[LEC] History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

[Editor’s Note: As a new feature on Ephemeral Pursuits – I’ll begin featuring my reviews of the PRODUCTION of books published in the past by The George Macy Companies. Those books usually consisted of the best literature from the Western Canon and selected contemporary literature. The original books were published as part of the Limited Editions Club (LEC), with a limited print run. Then sometimes they made their way over to the Heritage Press and all the intermingled companies that George Macy ran. Reprint rights to those LEC books eventually got passed over in time to the Easton Press (purveyors and publishers of those shoddy leather-bound editions you’ll usually see taking up a wall at an used-book store, mainly sold by people who viewed them as investments and finally sold them at a loss). If you’re interested in learning more about the LEC and George Macy, Jerry Fieldsted has a great blog, and there’s also a fantastic forum at LibraryThing dedicated to George Macy’s publishing companies. There’s also a great short biography authored by Bill Majure.

REVIEWs of those books as literature will be withheld until a later date as to when I’ve sufficiently read them to my satisfaction, as some of the editions to be reviewed in this series are of monumental works from the Western Canon. Those works deserve to be reviewed in depth when I’m capable of providing some insightful commentary. With new business out of the way, let’s get back to the ‘documentation & book porn’ part of this blog.]

For the 174th selection of the Limited Editions Club according to Bill Majure (and at least the 184th Monthly Letter of the Limited Editions Club), The History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon was produced in seven volumes. The Monthly Letter (No. 184 for August-September-October 1945) opines about the monumental production task that this was. The letter describes Gibbon and his Decline & Fall in the standard modern opinion, which is that Gibbon was an ugly coal lump of a man, and yet he produced the sparkling diamond that was the Decline & Fall. The decision was made to pair Gibbon with etchings by Gian Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) who spent thirty years crafting prints of which Gibbon certainly must have had a few. Macy goes on to note that already by that point in time, there were multiple versions and editions of Decline & Fall. There was the Rev. Henry Millman edition of 1838, then Sir William Smith’s edition of 1854, but the edition selected for this LEC publication was John B. Bury’s edition of  1896-1900.

What truly shocks me and marks this Monthly Letter as a product of its time (in 1945) is that Macy proceeds to call Piranesi a ‘wop’, and then proceeds to slight the manner in which Piranesi died (“… a trifling illness that he failed to take care of (3)”). Macy then explains that Piranesi took lessons from Vasi, whose etchings inspired Goethe to take his Italian journey. The sordid affair of Piranesi attempting to murder his teacher due to his suspicion that he wasn’t being taught everything the teacher knew is recounted with great delight, and then dismissed with the appraisal that Piranesi began far exceeding Vasi’s work.

Macy sent out Paul McPharlin to supervise the selection and process of acquiring etchings to reproduce the images from. They found a portfolio containing all 137 images of Rome that Piranesi produced, in sizes sometimes exceeding 18″x28″. The prints were contained in 23 volumes, and the price in 1944 dollars was $2,500 (now ~$33,000). From this portfolio, eighty (80) images were selected to be reproduced and the titles & caption of each print was translated by Dr. F.W. Robinson. The etchings were reproduced via photogravure, and are all double-page images scattered throughout the seven volumes.

The size of a page is 6.5″x10″ with nearly 3,000 pages and are divided into the seven volumes following Gibbon’s original divisions when he first issued his text (which was originally sold as unbound leaves only). The text is of J.B. Bury’s edition (as previously noted above), with Bury’s introduction and all of his notes. The headings were set by McPharlin from Gibbon’s notes – so the headings provide an outline of the entire work as you progress through it.

Font: Granjon

Size: 12 point

Margins: Wide
Notes are composed in italics of Granjon type.
Chapter beginnings are decorated with a design by the ever-present Mr. McPharlin.
The numerals of the Chapters are ‘set in a large size of Bodoni type’
The large decorative initials at the beginning of the chapters are reproduced from the Nonesuch Press edition of Don Quixote, which were originally created by the foreman of the foundry at Cambridge University Press who tooled some type-founder’s letters to create the effect. (Now that’s truly impressive – stealing items from other fine-press books to use in your own books.)

Due to the staggering size of the set – not all the paper was printed at one shop.

  • Some of the pages were printed at E.L. Hildreth & Co. in Vermont
  • Most of the pages were printed at Aldus Printers in New York

The paper used was a thin & toned rag paper made for George Macy by the Worthy Paper Company.
Sewn & bound by Russell-Rutter Company in New York.

Endpapers of the volumes are actually different maps of Rome that progresses as it declines (7 different maps in total). The maps were made by William Meek (a calligrapher & cartographer).

Quarter bound in black morocco leather (sheepskin), with a design stamped in gold on the spines to represent the Empire in decline. There are paper sides, which are rag paper upon which a photographic reproduction of Italian marble was printed.

Originally mailed in a series: The first 2 volumes with the slipcase were mailed, then 2 weeks later, volumes 3 & 4, and finally two more weeks later, volumes 5 & 6 & 7 were to be mailed.

Issued unsigned.

The slipcase is an odd design – Macy mentions that it was designed for ease of reading and reference, and I can certainly attest to that – as my set has the slipcase. It’s of a green paper/cloth construction that comprises a diagonally cut box (click on all photographs for larger size images).

