Dennis Everard Rhodes (1923–2020)

The following obituary of Dennis Rhodes by Dr Lotte Hellinga is expected to appear in The Library in 2021.

Dennis Rhodes, F. S. A.

Dennis Everard Rhodes, Gold Medallist of the Bibliographical Society in 2007 and staunch contributor to The Library from 1952, died on 7 April 2020, aged 97. He was born on 14 March 1923 at Stourbridge in Worcestershire, the only child of Nelson Rhodes and Ida Rhodes (née Sutton). When Dennis was still very young his father became a headmaster and the family moved to East Bridgford near Nottingham. Dennis was educated at Nottingham High School from where he won an open scholarship in Classics at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His studies began in 1941 with classical Greek, but he soon switched to Italian language and literature. When a year later they were interrupted by military service, he was already fluent enough in Italian to join the Intelligence Corps as interpreter during the Italian Campaign, stationed mainly in southern Italy. In this role he not only perfected his use of the language, but it opened up to him a country, its culture and its people that he came to love and where he felt at home. He carried this association seamlessly over into his later professional life. Thus, unusually, he had the good fortune that his military experience turned out to be a perfect complement to his academic education. Italy in all its great cultural variety remained one of the two poles between which he conducted his life, the other being the British Museum, not less so when it was transformed into the British Library (neither of them a monoculture either).

            On demobilization he returned to Cambridge and graduated in 1946. After less than happy years as a schoolmaster he successfully applied for the post of Assistant Keeper in the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum Library. When he took up the post early in 1950 his mentors were Victor Scholderer and Leslie A. Sheppard. Both were deeply immersed in the cataloguing and investigation of early printed books in the collection, and Dennis followed them in the same direction. He thrived in the Italian section, dealing with material of every century of printing, but his particular interest was in incunabula, later extended to Italian printing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Meanwhile, he was awarded in 1956 his doctorate from University College, London, for his thesis on ‘Vivaldo Belcalzer and the Mantuan dialect of c. 1300’, supervised by Professor Roberto Weiss.

            Dennis remained utterly loyal to his two mentors; his commitment to the library lasted his lifetime, through its separation from the Museum and becoming the British Library in 1973, his appointment as head of incunabula in 1974 as successor to George Painter, his promotion to Deputy Keeper on merit in 1978, his retirement in 1985, and the move to the new building in 1998; almost to the end of his life he simply stayed on, most of those years continuing with work behind the scenes. In the early years his library duties, apart from acquisition of Italian materials and cataloguing for the General Catalogue, included a memorable stint as Superintendent of the North Library in the late 1950s. It brought out the ebullient side of his personality, which disguised his discerning eye for people and their research values. Not only did he keep readers of rare and early books in good order with bonhomie and good humour, he also generously shared with them his already impressive knowledge of the collections. His assistance to readers seeking support was gratefully acknowledged by a generation of scholars, many of whom became friends, not least among the overseas visitors who returned every year.

