Book of the Month February 09 – Boccaccio, The Fall of Princes

This month we feature a de-luxe illuminated manuscript copy of the De Casibus Virorum Illustrium by Boccaccio. It is a compilation of moral stories about the tragic ends of famous men and women. This is a copy of a version rendered into French by Laurence de Premierfait in the 15th century. Each of its nine books is illustrated by a high quality miniature.

Boccaccio and Dame Fortune

Boccaccio and Dame Fortune

Boccaccio (1313-1375) is regarded to be one of the most important and influential writers of the Middle Ages. Producing works of great literature in both Latin and the vernacular, his home was a centre for early Italian humanism.

The De Casibus Virorum Illustrium was written in the late 1350s. Loosely translated into English as The Fall of Princes, it is a profoundly moral treatise on the vicissitudes of man’s fortune. Influenced by a friendship with Petrarch (1304-1374), Boccaccio had turned to religion in his later years and his work became increasingly imbued with a sense of morality. Composed at a time when many Italian city-states were headed by dictatorial tyrants, its aim was to “teach princes the virtues of wisdom and moderation, to point out to them the ruin wrought by egotism, pride and unbridled ambition”. With its overarching theme of life’s mutability, it provides plentiful examples of the errors and excesses that kings and princes should avoid. Boccaccio produced a second, augmented version of the work about ten years after the first.

Miniature depicting Fortune and her Wheel

Miniature depicting Fortune and her Wheel

The work is presented in the framework of a vision. As Boccaccio sits in his study, a succession of unfortunate figures from history and mythology pass before him. Roughly chronological, the text begins with Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden, and ends with King John of France who was taken prisoner by the English in Poitiers in 1356. Fortune herself appears before the author at the beginning of Book 6: she tells Boccaccio that his task is futile and then suggests the names of more miserable characters for him to write about; he is later visited by Petrarch who berates him for being idle and exhorts him to continue in writing the work.

Miniature depicting the fight of Fortune and poverty; misfortune being tied to a stake

Miniature depicting the fight of Fortune and poverty; misfortune being tied to a stake

Many of the stories recounted are derived from the Bible, the works of the Church Fathers, classical sources and Greek mythology. In particular, Boccaccio draws heavily on Livy and Ovid (particularly the Metamorphoses). Other anecdotes are taken from medieval Latin writers such as Valerius Maximus and Hyginus.

The opening picture in our manuscript shows Boccaccio pointing to the goddess Fortune who stands beside a wheel upon which her victims rise and fall. Fortune, who dominates the second book of Boethius’ work, De Consolatione Philosophiae, was one of the central images of medieval culture. Traditionally depicted as a woman, she personifies the medieval belief that personal misfortune was less the result of individual action than a reflection of the inevitable turning of her wheel.

Full page with miniature of Boccaccio & Fortune in an

Full page with miniature of Boccaccio & Fortune in an

Full page with miniature of Antony

Full page with miniature of Antony

Today, the Decameron is undoubtedly regarded to be Boccaccio’s literary masterpiece. But in the later Middle Ages, the De Casibus was more popular and influential. It secured Boccaccio’s reputation and was widely read, spawning a new genre of “de casibus” writings. Since it was written in the international language of Latin rather than the vernacular, it could reach a large European audience. It was, furthermore, also translated into several languages. This manuscript is a copy of Laurence (or Laurent) de Premierfait’s French translation of the work.

Full page with miniature of Boccaccios vision of Petrarch

Full page with miniature of Boccaccio's vision of Petrarch

Laurence de Premierfait was born in about 1380 at the village of that name near Troyes in the French province of Champagne. He was a poet and orator, and made a living by translating works for eminent patrons. For a time, he was secretary to Cardinal Amadeo di Saluzzo and became acquainted with humanists while living at the Papal Court of Avignon in 1397. He later lived in Paris under the protection of a number of noble patrons, including Jean, Duke of Berry (1340-1416), to whom this translation was dedicated. He died in 1418, possibly of the plague.

As well as translating several classical works, Laurence also produced a French version of the Decameron. He made two translations of the De Casibus: the first in 1400 and this much freer version in 1409. In French, it was known as Du cas des nobles hommes et femmes.

Miniature depicting Seleucus being shipwrecked

Miniature depicting Seleucus being shipwrecked

Although a good Latin scholar, like many medieval translators, Laurence was not concerned about providing a literal or accurate rendering of Boccaccio’s text. In fact, his aim was to “improve” the original by omitting some passages and adding material of his own. He hoped to make the text more comprehensible to the reader by embellishing passages which to him seemed obscure or too concise. Consequently, he lengthened his version of the work to nearly three times that of the original.

Detail from miniature depicting Seleucus being shipwrecked

Detail from miniature depicting Seleucus being shipwrecked

In particular, Laurence provides much background information on people and places, expanding the details of stories. His deviations from the original also highlight his interest in the Bible, astronomy and geography – all of which, according to Gathercole, places him “in the humanist trend of the late Middle Ages that blossoms forth during the Renaissance period in France”.3 His sources for this augmentation were diverse: he demonstrates his obviously great knowledge of the classics, but one of his main sources for mythological characters was actually another encyclopaedic work by Boccaccio, the De Genealogia Deorum Gentilium.

Although providing more context to the stories, Laurence’s translation has been criticised for unwieldiness; it changes Boccaccio’s original vivid and direct narrative to the indirect, “thus destroying the dramatic power of the narrative”.