When housed together you can see the ‘cute image’ Macy said represented the decline of the Roman Empire, and it’s certainly breathtaking to look at:

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The issue with this set is that the leather didn’t hold up very well, so a truly FINE set is quite scarce. I don’t need a FINE copy – I want to read my copies, and this is the best designed book I’ve ever seen for reading Gibbon with the notes in the margins, instead of having to hunt them down elsewhere (or even having them omitted altogether). You can see the edge wear of the leather:

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I have a new appreciation for the sides once I realized that it was a photographic reproduction of Italian marble taken from a very fine photograph – you can also see the design of the slipcase (mine has a small tear and has been taped and glued):

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The photograph of the Italian marble was very finely taken as can be seen from the paper boards. My copy has a sheen and a glossiness to it that suggests that it’s been covered in some sort of protectant (such as beeswax) – and I’m not complaining. It’s not unpleasing to the touch:

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A picture of the binding up close (along with a view of the staining used):

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Even the endpapers have garnered enhanced respect after reading about their production in the Monthly Letter:

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This isn’t a chapter beginning, but the design is still quite nice – you can see the first of the etchings through the paper (which is thin but still very opaque and great to read):

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The first of the eighty (!!!) magnificent double-page etchings scattered throughout these seven volumes:

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Even has an unstated note to the Reader from Philip Guedalla (not mentioned at all in the Monthly Letter):

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The Letter begins (sorry about the slightly blurry photograph – I’ll update it later):

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Here’s the magnificent text block (you can also see that the edges have been stained red – it really isn’t that noticeable and blends in fine to me – just look at how the text has been laid out with the notes in the margin! I can’t find a better example of why book design matters to enhance readability than to merely display this photograph:

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Here’s a real chapter heading (the same “rolling pin” box is used everywhere… which is the only thing I dislike about this production) – you can also see how the volume’s chapters are pretty much well summarized by the ‘outline’ from Gibbon’s notes:

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Looking for drop-caps? It’s got those too:

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Bite of the font confirms that this was printed linotype (definitely not hand-set by letterpress):

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Commentary about the upcoming etching is usually printed on the page before the double-page spread – as you can see below:

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Here’s another luscious double-page etching for you to drool over:

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Needless to say, this type of quality isn’t seen very much today, if at all – my close-up doesn’t do the detail justice on the reproductions, you can see fine lines in person (they aren’t blurry):

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Issued unsigned – but still numbered to an edition of 1,500 of which my copy is No. 343. There are some further details about the production – the Photogravure & Color Company handled the reproductions of the illustrations.

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While there are several options out there to read The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (including several free editions, digitally) – I still think that this is the best-designed and easiest-to-read edition of this book that I’ve ever found. The recent Folio Society edition comes in eight volumes and is bound in vegetable parchment, which is basically a nice way of saying that it’s basically a version of ‘fake vellum’ – it’s meant to look like vellum. That’s a lovely designed edition that I’ve had the pleasure of handling, but it also omits a majority of Gibbon’s footnotes – which would be akin to the modern version of someone printing Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and omitting most of the footnotes which would probably reduce that novel’s size by roughly 80% if not more. There’s also a cheap (but well-made) Everyman’s Library edition that contains most of the notes, but it’s rather small and you can’t fit all the notes onto the same page as you could with the LEC edition shown here.

In terms of readability, massive works such as Decline & Fall are best read in multiple-volume sets. However, breaking up such works into multiple volumes introduces a variety of issues. Especially with book design, and readability. While it’s easiest to shove all the footnotes/notes into a single volume – it doesn’t make the work very readable. If all the notes are kept in their respective volumes, then it impacts the design of the book itself. I have to give this edition top grades across the board as far as design goes. However, I’m not quite a fan of the “design” of the chapter headings – the “rolling pin” box. If that’s the only flaw I can find in this set, then that truly embodies the quality this set has across the board.

Despite its flawed binding, this is a superb set that usually sells around the $200-350 range lately, and that’s with several flaws in the set. A Fine condition set would bring many times that amount – and usually it is very rare to find even a set claimed to be in Fine condition. It’s easily one of the best investments you can ever make for an excellent reading experience, especially for a super-sized work of this type (nearly 3,000 pages). There’s been a rash of sellers breaking this set up lately, and that’s a shame as this set needs to remain complete.

Typography: A+
Book Binding: A (the sheepskin has declined over time, but the gilded design is an enduring feature & always identifiable on the shelf)
Illustrations: A+
Printing Method: Linotype (can feel impressions and see “bite” on pages) – A+
Book Design: A+
Book Slipcase: Diagonally-cut slipbox that houses all seven volumes. Odd design, but has done its job for the most part – B+
Overall Rating: A+
Heritage Edition: Yes (in 3 volumes, rather than 7, along with some other differences, I am sure) – quarter brown cloth over pictorial paper boards in 3 brown slipcases, 2,537 pp in the Heritage Edition, and is usually sold as a set or separately – easily found as a set for $40 or less, with what appears to be minor differences (if any at all) between the LEC and the HP version, although the size (especially of the etchings) will obviously be different and smaller than the LEC version).

(* – I’d also like to note that this has a permanent residence in my personal library if that wasn’t obvious enough.)

One thought on “[LEC] History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

  1. Pingback: Of Interest: LEC Posts by other Macy Devotees | The Limited Editions Club & Heritage Press Imagery

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