            There are obvious milestones in his long career in the form of the publication of books. Presiding over a reading room is conducive to long-lasting projects that may entail such chores as reading through the General Catalogue from beginning to end. The first such feats of endurance Dennis accomplished (together with his colleague Anna Simoni) resulted in the publication of two revised volumes of Halkett and Lang’s Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature (1956, 1962). Later, the short-title catalogues of seventeenth-century Italian and early Spanish books in the British Library (1986, 1989) came into the same category. Milestones of a quite different order, the result of original research beyond the British Museum library, are his catalogues of incunabula. His travels yielded a census of incunabula in Greece (1981). He was granted leave of absence in 1969 when a visiting fellowship at All Souls gave him the opportunity to prepare A Catalogue of Incunabula in all the Libraries of Oxford University Outside the Bodleian (1982). These two catalogues provide short-title entries, the Oxford catalogue adding notes on early ownership. In 1985 he published an incunable catalogue with full-scale bibliographical descriptions, the twelfth volume of Catalogue of Books Printed in the XVth Century now in the British Museum (‘BMC XII’), supplementing the four volumes IV–VII that were published between 1916 and 1924 and which cover Italian incunabula. He had already contributed to volume X, covering the Iberian countries, and his handwriting can be recognized in the many notes in the staff copy of all the BMC volumes published in facsimile in 1963 in 1967. The circumscribed format of a catalogue or reference work suited him for work that takes years of patient compilation. Later in life he continued in this form with Silent Printers: Anonymous Printing at Venice in the Sixteenth Century (1995), the catalogue of early books in the Fondazione Cini in Venice (2011) and a bibliographical study of the Venetian publisher Giovanni Battista Ciotti (2013). But he also enjoyed writing smaller books in discursive mode, for example John Argentine, Provost of King’s: His Life and his Library (1967) and two small books attractively published in 1969 and 1973 by Cecil and Amelia Woolf: In an Eighteenth-Century Kitchen: A Receipt Book of Cookery 1698, and Dennis of Etruria on the life and works of the nineteenth-century explorer of Etruscan culture, George Dennis. Books of similar size in Italian, about ten in all, were published by Olschki in Florence and by small publishers in Viterbo, Borgo San Lorenzo, Treviso, Vicenza, and Venice. The little book Il terremoto del Mugello del 1542 in un raro opusculo dell’ epoca, which he co-authored in 1982 with Filippo Bellandi, deserves special mention as a small but telling example of fruitful linking of local history with its record in print.

            Other major publications were the collections of essays from various hands which he edited. The first was a selection of fifty essays by Victor Scholderer (1966), followed by a Festschrift for Scholderer in 1970. He was co-editor of collections honouring Roberto Ridolfi (1973) and Conor Fahy (1986), while he was the sole editor of the splendid Festschrift for Anthony Hobson, published in Verona by Mardersteig’s Edizioni Valdonega (1994). As further acts of friendship and appreciation he compiled the bibliographies of at least ten colleagues.

            The milestones in the form of books mark only part of Dennis’s prodigious productivity. A very significant part of what he published appeared as a constant stream of short articles, often no more than bibliographical notes. In the span of sixty-seven years he wrote over 450 such articles as well as about one hundred book reviews. Mostly they were written in what became his signature style, concise information, communicated in precise, unadorned, self-effacing prose. Most of these articles would add a small piece of substance and colour to the immense mosaic of what makes up the bibliographical record of early printing. Taken together they might be seen as a journal, kept intermittently, were it not that he is never personally present in the compact narratives. They began soon after his arrival in the British Museum. The first modest pages appeared in 1952 in the March issue of The Library, followed by a second in the June issue. In them he identifies and dates two items in the British Museum library, one a newly acquired letter of indulgence printed in Mondovì, the other a Florentine book, redated by Dennis as belonging to the incunable period. Scholderer’s lessons in identifying early printing types had obviously been well absorbed, but he also showed that he was really more interested in the buyer of the indulgence and the author of the book than in the printing process. The tendency, or even need, to place material in its historical context was to be a feature of much of his output.

            Merely reading through the chronological lists of Dennis’s work is instructive. Even on cursive reading, the enormous variety of the periodicals in which he published is striking. As early as 1957 he published fourteen articles in eleven different journals. We can discern a carefully maintained strategy: seldom would he publish more than once a year in the same journal, with the exception of The Library and La Bibliofilía, the two periodicals which were most favoured by his enduring loyalty. Between 1952 and 2019 he published just over forty articles in The Library and an equal number of book reviews, most of them of Italian publications. Add to this his regular contributions on Italian publications in the section ‘Recent Books and Periodicals’, signed from 1968 to 1995, when energy apparently ran out; not a year went by without ‘D. E. Rhodes’ appearing in at least one of the sections in The Library. His association with La Bibliofilía began in 1954, more intermittently than that with The Library, and intensifying in later years, comprising in all about sixty articles. The Book Collector published a smaller number of his articles, but hosted at least fifteen reviews; he was occasionally invited to contribute to the TLS. With his diligent reviewing of Italian material in English periodicals Dennis brought to the English-speaking world a lively awareness of the very significant activity in bibliographical scholarship that was taking place in Italy. Conversely, he regularly published lists in Italian Studies under the heading ‘Works of Italian interest published in Great Britain’.

