The British Library's Hebrew incunabula collection is rightly acknowledged to be one of the finest in the world. Incunabula are books printed by movable type before 1501. The collections include 100 incunabula, representing 86 different editions, mostly from the very early Hebrew presses in Italy and the Iberian Peninsula.
The Lion asking the Stag about the land of Israel and its worth. Meshal ha-Kadmoni [Ancient fables] by Isaac Ibn Sahula, Brescia: Gershom Soncino, 1491. [C.50.a.15, f.19r] ©
The nucleus of the collection was formed in 1759. It consisted of three items from Da Costa's gift:
- a Soncino (1484) copy of Mivhar ha-peninim [A selection of pearls], attributed to Solomon Ibn Gabirol (C.50.b.4*)
- one of Joseph Albo's Sefer ha-Ikarim [The book of principles], Soncino, 1485 (C.50.d.15)
- Jacob Lando's Sefer ha-Agur [The scholars' anthology], Naples, ca. 1490 (C.50.b.23)
Nearly a century later, Heimann Michael's estate contributed another thirty specimens, some printed on vellum, for example
- the Humash [Pentateuch] printed by Abraham de Tintori, Bologna, 1482 (C.49.d.2).
One of the rarest incunabula held in the collection is a Pentateuch printed in Faro, 1487, that once belonged in Giuseppe Almanzi's library. It is the only known copy of the first book ever to be printed in Portugal (C.49.c.1).
Another remarkable item is a copy of Isaac Ibn Sahula's Meshal ha-Kadmoni [Ancient fables] issued by Gershom Soncino in Brescia in 1491, and regarded as the very first illustrated Hebrew printed book (C.50.a.15).