The birth of modern enlightened scepticism: Rodocanachi copy

Montaigne, Michel de. Essais de Messire Michel Seigneur de Montaigne, Chevalier de l'Ordre du Roy, & Gentil-homme ordinaire de sa Chambre. Livre premier & second.

Bordeaux, Simon Millanges, 1580.

8vo (111 x 159 mm). 2 parts in one volume. (8), 496 pp. (4), 656 pp. (miscounted as 650+[3]). Bound with an engraved portrait of Montaigne by Thomas de Leu, produced for the 1608 edition and here inserted as a frontispiece. Luxurious dark green morocco by Hippolyte Duru (signed and dated 1850), covers ruled in blind, spine ruled around five raised bands and lettered in gilt. Leading edges gilt; finely gilt inner dentelle. Marbled endpapers. All edges gilt.


The first edition of one of the most important works written and published in French in the 16th century: a highly desirable example, one of the tallest seen on the market for decades. Title-page of part 1 in the second state, that of part 2 in the third state.

Montaigne's groundbreaking essays on an eclectic array of subjects - from cannibals to solitude, from sleep to sadness - constituted an entirely unique and unprecedented literary genre, and a philosophy of knowledge that was based on his own personal experience and observations, epitomizing 16th century enlightened scepticism. "The most elaborate essay, the 'Apologie de Raimond Sebonde', is second to no other modern writing in attacking fanaticism and pleading for tolerance" (PMM). "D’ébauches en corrections, de remords en précisions, Montaigne échafaude une des œuvres maîtresses de l’esprit humain" (Francis Pottiée-Sperry, En français dans le texte, no. 73).

The publishing history of this work is complex, both for the rather careless printing of the first edition, and in large part because the changes to the text between editions were considerable: Montaigne's text was by no means static but constantly evolved under the eye of the author who "considered each new edition as the last". This first edition was printed by Millanges in the spring of 1580. It is unsophisticated and rather hastily composed, as betrayed by the innumerable misprints, font and type inconsistencies, errors in page numbering and textual variants. Indeed, "the pagination of vol. ii is very irregular with so many variants that it is impossible to reconstruct an ideal pagination. Probably no two copies are the same" (Sayce & Maskell, p. 4). The first part of this copy has G2 and 2A5 missigned as 2G and A5, while 2A2 is correctly signed as Aa2 (not as Aa; see Sayce & Maskell, p. 2), and the corrected states of C8 and O8 (ibid., p. 5, note 7), as well as the letters 'gsit' accidentally printed at the foot of Gg3 (ibid., p. 6, no. 9). The irregular spacing of lines on the page - occasionally very cramped - indicates composition by form.

Copies of early editions of Montaigne's work are extremely rare. Fewer than 100 examples are estimated to exist in private and institutional collections worldwide, suggested by some to point to a small original print run of only 300 to 400 copies (Bibliotheca Desaniana, no. 8, 2011; Balsamo, p. 160).

Complete with both errata leaves at the end; "l'un de ces deux feuillets manque souvent" (Sotheby's Paris, 27 Nov. 2003: EUR 337,875). A fine, uncommonly wide-margined specimen from the library of the French historian Emmanuel Pierre Rodocanachi (1859-1934) with three bookplates to pastedown and front free endpaper. Later offered by Pierre Berès, Paris and acquired in 1948 by Jorge Ortiz Linares (1894-1965), the Bolivian ambassador to Paris, for 350,000 French Francs.


PMM 95. Sayce & Maskell 1. Tchemerzine IV, 870 & VIII, 402. Brunet III, 1835. Le Petit, 99. P. Desan, "Montaigne's Essays", and J. Balsamo, "Publishing History of the Essays", in: Desan (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Montaigne (Oxford 2016). For the portrait see Desan, Portraits à l’essai: Iconographie de Montaigne (Paris, 2006).

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