Bright Young Collectors: Robert Thake

Today marks the start of a new occasional series on the FB&C blog called Bright Young Collectors, where we will profile the next generation of book collectors.  The series accompanies our Bright Young Booksellers and Bright Young Librarians series, which remain ongoing. We begin today with Robert Thake in Mosta, Malta:

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Where do you live?

Mosta, Malta.

What did you study at University?

During my years at university I first read for a bachelor of laws degree and subsequently read for a doctor of laws degree, both at the University of Malta.

Please introduce us to your book collection.  What areas do you collect in? 

My collection is composed of antiquarian books on Malta and as a consequence, rather than by intention, on the Order of St John, who occupied the island between the years 1530-1798.  Though the two subjects are often considered to be synonymous I keep them as far apart from one another as they were in reality.  My collection is primarily intended to celebrate the literary achievements of numerous unsung Maltese authors whose unwavering desire for both intellectual and actual freedom from oppression gave Malta an identity when the rest of the world believed it to have none.  

How many books are in your collection?

In all I have around a hundred antiquarian volumes.  This does not include contemporary publications of which I have a separate collection of a few hundred volumes.  

What was the first book you bought for your collection?

Leggi e Costituzioni Prammaticali (1724) affectionately known as the Codice de Vilhena, after Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena, who commissioned the publication.  This is the first printed codification of laws to govern the island.  Although the book’s imprint states that the book was printed in Malta in 1724 this is in fact false.  The book could not have been printed in Malta since, following a spat with the local diocese and the inquisitor in the 17th century, the only press the island had was closed down and Malta was, as a consequence, plunged into darkness for a century.  The book was in fact published in Naples with a print run of a mere 230 copies.  It contains a beautiful engraving of Grand Master Vilhena executed by Pietro Paulo Troisi, a renowned Maltese silversmith and engraver.  This particular copy belonged to Fra Giuseppe Zammit, the surgeon general during Vilhena’s magistracy.

How about the most recent book?

Il Vangelo di nostro Signore Gesù Cristo secondo San Giovanni, the first translation of a biblical text into Maltese, translated by Giuseppe Cannolo and printed in London in 1822.

How about The One that Got Away?

So far I can genuinely say that no book I set my heart on has gotten away.  This may have something to do with the overzealous manner in which I pursue books I want.  On one particular occasion I flew to Paris just a few hours after having found out that a very special book had just surfaced there.   In truth there was no reason why the book couldn’t be shipped overnight to me but I felt I needed to chauffeur it home.  It takes all sorts.

What would you consider the Holy Grail for your collection?

Statuta Ordinis Domus Hospitalis Hierusalem (Rome, 1556).  Although this work is one of the few books in my collection not written by a Maltese and which holds a greater affinity to the Order of St John than to Malta, this book is one of the jewels in my collection.  This book contains the first set of statutes belonging to the Order of St John following their expulsion from Rhodes in 1522 and their resettlement on Malta in 1530.  These statutes pre-date the Ottoman siege of Malta by nine years and were compiled ten years before the foundation stone of the Maltese capital city, Valletta, was laid. The work was printed by Antonio Blado (1490-1567) who was also printer of the first edition of the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ as well as of Machiavelli’s ‘Il Principe’ and ‘Discorsi’.  This exquisite work, still bound in 16th century vellum, contains an engraved title page depicting the cross of the Order in red ink applied in stencil at the time of printing and also contains large historiated capitals throughout. 

Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?

I have bought books from all over the world and have had the pleasure of visiting countless bookshops and of having met many booksellers so it is difficult to say.  The bookseller who immediately comes to mind is Bégonia Le Bail.  My favourite bookshop would have to be Librairie Bertran in Rouen.  Though I never actually bought anything from this shop, its internal and external décor, coupled with the fact that it is strategically positioned behind the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen make it, in my opinion, the ideal bookshop.

What about your favorite book-related experience?

In 2010 I was alerted to the appearance of an especially important publication, the highly seditious Mustafà Bassà di Rodi schiavo in Malta (Naples, 1751).  I had been interested in this book since I had first heard of it and was eager to acquire it.  The bookseller who brought it to my attention, a French-Algerian gentleman, told me that I could collect it at the 2010 edition of the Salon du livre ancien de Paris.  Though initially deterred by the fact that I’d be sitting for my law finals just 10 days or so later, this apprehension only lasted a few seconds and I proceeded to book my tickets to Paris.

I was the fourth person to enter the fair - the three before me being members of the press.  I rushed to the stand, bought the book, did a couple of rounds, and ran back to my hotel room as if I had stolen it.  That night I was meant to be flying back to Malta but little did I know that Mother Nature had other plans.  While browsing through the BBC website I came across a rather inconvenient article, the headline of which read ‘Airspace over Charles de Gaulle airport closed’. After almost breaking the F5 key on my keyboard the headline refused to go away and instead now read ‘Airspace over Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports closed’.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind being trapped in Paris, however, with finals now mere days away, an indefinite holiday was not quite on.  A friend of mine at the airline told me that the cause was an ash cloud caused by an uncooperative volcano in Iceland and that there was no telling how long Parisian airspace would be closed for.  He suggested that I make a dash to Marseille as the ash cloud had apparently not reached there yet.  I left for Marseille first thing the next morning only to discover that the ash cloud had beaten me to it.  I’d have seen the funny side had I not been carrying a valuable, fragile book in my backpack.  Subsequent advice suggested that I go further south still - to Rome.  My thirst for adventure (read: crippling fear of failing exams) was overwhelming, and before long I had in my hand a train ticket to Rome.  After a picturesque train-ride through the Alps, a night in Nice, a brief stay in Monte Carlo, and an eight hour trip along the western coast of Italy, I finally arrived in Rome and then Malta, with the book still intact.  I’ve never been happier while placing a book on the shelf for the first time.

And your favorite book in your collection?

For a number of reasons, my favourite book is the one I bought in Paris, Mustafà Bassà di Rodi schiavo in Malta.  Apart from taking it on a weird sort of honeymoon just a day or so after having bought it, I also wrote a history about its publication, circulation and prohibition.  This wonderful publication was composed in the months following the bloody massacre of the slaves in Malta in July 1749.  Since it saw the light in Naples in 1751, the book was the source of much speculation and controversy.  The book was printed under the name ‘Michele Acciard’ but had been widely attributed to the Maltese priest, Francesco Agius de Soldanis, on the strength of various contemporary documents suggesting his authorship. When the book was first conceived it was intended to recount the failed uprising of the slaves, however, following alleged manipulation of the manuscript, the book was printed not as a mere history book, but rather as a work of significant political importance, due to the numerous subversive statements which had been added.  The author challenged the legitimacy of the Order’s occupation of the Maltese islands and instigated the Maltese to rise up in arms against their rulers.  As a result, the book was mercilessly scoured from the Maltese islands and beyond by the Grand Master, causing the book to almost disappear entirely.

Have you ever published anything yourself?

Yes.  I have written a number of papers of the history of various prohibited and anonymous books in my collection and last year I wrote my first monograph on the history of Mustafà Bassà di Rodi schiavo mentioned above.  I am currently composing my second monograph. 

What would you collect if you didn’t collect books?

I’d probably collect Maltese ephemera or eighteenth century French political caricatures. 

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