            One project which Dennis, to his disappointment, did not manage to bring to completion has to be mentioned. From the 1950s there had been plans to create a national census of incunabula in Britain, pursued without much energy or focus by the National Central Library and SCONUL. The successive versions of the census of incunabula in American libraries by George P. Winship, Margaret Stillwell and Frederic R. Goff served as models. By the early 1970s the project had ended up in Dennis’s hands; he published about the project in 1977 in Aus dem Antiquariat and a year later in The Direction Line. In many ways it seemed to fit very well with his already established practice of investigating libraries in order to examine and record their early printed books, and he had long been interested in the plans for a British census. But in a country as rich as Britain in libraries with early collections, compiling such a census is a large-scale project, best carried out by a network of contributors with a central coordinator. This was the organisational form so successfully implemented by Winship, Stillwell and Goff, but it was not compatible with the way Dennis worked. He made significant contributions by working by himself in libraries outside the British Library, most notably his catalogue of incunabula in the libraries in Oxford outside the Bodleian, but also in smaller libraries in London. However, it turned out that automation, and absorption into the ISTC database was a more feasible way to arrive at an overview of incunabula in this country—albeit in an international context, available online and not as a separate print publication. Dennis did not disguise his disapproval.

            In the post-war years of the later twentieth century the study of early printing became truly international, and in his publications we can observe Dennis taking part in this international forum. The conference circuit did not appeal to him, nor the developments and activities around ‘the history of the book’, but he actively established his own publishing programme in several countries. In the USA he published in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, in Studies in Bibliography of the University of Virginia, and occasionally in the Library Chronicle. In Germany he did not miss a single year in the Gutenberg Jahrbuch between 1956 and 1999, and after 2000 he published there another twelve articles, the last one in 2019. He also appeared in Aus dem Antiquariat, and on the other side of the Wall in Berlin, in Beiträge zur Inkunabelkunde. In the Netherlands, Quaerendo published several of his studies concerning Dutch materials, and similarly Syntagma in Spain. Friendships and contacts leading to publications were made during travels beyond Italy; their traces can be found in Indian periodicals published in Bangalore and Mysore (1958, 1974) and in Greece (1974–79). But Italy was Dennis’s home from home, and his publishing activity there competes in numbers with that in England, in periodicals as well as in the form of books. His enduring association with La Bibliofilía has already been mentioned; he published also in newly appearing periodicals, L’Esopo, and Bibliologia. Most revealing are his publications in Italian periodicals of local or regional interest. His earliest publications in La Bibliofilía consisted of a series of twelve bibliographical studies of early printing houses in towns in Puglia and Calabria appearing from 1954 to 1980 under the heading ‘The Early Bibliography of Southern Italy’. Obviously, this was connected to his knowledge of the region and the friendships he had made during his military service. Parallel to the publication of this series he also published articles in local periodicals, Calabria nobilissima, La Rassegnia Pugliese, and Brundisii Res. In later life his attention shifted to the north, where he happily mingled with local historians in Rassegna Volterriana, Schifanoia, Archiginnasio, Studi Trevisani, and Studi piemontesi. ‘He has travelled the length and breadth of Italy, no part of the peninsula has been passed by, even if his favourite cities have always been Florence and Venice’, Luigi Balsamo wrote in his introduction to the collection of essays published in his honour by the British Library in 1993.

            Dennis’s bibliography was first compiled in chronological order by Denis V. Reidy in 1993 in the collection of essays honouring him mentioned above. Updates to 1996 were published by Alessandro Scarsella in Misccllanea Marciana X, XI, followed by Carlo Dumontet in 2013 in the issue of La Bibliofilía dedicated to Dennis, bringing the total of items to 568. Mr Dumontet kindly sent me a final list of publications of the years 2014–2019; the final tally is just short of 600. Obviously, it is not feasible to enter here into the detail of this mass of work. Dennis himself edited and added indexes to selections of in all 156 articles, published in three volumes by the Pindar Press in 1982, 1984 and 1991. He also assembled a collection of 322 offprints, listed and offered for sale by Robin Halwas in 2007, which was acquired by the Hesburgh Libraries at the University of Notre Dame. The list is available online.

