The title of this book is: »La danse des morts, pour servir de miroir, à la nature humaine«. The alert reader will notice, that one word is missing, namely "Basel".
The book was published in Le Locle, 85 kilometers southwest of Basel, and there is nothing neither on the front page nor within the texts to tell the reader that the subject is the famous dance of death in Basel.
Samuel Girardet settled down in Le Locle in 1758 to work as a book-trader and bookbinder. He fathered no less than ten children, and in particular Abraham (1764-1823) and Alexandre (1767-1836) at an early age turned out to have a talent for engravings. Their reputation was strengthened in 1779, when a Bible was published in Neuchâtel, »La sainte Bible, qui contient le Vieux et le Nouveau Testament«. This Bible contained 16 tables with 466 small Bible scenes created by Abraham. An impressive feat for a 14-15 years old boy.
One of the family's greatest successes was »La danse des morts«:
Curiously Burlesqued and Modernized.
La Danse des Morts, pour servir de miroir à la nature humaine. Avec le costume dessiné à la moderne et des vers à chaques figures. Au Locle chez Sl. Girardet Libraire, 1788, with frontispiece and curious plates after Merian, 8vo […]
In this volume an unknown artist has copied the Merian plates, but has arranged
the various figures in modern costumes, producing a very curious effect. […]
The text is also in verses. At the end of the
volume is a queer treatise, "L'Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir" (The Art of living
and dying well), with an additional plate. It is a very scarce book and difficult to procure.
Douce, p. 43. Langlois, Tome II., pp. 177-181.
Langlois writes something similar:
19 — 1788. La Danse des Morts, Pour Servir De Miroir à
la nature Humaine. Avec le costume dessiné à la moderne,
et des vers à chaques figures. Au Locle, chez St. Girardet
Libraire. In-8. Le titre et les cuivres de ce volume sont
empruntés, malgré les changements, à ceux de Mérian. On
y trouve aussi une pièce composée en 1595, imprimée sous
ce titre: "L'Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir, au Locle,
chez Samuel Girardet, Libraire, M DCC LXXXVIII."
(Massmann, p. 80, et Douce, p. 42.)
Many of the costumes are updated. Sears (quoted above) writes: »Curiously Burlesqued and Modernized«, while Warthin (bottom of page 89) writes: »burlesqued and modernized in a curious manner«. However, it is only citizens and nobility that have been modernized; ecclesiasticals and characters that no longer existed, such as jester, peddler and heathen, have been scrupulously copied.
The year, 1788, is not the be found anywhere within the book, but the book was often (always?) bound together with a copy of the third edition of "L'Art de bien vivre et de bien mourir" (picture to the right), which has the year M DCC LXXXVIII.
Both Sears and Langlois agree that the cupper plates are copies of Matthäus Merian, and we could quote Douce(1), Massmann(2) and Kurtz(3) for the same.
However, this is not correct. They are in fact copies of Jacques-Antony Chovin's engravings that in turn were copies after Matthäus Merian.
One clue to this is that Chovin followed the fashion of his time and often added landscapes in the background. Girardet did the same to an even higher degree, but in those cases where Chovin had already added a landscape, it was copied by Girardet. Take for instance the scene with the mayor to the left, where the landscape is identical to Chovin's plate right down to the swan in the lake, while there isn't any background on Merian's original plate.
Another clue is on the frontispiece. On the right side of Merian's original plate a black column of smoke dominates the sky. In Girardet's version (top, left of this page), there is no smoke but instead a leafy tree, just like on Chovin's plate.
A third, and even more obvious clue, is the French title, "Danse des Morts" instead of "Todten-Tantz", and all the French essays. The different issues of Merian's book were all in German, whereas Chovin's book was bilingual: German and French.
Let's take a closer look at those texts.
The short story is that Girardet has more or less taken everything that (1) was in French, and (2) did not mention the city of Basel:
Chovin's book contained Merian's preface from 1649 in the original German as well as translated into French.
Girardet skipped the first half, which described the murals history in Basel, but copied the last half, which listed eight ways in which dances of death were useful.
In 1649 Merian included a description of the city Basel.
The description had been written by Enea Silvio, the later Pope Pius II. It was translated into French by Chovin, but was not included by Girardet.
Girardet copied the plates and the French text.
Chovin's book contained a French translation of four German hymns (canticles). These were included by Girardet.
Chovin refrained from translating this section into French. Girardet chose to supply the Bible verses in French, but left out the church fathers.
Finally Girardet features a text that he did not take from Chovin: »Meditations sur la mort Tirées des Considérations sur les Oeuvres de Dieu par Mr. C.C. Sturm«.
The German priest Christoph Christian Sturm (1740-1786) was prolific and his works were translated into many languages. According to Wikipedia, »his works on the Reflections on the Works of God in Nature even highly influenced Beethoven, amongst whose possessions was found a highly annotated copy of Sturm's work«.
All through the book, three words are conspicuous by their absence: "Basel", "Chovin" and "Merian".
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)
Francis Douce, The Dance of Death, 1833, page 42.
»This is on an engraved frontispiece, copied from that in Merian. The letter-press is extracted from the French translation of Merian, and the plates, which are neatly etched, agree as to general design with his; but the dresses of many of the characters are rather ludicrously modernised«.
Hans Ferdinand Massmann, Literatur der Todtentänze, 1840, page 80.
»Das Titelblatt und die Kupfer (zum Theil im Frack und Reifrock nach Merian, treu in den Stellungen eben so der Tod«.
Leonard Paul Kurtz, The Dance of death and the macabre spirit in European, 1934, page 112.
»Another edition of copper engravings borrowed with some changes from the Merian engravings appeared in 1788 with the title La Danse des Morts, Pour servir de Miroir a la nature Humaine«.