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The year 1997 was the anniversary of Martynas Mazvydas’ Catechismus, the first book in Lithuanian, published in Königsberg in 1547. Marked down on UNESCO’s list of important dates, it was also celebrated in Prague, Torun, Helsinki, and at the Library of Congress in Washington.
One of the events marking the 450th anniversary of this book was the exhibition “Early Books of Lithuania from the 16th to the 18th century” organized by Vilnius University library.
From October 1997 until February 1998 the exhibition, with its 129 exhibits, was on show at the library of Tartu University, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and at the Stats bibliotheca in Berlin.
Thanks to this touring exhibition these original copies of old Lithuanian books were introduced to foreign audiences for the first time. The culture of the period is reflected in the history of the Lithuanian book, which shows that at that time Lithuania played a full part in European culture.
By Alma Braziuniene
In the 16th and the 17th centuries Lithuania was an equal partner of western European nations. It adopted and inspired scientific ideas, created works of fiction based on literary traditions dating back to antiquity and on Christian versions of these traditions,” says Eugenija Ulcinaite, a Vilnius University classics professor.
A recent touring exhibition aimed to survey the development of printed books in Lithuania, the rise and the evolution of printing in Lithuania Minor and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), to mention Lithuanian printing presses and to show the thematic variety, design and binding of these books.
Vilnius University library was chosen deliberately. The greater part of the Lithuanian cultural heritage is kept here: about 180,000 books from the 15th to the 18th centuries, about 200,000 manuscripts, 8,000 old engravings and many other valuable items.
At the present time the library has 5.3 million printed items. The size of the collection equals the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow and the National Library in Prague.
The library dates back to 1570 when Vilnius Bishop Walerian Protasewicz invited the Jesuits to the city to fight the Reformation. He set up a college and a library which in 1579 became the library of the Jesuit Academy. The first books were gifts and private collections bequeathed to the academy.
The collection of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Sigismund Augustus (1520–1572), was especially famous and is thought to have consisted of 5,000 volumes. The king was a true bibliophile. Many European rulers knew of his passion for books and used to give him books as presents.
This was how his library, consisting of the books on medicine, law, exact sciences and works of ancient literature, was formed. It was to be left in his will to the Jesuit College.
Unfortunately the will was not executed properly and not all the books were passed on to the college. The king’s family divided some of the books between themselves, some were given to their courtiers. The library was plundered during wars and times of civil unrest.
Some books were taken to Russia after the 1830–1831 uprising when Vilnius University was closed. Now the university library, the lawful heir to Sigismund’s collection, has only 14 books comprising 20 different titles.
Besides this collection, the library has also inherited the private collections of many famous Lithuanian statesmen and scientists. There was a tradition among Vilnius University professors to leave personal books to their alma mater.
In the 17th century the library was widely known. By the middle of the 18th century it had 11,000 books, and in the 1820s there were 60,000 books.
The oldest surviving Lithuanian documents are kept in foreign archives. Copies of letters from two Lithuanian rulers had to be sent from German archives specially for the exhibition.
One of them was an assurance written on parchment by Grand Duke Mindaugas, who died in 1263, to Livonian merchants, on the occasion of his coronation in which he stated that Lithuania was a safe country for trading with.
The second is a letter by Grand Duke Gediminas (1316–1341), the founder of Vilnius, offering protection and privileges to merchants and artisans who accepted his invitation to settle in Lithuania.
The exhibition also included a facsimile edition, prepared by historians, of the Lithuanian Statute, a landmark in Lithuanian law, that was adopted in 1529 and went through three editions (a manuscript version in 1566 and a printed version in 1588).
There was also a reproduction of a copy of the privileges offered to Jews, one of the most important documents relating to Jewish history in the GDL, issued by Grand Duke Vytautas (1350–1430).
These and other exhibits show how the need for the printed word grew. Unfortunately, an original copy of the first book, Agenda, compiled by a Vilnius cleric Canon Martinus, has not survived in Lithuania (two copies are kept in libraries in Poland). It was published in Gdansk in 1499. There were no printing presses in Lithuania at the time and the book had to be taken abroad for printing. Agenda, Lithuania’s first book, written in Latin, will be 500 years old next year.
Around 1520–1522 Belarussian educationalist Franciscus Skorina came to Vilnius from Prague, where he had already published his Bible, and established the first printing press in the GDL. Two books were printed here: A Small Travel Book in 1522 and Apostle in 1525.
There is only one full copy of the Travel Book complete with its colophon (an inscription placed at the end of a book giving details of its publication), at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Before it was discovered there, it was thought that the first book printed in Vilnius was Skorina’s Apostle, an original of which was in the exhibition. This is kept at Vilnius University library.
Even now scholars find more and more Lithuanian phrases and prayers included in 16th-century Latin, Polish or German books. It is clear that at the beginning of the 16th century the need for printed books in the national language started to grow. Martynas Mazvydas, a 16th-century evangelical pastor, an educated person who dreamed of spreading the word of God in his native Lithuanian, was hanoured with this mission. His name nowadays is regarded as a symbol of the printed word in Lithuanian.
He was not the only compiler of the book, but he played the main role. In 1546, because of Catholic persecution, he went into exile from Vilnius to neigh boring Prussia. In 1547, with financing from Prussian Duke Albrecht von Brandenburg, he printed his Catechismus.
The appearance of Mazvydas’ book was not overdue and it was not unique among countries in the region. In 1513 the first book in Polish was printed; in 1517 Byelorussia; in 1530 Yiddish; in 1543 Finnish; and in 1545 Prussian (also in Königsberg). The first book in Russian appeared only in 1564.
Other parts of the exhibition showed the particular way the first Lithuanian books were printed in the GDL and in Lithuania Minor (a part of neighboring Prussia inhabited by Lithuanians).
The first grammar of the Lithuanian language (Königsberg, 1653), by Daniel Klein, and the first full edition of the Bible, in 1735 (although it had been translated in the 16th century), were published in Lithuania Minor.
Several fragments of a translation of the Bible from Dutch into Lithuanian made by Samuel Chylinski in the 17th century have survived and are kept at the British Library. They were found in a pile of waste paper in 1893.
Only one copy is left of another important publication in Lithuanian. Catechismus was compiled by Mikalojus Dauksa and printed in 1595 at the Vilnius Academy. It was the first Catholic book in Lithuanian published in the GDL and appeared almost half a century later than its Protestant analogue. A copy of this small book is at the library of Vilnius University.
Printing presses in the GDL were widely represented at the exhibition. Between the 16th and 18th centuries there were presses in 22 places. The books printed at Protestant presses are now extremely rare because over the centuries many were destroyed.
The exhibition also showed the thematic scope of Lithuanian books and at the same time the development of Lithuanian science and art. It included poetry by Mathias Casimirus Sarbievius (1596–1640), who was one of the most famous baroque poets not only in Lithuania but throughout the rest of Europe (in the 17th century his poetry was published 41 times). There were works on rhetoric by Professor Zygimantas Liauksminas (1597–1670) that were published in different European cities and used as textbooks. The Great Art of Artillery, by the 17th-century creator of multistage rockets Kazimieras Semenavicius, published in Amsterdam in 1650, continues to surprise visitors with its rocket drawings.
There were handsome volumes by Vilnius bookbinders in brown leather or parchment, as well as books from Sigismund Augustus’ library.
The organizers of the exhibition wanted to provide a full review of Lithuanian culture from the 16th to the 18th century and to show the source of the vitality of this culture – existence within the general stream of European culture.

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