            Dennis had a remarkable gift for finding common ground with a wide range of people, whether they were readers in the British Museum (or British Library) or custodians of libraries far off the beaten paths in Italy or Greece. The results of this approach and his contributions to the rich history of early printing in Italy were deeply appreciated as original and influential by Italians who themselves were working in the field. Balsamo, in the same introduction to the Festschrift of 1993, stressed Dennis’s ‘forceful contributions to the pattern of cultural exchange which has so long been a feature of relations between England and Italy’, and recalled how Antonio Panizzi enriched the British Museum’s collections with Italian materials—later for Dennis an inexhaustible source for exploration. In the ‘Rhodes’ issue of La Bibliofilía (2013) Piero Scapecchi offered a warm and perceptive appreciation and noted that Dennis brought to Italy the discipline of the ‘scuola britannica’ that began with Robert Proctor, A. W. Pollard and Victor Scholderer, and extended it with copy-description and investigations of provenance.

            In fact, Dennis extended the methodology of his predecessors more fundamentally: the limits of their research in early printing were confined to a single collection—vast though it was—and their priorities were inventorization of the collection, followed by interpretation of a well defined part, the incunabula, as exemplified by the progress from Proctor’s Index to the volumes of BMC produced by Pollard, Scholderer, and later by Painter. In BMC as conceived by Pollard, ‘interpretation’ took the form of extensive introductions presenting histories of printing and of individual printing houses in the areas covered in each volume. Here the compilers faced the question of whether the collection they described was representative enough to justify such general interpretations. Nobody would claim this; as a compromise they thoroughly exploited existing bibliographies and secondary literature. Dennis deviated from this limitation and undertook a significant proportion of his research in libraries outside the Museum or the British Library and beyond the responsibilities of the national institution. On his travels he visited small and unexplored libraries, but he had also considerable experience in the major libraries of Italy and Greece. These explorations served what was for him a guiding principle: that establishing the bibliographical record had to be based on multiple resources. Ensuring the accuracy of the record of what survives and filling in its gaps is a precept for the archaeology of the book which pervades his entire oeuvre. In his conclusions he would refrain from wider generalization. To take a random example, he expressed this principle in no uncertain terms in a review, published in The Library in 1959, of E. Gorini’s short history of printing in Vercelli in the seventeenth century. Berating the hapless author, he wrote, ‘My chief complaint is that Dr Gorini has contented himself with citing copies in Vercelli only . . . in general authors of bibliographies of one town ought not to be content to explore the resources of that town and no other. Such a procedure may lead to some mistaken conclusions’. The repetition of the term ‘content’ is a fierce condemnation coming from this industrious scholar.

            The honours Dennis received in England have already been mentioned at the beginning of this piece. In Italy, Dennis was honoured by election as Foreign Fellow of the Ateneo Veneto, Fellow of the Academia dei Sepolti of Volterra, and his appointment as Honorary Librarian of the Fondazione Cini. La Bibliofilía dedicated an issue to him in 2013. In the last year of his life he was fêted in Athens and in Venice, and when his death was announced, the Università Cattolica in Milan together with Olschki and the editors of La Bibliofilía instigated a ‘Concorso internazionale “Dennis E. Rhodes” dedicato alla storia del libro’, inviting young scholars to compete with short articles on early printing in Italy, Spain or Greece. It is a fitting tribute to the model set by Dennis in his life’s work.


This obituary was written during the months of lockdown, when libraries were closed. I relied for Dennis’s early years on the biographical introduction by Denis V. Reidy to the collection of essays presented to Dennis by his collegues in 1993. I am grateful for information I received from Carlo Dumontet, Robin Halwas and David McKitterick, and for discussions of Dennis’s work with John Goldfinch.

Lotte Hellinga