presented: signet rings used to impress stamps onto wax, rings that protected their owners from dangers, illness and poisoning, wedding rings, rings indicating status (e.g. a golden ring was worn by Roman ‘equites’). The materials of rings and gems are also described, from the modest iron rings of the most ancient times, to silver and gold, with sardonyx, emerald, agate and diamond gemstones.

The numerous and detailed engraved plates are the most attractive feature of this volume. A first section contains illustrations of 196 rings; each plate shows two examples, with the design of the intaglio reproduced in a larger roundel at head. The second section is dedicated to 148 gems. Countless carved subjects include emperors, deities, statues, animals and mythological creatures. The beautiful portrait of the author is dated 1601 and it was realised by the famous Dutch painter Jakob de Gheyn II (c. 1565-1629). It depicts Gorlaeus at 52 years of age, standing behind a table covered with coins, rings, medals and cameos; below, an 8-line laudatory poem by Grotius.


The date and printing place are inferred from the dedication “Delphis. Bat. Kal. Octob. Anno 1601” and from the preface by Vorstius “Lugduni Batavor. Kal. April. Anno 1599”. In this copy, the sections titled ‘Candido dactyliothecae suae lectori”, “Daniel Hensius sub ominee auctoris” and the privileges are bound after page 16, in some they are at the end after the plates.


“Joh Huijssen” is likely the Dutch Johan Huyssen, lord of Kattendijke (1566-1634), Deputy of Zeeland from 1591 until his death and president of the Council of Flanders in 1602. His friend and poet Peter Hondius (1578-1621) described him as an open-minded protector of the arts, owner of a rich collection of books and antiquities.

USTC 1015118; STCN 112082122; BM STC Low Countries 17th century, G126; Cicognara 2871. See Brunet II, p. 1671 and Graesse III, p. 120. On Huyssen, see: CERL Thesaurus, cnp02045627 and F. Nagtglas, Levensberichten van Zeeuwen, Vol 1, p. 450 (1890).
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