Full page with miniature of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel

Full page with miniature of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel

Like Boccaccio’s original, Laurence’s translation was written primarily for the benefit of rulers and princes: he sought to improve their morals. The Du Cas was dedicated to the Duke of Berry but also intended to be read by other French nobles. In the early 15th century when he was working on his translations, France was perceived to be in a state of moral decline, largely as a result of the ongoing 100 years war (1337-1453). Laurence “felt compelled to warn his contemporaries not to repeat a recent pattern of bloodshed and tragedy but rather to seek moral regeneration and peaceful living”.

Full page with miniature depicting Marcus Manlius being thrown into the Tiber

Full page with miniature depicting Marcus Manlius being thrown into the Tiber

Therefore, his aim was didactic – by using examples from the past, he wished to point out the evils of rulers in antiquity. Almost all the protagonists of Laurence’s stories have catastrophic ends: the underlying message of the work is that “wickedness results inevitably in tragedy. Men, especially the nobility who are at this period leaders of others, must be morally strong”.6

The translation proved to be immensely popular, and large numbers of manuscript copies of it were made in the 15th century, most of them richly illustrated. It was also printed in at least seven editions before 1539. John Lydgate (1370?-1451?) paraphrased it into English rhyme as the Fall of Princes. This work was in turn imitated in English by popular works such as The Mirror for Magistrates.

This is one of two illustrated 15th century manuscript copies of the Du cas in Special Collections. It is a luxury production, well written out in a professional French book hand on good quality vellum. Each of its nine books begins with a large miniature surrounded by a border containing acanthus leaves and flowers. It is split into two volumes of 180 and 142 folios respectively.

Title-page in volume 1 (written as Tom. II)

Title-page in volume 1 (written as Tom. 'II')

Detail of rubrication, script and illuminated initial A

Detail of rubrication, script and illuminated initial 'A'

It is written in double columns in a bold cursive bastard (or “Bâtarde”) script. This high grade book hand was particularly associated with the Burgundian court, and is consequently often referred to as “lettre bourguignonne”. Michelle Brown notes that it was a very popular script for use in de luxe continental manuscripts of the 15th and 16th centuries. Unusually, we know the name of the scribe of our manuscript, as it is given in the colophon at the end of the work. Here, we are informed that the manuscript was written by the hand of Nicolas Saint Homme of the Order of St John in Paris: the work was finished on the 8th day of April 1467 after Easter. This information is repeated in title-pages that were added later to each volume, although unfortunately the date is erroneously transcribed as 1462 and Nicolas is given as being a Dominican.

Detail of nobles from miniature depicting Fortune and her Wheel

Detail of nobles from miniature depicting Fortune and her Wheel

The manuscript was probably decorated soon after its text was written in 1467. As identified by Nicole Reynaud, the opening miniature of Fortune and her wheel belongs artistically to a group close to the artist known as the Coëtivy Master (fl. 1455–75). He was an illuminator, painter and tapestry designer; although active in France, his style of work has identified him as probably being of a north Netherlandish origin. As well as devotional texts, he illustrated several secular works (including a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy). He is praised by Tolley for his vibrant colour schemes and for being particularly successful “in handling dramatic situations involving numerous figures”.8 He had several followers.

As Thorp states, the figures in our illustration have been carefully individualized and modelled. The colour balance of the composition is carefully controlled, matching the colours used in the conventional flower and acanthus leaf border.

There are a further nine large miniatures, found at the beginning of each book; these are the work of a less skilful artist.

There are some blank spaces in the text at the end of chapters in the first section of the manuscript. These suggest that in the original plan of work it was intended to incorporate further, smaller, miniatures throughout the text.

As well as the fully illustrated pages, the text is embellished throughout with decorated initials illuminated with gold; these mark the beginnings of chapters. While the full page borders are executed in a standard pattern, it is interesting to note that from the middle of Book 6, the designs of the illuminated initials change from ivy leaf patterns (as seen, for example, in the initial ‘A’ illustrated earlier), to a series of more naturalistic flowers (as seen in initial ‘J’ above).

The De Casibus is not a well known work today. Its unrelenting litany of savage cruelty, death, rape and torture makes it somewhat grim reading. Typical of the stories is that of the Emperor Maurice, as illustrated above: he was usurped by his lieutenant Phocus and is said to have been forced to watch his sons being murdered before he himself was beheaded – although according to the sources, his wife was spared, unlike her fate in our image.

Perhaps its obscurity today is due not only to its unpleasant subject matter, however, but also to the fact that its Latin prose makes it somewhat inaccessible to most readers. In fact, the Latin original is scathingly dismissed by MacManus who says that Boccaccio is “hell to feed on … He moralises with senile, croaking tediousness; he philosophises, exhorts, admonishes, digresses to consider once more the crookedness of women. He is an arch-bore because he is bored himself”.10

Our manuscript is from the magnificent collection of William Hunter (1718-83) who bequeathed his library (and other collections) to the University of Glasgow. Hunter amassed some 650 manuscripts and it is thanks to his legacy that we have so many splendid examples of medieval codexes in Special Collections today.

We know that Hunter acquired the manuscript at the sale of the library of Louis-Jean Gaignat in Paris on 10 April 1769, along with several other books (including a previous book of the month: the magnificent Hunterian Psalter). We do not know who owned the book prior to Gaignat, however, although there is a clue to its earlier provenance in a Coat of Arms that is found in the preliminary leaves of both volumes. This has yet to be identified.

There will be an opportunity to see the first volume of the manuscript on display from mid February. It will be exhibited in the Hunterian Museum until June 2009 as part of the Hunter: man, medic and collector exhibition.



Categories: Special Collections

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