In 1961, Los Angeles urologist and bibliophile Dr. Elmer Belt donated to UCLA his magnificent collection of books and materials about Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance. A fiftieth anniversary tribute to the collector and his Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana is on display in the lobby gallery of the Department of Special Collections (Charles E. Young Library, A-level) through January 6.
Highlights of the exhibit include Luca Pacioli’s De divina proportione of 1509, which contains Leonardo’s perspective drawings of the regular solids and his elegant roman capital alphabet; Roberto Valturio’s De re militari of 1483, extensively referred to by Leonardo in his notebooks; and the 1550 edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Vite de’ piu eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori…, the first modern book of art history, in which Leonardo’s life figures prominently.
Elmer Belt, M.D. (1893-1980) moved from Chicago to California at a young age and never looked back. His dedication to book collecting emerged in high school in Los Angeles with the dime novels of Thomas Bird Mosher. It was reinforced in medical school, when a history of medicine class assignment at Berkeley with George W. Corner sparked an interest in the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Following a residency with physician and noted bibliophile Harvey Cushing in Boston, Dr. Belt opened a urological practice back in Los Angeles in the 1920s and purchased the first facsimile edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. Belt recruited antiquarian bookseller Jacob (Jake) Zeitlin and art historian Kate Steinitz to help him build the foremost research collection in the world of books about all facets of Leonardo’s works and the Italian Renaissance. Although Vinciana was his core interest, Belt immersed himself in the ideas and accomplishments of several other intellectual forebears and contemporaries, and built renowned collections around nursing educator Florence Nightingale, neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, and his own friend, the writer/activist Upton Sinclair.
Elmer Belt and his wife Ruth spread their tremendous involvement throughout Los Angeles but focused their passion, influence, and philanthropy on UCLA. This culminated in the 1961 gift of the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana, whose volumes include more than 70 incunables or books produced during the fifteenth-century infancy of printing with movable type.
(Above) Reviewing the 1961 gift, from left to right: Rosanna Pedretti; Vinciana librarian Kate Steinitz (1889-1975); Carlo Pedretti (now UCLA Professor of Art History, emeritus); Dr. Elmer Belt; and Leonardo scholar Ladislao Reti (1901-1973).
For information about using items in the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana, see: http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/arts/10015.cfm
Twenty-eight books from the Vinciana collection, focusing on editions of the Treatise on Painting, are digitized and available through the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/davinci
Books from Dr. Belt’s Florence Nightingale Collection, donated to the Biomedical Library in 1958 in honor of School of Nursing founding dean Lulu Wolf Hassenplug, also are online through the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/f_nightingale
In 1976, Dr. Belt described the inspiration for his bookplate (at top): “[W]e selected the little quick sketch by Leonardo of an artist looking through a peephole at a transparency upon which he is tracing the lines of a three dimensional object seen beyond the screen upon which he is drawing. This semi-scientific instrument in active use seemed to me to express so exactly Leonardo’s approach and method of thinking in general that I adopted it as a bookplate for our Leonardo da Vinci Library.”
Russell Johnson and Jane Carpenter
UCLA Library Special Collections