Italian Illuminated Incunabula

The Wren Library has always been famous for its outstanding collection of illuminated manuscripts. Less well known are the illuminations added by hand to many of its earliest printed books. A new catalogue of illuminations in Italian printed books of the fifteenth century in the Cambridge College libraries and the Fitzwilliam Museum has brought to light many previously unstudied creations of the Italian Renaissance. In this blog-post we take a look at some of the finer illuminations added to Italian books in Trinity’s collections.

In the earliest years of printing it was perhaps inevitable that the more luxurious publications would be decorated in a very similar manner to the manuscripts which continued to be created alongside them, and in some cases the work of the same artist can be identified in both manuscripts and printed books. Several of the most elaborately decorated volumes in Trinity come from the collection of William Grylls (1786–1863), a Scholar of Trinity and West Country clergyman who bequeathed his outstanding library of more than 14,000 books to the College.

Macrobius, Expositio in Somnium Scipionis, Saturnalia (Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1472)
VI.18.52, fol. [a2]r
This very fine edition was printed on parchment and illuminated in Venice in 1473, a few months after its publication. The shield at the centre of the bottom margin bears the arms of the great philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, whose Oration on the Dignity of Man has been called the ‘Manifesto of the Renaissance’. It is most likely that this book was presented to Pico della Mirandola on the occasion of his appointment as Apostolic Protonotary in 1473, at the age of ten. The book was rebound while in the collection of Thomas, 8th Earl of Pembroke, and was later owned by the famous collector Henry Yates Thompson, whose widow presented it to Trinity in 1928.

Biblia latina (Venice: Franciscus Renner de Heilbronn and Nicolaus de Frankfordia, 1476)
Grylls 2.145, fol. [a2]r
The printers of this Latin Vulgate Bible reserved a large space at the beginning of the Prologue for a portrait of St Jerome. This copy has been decorated by the same artist as the Macrobius shown above, active in Venice in the 1470s and known today as the Master of the Pico Pliny. The spraywork borders are of particularly fine execution.

St Jerome, Epistolae, in Italian (Ferrara: Laurentius de Rubeis de Valentia, 12 October 1497)
Grylls 3.444, fols K3v–K4r

The design of the woodcuts in this edition of the letters of St Jerome has been attributed to the Master of the Pico Pliny, the artist of the Macrobius and Vulgate Bible above, but was executed in Ferrara some 20 years later. This page displays St Jerome presenting his monastic Rule to a kneeling monk with halo, and ‘S Martim’ giving the Rule to a group of nuns. All of the almost 200 woodcut illustrations in this copy have been tinted in green, red and blue, with initial letters painted in gold with vine-scroll decoration. This book was owned by the Augustinian church and monastery of Sant’Andrea in Ferrara, and later entered the hands of the notorious librarian and book thief Guglielmo Libri.

Orosius, Historiae adversus paganos ([Vicenza]: Hermannus Liechtenstein, [c. 1475])
Grylls 3.459, fol. [a2]r
The magnificent architectural border of mottled marble on this opening page was executed by Giovanni Vendramin (fl. 1466–1508), who worked for the bishop of Padua and for other clients in Venice. The lion rampant on the shields borne by the two female figures seem to be of the Sterpino family, perhaps also signalled by the initials ‘C S’ in the base. The final page of this book includes a note summarising the decoration supplied, in order to calculate payment to the artist: 14x lettere / 7 doro / io principio, that is to say, 140 red or blue epigraphic capitals, 7 gold initials, and one frontispiece.

Pliny the Elder, Historia naturalis, Italian trans. by Cristoforo Landino
(Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1476) Grylls 2.184, fol. [c2]r
This translation of Pliny’s major work was printed in Venice and illuminated in Rome, probably for a member of the Boccaccio family in Florence whose arms are partly erased on the page displayed. The gold initial ‘E’ is surrounded by vine-scroll decoration, and a green parrot sits proudly in the outer margin. A later owner has attempted to wash away the marginal commentary added throughout this volume by an early reader, while preserving the ornamental additions.

Dante, La Commedia, with commentary by Jacopo della Lana ([Venice]:
Vindelinus de Spira, 1477) VI.16.20, fol. a3r
The pink initial ‘N’ with acanthus motifs at the opening of Dante’s Inferno is strongly influenced by Ferrarese illumination, which came to be dominant in Padua in the 1470s. The coat of arms in the lower margin of this page has been overpainted, and may belong to Battista de’ Negri of Venice, who inscribed the book perhaps around 1500. This copy, which is preserved in its 15th-century binding, was presented to Trinity in 1895 by the widow of the judge Sir William Frederick Pollock, who published a verse translation of Dante.

Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti (Zamberto), Isolario
(Venice: Guilelmus Anima Mia, Tridinensis?, c.1485) Grylls 3.355

The woodcut prints in this volume of maps of the islands of the Aegean Sea were coloured in rather crude style shortly after the book was printed. This map of Crete is printed in the opposite direction to most modern maps, with South at the top. This copy bears the armorial binding of the poet and statesman Marco Foscarini, who served as the 117th Doge of Venice in the 18th century.

These books will be on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours until the end of November 2017.

 

2 thoughts on “Italian Illuminated Incunabula

  1. Peter John Jarman

    I am interested in the parakeet in the outer margin of the illustrated page of Pliny’s Historia naturalis. The bird looks to be an Alexandrine parakeet Psittacula eupatria, whose native range is from north-western India or Eastern Pakistan (Punjab) eastward to Thailand, etc. Why was such a non-European bird shown in the margin by an artist working in Rome at that time? Venice would have been a bit more appropriate as that city was then a major entry point for trade with Persia and India. The parakeet’s colloquial name reflects the legend that Alexander the Great exported those parakeets to Europe, although there is no proof of that, nor is it known how long they survived after his time. (However, they are now widespread in Britain.) Its specific epithet “eupatria” translates variously as ‘from good (or new) fatherland’ or ‘of noble descent’. Would that be relevant to the placing of the marginal illustration?

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