This latest batch of incunabula is stuffed with so many good things that I hardly know where to begin. So, skipping over another mammoth Bible printed for Anton Koberger, let us first turn our attention to a couple of early books printed in Rome. The first of these is an edition of Jerome’s letters, probably printed by Sixtus Riessinger. Produced ‘not after 1467′, this is one of the earliest printed books in our collection.
As with so many early books, there is actually no imprint information in the book itself, and there has been some difference of opinion regarding the identification of the printer and its date of manufacture. The date of ‘not after 1467’ is proposed by D.E. Rhodes* who remarks that this edition has “caused an enormous amount of discussion and speculation among bibliographers for over two centuries”. It is suggested, in fact, that this may be the very first book printed in Rome, and that Riessinger therefore supplants Sweynheym and Pannartz as being the first printer of Rome (and that this book predates their edition of Jerome of 13 December 1468). Our copy of this bibliographical puzzle, meanwhile, is beautifully rubricated and decorated, including two illuminated historiated initials depicting the author, Saint Jerome. A popular work throughout the 15th century, we have six different editions of this text in our incunabula collections (including a 1502 ‘post incunable’ in this batch).
The other early Roman work found here is a  edition of Vergil, printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz (who, as we now know, may or may not be the first printers to settle in the Eternal City). This too is a majestically produced volume, with gorgeous Italian white-vine style decoration. The border found on the opening page of the ‘Bucolica’ incorporates the coat of arms of an unidentified owner depicting the figure of Justice and (what is probably) a dog holding a shield.
The annotations are another noteworthy feature in our copy. It contains numerous leaves of marginal inscriptions in Arabic and in Italian employing the Arabic script, one of which is a direct quote from Torquato Tasso’s poem, ‘Gerusalemme liberata’ – suggesting a dating in the latter part of the 16th century. David Weston (our former Keeper of Special Collections) examined these closely. Although the Arabic is unclear and displays errors in a number of places, he concluded that these marginalia were probably written by a learned Italian senior cleric, who had studied some classical Arabic and who adapted the Arabic script in several ways to represent the phonology of the Italian language. David’s full typescript transcription of these fourteen marginalia is now loosely inserted in the volume, if you are interested in finding out more.
At this point, I could now go on to discuss the three editions of William Caxton that are found in this batch, but since I have been sucked into the world of lavish illumination, I will instead draw your attention to the unfinished border that is found in another edition of Vergil’s works. Produced in Venice by Jacobus Rubeus in January 1475/76, the opening page of this book is partially decorated by a worn initial ‘V’ illuminated in silver. The rest of the border has been started, but only pen-and-ink sketches reveal the planned final scheme that should have incorporated a putto, sea-horses and coat of arms. We have no idea why this border was not finished (did its original owner commission the art work and then run out of money?), but since there are several completed decorated major initials within the text, it is interesting evidence of the complexities of scribal input in 15th century books.
From the only slightly ridiculous to the sublime, our beautiful and totally bespoke copy of Jenson’s Breviary of 1478 is the final book that simply must be mentioned in this blog. Probably produced as an important gift for Leonardo Botta, the Milanese ambassador to Venice from 1470 to 1480, our exceptional copy was printed on vellum and is unique in being enhanced by nine fully decorated pages painted by an artist identified as ‘Petrus V’. There still exist forty-six other copies of this edition; many of these were partly decorated and over twenty were similarly printed on vellum. However, this volume is the most extensively illuminated Italian copy known.
Botta had acted for Jenson in investigating a presumed embezzlement of the printer’s funds by a bookseller in Pavia. His name is indicated by the abbreviations ‘LEO’ and ‘BO’ found on each side of a shield that appears twice in the border decoration (his original coat of arms, incidentally, being overpainted by that of the Du Prat family – probably the next owners).
The Botta provenance is further substantiated by the presence of the name “Leonardus” written in a cursive script at the foot of three leaves, indicating that Jenson specifically put aside parchment for the production of this copy for Botta. It is conjectured that a pen and ink drawing of a man in contemporary costume found in the margins of the Calendar is possibly a portrait of Botta himself. This is perhaps rather fanciful, but why not in such a personalised copy?
Lilian Armstrong has examined many different copies of the Breviary in depth and this interesting research** tells us a lot about the varied treatment different copies of one edition received at this time, as well as the sheer scale of enterprise required for turning out hand decorated books. It would seem that virtually all the copies of the Jenson Breviary were fully rubricated by hand, each receiving a staggering 4,000 to 5,000 two line red and blue initials; two line initials in fifteen copies were extensively flourished in inks in contrasting colours; 31 copies had at least one initial illuminated in gold and colours and of these, 18 had several additional initials in gold and colours, and five had dozens of gold and coloured initials painted throughout the text. Armstrong concludes that, because of the sheer bulk and technical requirements of completing this very extensive hand work, copies must have been rubricated and flourished in close proximity to Jenson’s workshop, the work probably being organized by Jenson or his firm’s bookseller. If you would like to explore more examples of the amazing output of Jenson, our copies may be traced via the project’s printer’s index.
*A review of a bibliographical essay on the work by John L. Sharpe III in’The Library’, 6th series, 5 (1983), pp. 68-71.
** ‘Opus Petri: Renaissance illuminated books from Venice and Rome’ Viator XXI 1990 pp.385-412; ‘The impact of printing on miniaturists in Venice after 1469’ in ed. Hindman, Sandra L. Printing the written word: the social history of books, c.1450-1520 Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1991 pp.174-202; ‘Problems of decoration and provenance of incunables illuminated by North Italian miniaturists’ Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 91:4 1997 pp.467-476; ‘Nicolaus Jenson’s Breviarum Romanum, Venice, 1478: decoration and distribution’ in ed. Davies, Martin Incunabula: studies in fifteenth century printed books London: British Library, 1999 pp.421-467.
The latest ten books to be added to the Project website are:
- Biblia latina [Strassburg: Adolf Rusch, with the type of Johann Amerbach, for Anton Koberger at Nuremberg, not after 1480]
- Anonymous: Godefrey of Boloyne, or The siege and conquest of Jerusalem, or Eracles Translated by William Caxton. Westminster: William Caxton, 20 Nov. 1481
- Vergilius Maro, Publius: Opera. Bucolica, Georgica, Aeneis Venice: Jacobus Rubeus, Jan. 14[75/76]
- Aristoteles [pseudo-]: Secreta secretorum. Physiognomia [French]. Le secret des secretz [Paris: Antoine Caillaut, ca. 1490?]
- Hieronymus: Epistolae [Venice: Doninus Pincius, not before 1502]
- Breviarium Romanum Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, [before 6 May] 1478
- Cato, Dionysius: Disticha de moribus [English and Latin] Translated from the French by William Caxton. [Westminster: William Caxton, after 23 Dec. 1483]
- Jacobus de Voragine: Legenda aurea sanctorum, sive Lombardica historia [English]. The Golden Legend Translated by William Caxton. Westminster: William Caxton, [between 20 Nov. 1483 and Mar. 1484]
- Vergilius Maro, Publius: Opera. Bucolica, Georgica, Aeneis, with argumenta Rome: Conradus Sweynheym and Arnoldus Pannartz, 
- Hieronymus: Epistolae [Rome: Sixtus Riessinger, not after 1467].
Categories: Special Collections