Printed books annotated by early users offer great research opportunities. If we are able to decipher and decode the scribbles, they can provide fascinating insights into the lives and thoughts of long-dead readers. I recently came across one example which is crying out to have some research conducted into it, a sixteenth-century printed book completely covered with interesting looking notes in a beautiful contemporary calligraphic italic handwriting. I’d love to know more about the book and discover who made these notes, so I’ve decided to tell you about it in the hope that someone ‘out there’ will either know about it or be provoked into research mode.
The book is a copy of the first ever Latin translation of Apollonius of Perga’s classical Greek text on conic sections, edited by Giovanni Battista Memmo (c. 1466-1536) and published posthumously in Venice in 1537. For those of you who, like me, are uninitiated into the dark arts of geometry, conic sections are apparently curves obtained as a cone intersects with a plane (no, don’t think jumbo jets and cornettos – think ellipses, parabolas, hyperbolas etc. To read more about conic sections see material in our Simson collection). Apollonius of Perga (fl. c. 200 BC) was one of the most important classical writers on conic sections but only four of the eight books he wrote on the topic survived in Greek, so this Latin translation comprised just the first half of the work. To the uncritical reader Memmo seems to have done a great job, producing a beautiful folio edition packed with complicated looking text, elegant woodcut diagrams and a beautiful woodcut titlepage. However, unfortunately for him and his posthumous reputation, those who really understood the content of the work were far less complimentary about his translation which was, according to modern critic G. J. Toomer, “considered to be very faulty”*.
The faulty nature of the maths may go some way to explaining the appearance of our copy, which has been annotated and added to throughout, as if someone were correcting the text or editing it in preparation for a new edition. Virtually no page goes unmarked. The busiest pages boast margins swimming with text, the original woodcut diagrams overlain and corrected with hand-drawn glued-in paper inserts. Yet despite the sheer quantity of additions, the pages remain clear and legible: the italic handwriting (all in Italian) is beautifully executed. No record has been made as to the identity of the annotator yet, thanks to a note at the end of the 4th book, we do know that the annotations were completed by 1st January 1541.
So, who made these notes? Well, the level of detail is astonishing – whoever has made them clearly knew what they were doing. Since the notes are all in Italian, my first thought was that this must have been an Italian mathematician using the Latin text to prepare an Italian edition. But, on checking EDIT16 no Italian edition of the work was published during the 16th century (or at least no known such edition has survived). So if it is the working text for an Italian translation, then it’s a translation which was likely never published. But, there’s another possibility. Sicilian born mathematician Francesco Maurolico (1494-1575) was one of Memmo’s sternest critics, questioning his mathematical abilities and his understanding of Greek (unlike Memmo, Maurolico was a native Greek speaker). Even so, apparently Maurolico did use Memmo’s text as one of the sources for his own Latin translation of Apollonius, completed by 1548 yet unpublished until the 17th century** Might this be Maurolico’s marked up copy of Memmo’s translation? It is possible – the dates seem to fit and he was very critical of Memmo, so presumably his working text would have contained many marginal notes and corrections, like our copy. However, on balance, I think it is unlikely to be the work of Maurolico since surely a native Greek speaker, editing the Latin translation of a Greek text in preparation for his own Latin edition, would choose to annotate in Latin or Greek rather than Italian?*** So who made these notes?
Well before I hand the baton over to you good folks, there is one further (potential) clue. At an early date someone (the book’s owner presumably) has written his name on the titlepage: “WPykerynge”. My best guess is that this is the autograph of Sir William Pickering (1516-1575) courtier to Elizabeth I, diplomat, booklover and Italophile. Few copies of Pickering’s books survive from what was once a considerable library but he was a noted collector and bibliophile with a particular taste for Italian books, many of which he is thought to have purchased when visiting Venice in the 1550s****. Although most of his extant books boast his personalised armorial binding stamp, this volume, bound in the contemporary Italian style, evidently escaped rebinding and personalisation. Did Pickering simply buy this book at a second hand stall in Venice? Or, as an important foreign visitor, was it presented to him by a Venetian dignitary? Perhaps even by the author of the marginalia in person?
If you recognise the handwriting, recognise the mathematical working, have any good ideas or would like to come and look at the book, please let us know!
*Toomer, G. J. (Ed.) Conics: books V to VII (NewYork: Springer-Verlag, 1990) p. Xxi
**Koudela, L. Curves in the History of Mathematics WDS’05 Proceedings of Contributed Papers, Part I, 198–202, 2005. & Fried, Michael, N. & Unguru, Sabetai Apollonius of Perga’s Conica: text, context, subtext (Leiden: Brill, 2001) p. 8
***Thanks to Thony Christie (@rmathematicus) for his thoughts on this.
****Pickering’s library was apparently passed on, intact, inherited by whoever married his daughter. As such it is thought to have descended with the Wotton Library through the Earls of Chesterfield to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who sold several of them at Sotheby’s in 1919 (See Philip, G. “Sir William Pickering and his books” The Book Collector 5 (3) 1956.) This particular book clearly took a different route since it was in the collection of physician Joseph Letherland by the 18th century, from whose sale William Hunter acquired it in 1765 for £0.2.6 ([Lot] 132 Apolonii Pergæi Opera, cum Notis MSS. Ven. [end italics] 1537). Thanks to Katie Birkwood (@Girlinthe), librarian at the Royal College of Physicians for checking the Letherland sale catalogue for me.
Categories: Special Collections