The Humanistic Book

A. Humanistic Manuscripts

In Italy in the early fifteenth century a revolution took place in the script and decoration of the manuscript book, first in Florence, and very soon after in the rest of the peninsula. It involved the rediscovery of classical texts, the revival of ancient literature as a central element of the curriculum, the reform of Latin spelling, and a new style of writing, called by its contemporaries littera antica and known to us today as ‘humanistic script’.

The new type of book received a new style of decoration. At first, it was limited to the white-vine scrolls meandering around birds, butterflies, and chubby little boys, the ubiquitous putti. But by the mid-fifteenth century, illuminators were experimenting with three-dimensional images corresponding to the antiquarian passions of Humanist scholars and collectors. Ancient inscriptions, jewels, and archaeological finds inspired the illusionistic monumental frontispieces and architectural title pages, one of the most lasting contributions of the Humanistic manuscript to book design.

B. Painted Books

The art of illumination experienced its last flowering on the pages of the first printed books. The large number of books placed on the market by the new technology presented artists with numerous job opportunities well into the sixteenth century.

In its early days printing was a risky enterprise, requiring substantial investment. To appeal to patrons, the early printers produced elaborate editions on vellum, modelled on deluxe illuminated manuscripts. Among the most daring and entrepreneurial printers was Nicolas Jenson, who transformed the new technology into an art. Designing the most elegant of Roman types, he involved leading artists and wealthy bibliophiles in the production of the most opulent incunables in fifteenth-century Venice. Their achievements encapsulate one of the most glorious moments in this critical, transitional stage in the history of the book.

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Marcus Tullius Cicero, De officiis
Italy, Florence, c.1430

Cicero, more than any other Roman author, became the model for the Humanistic revival of classical Latin grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, and ethics. Many Renaissance scribes produced deluxe copies of Cicero’s works for wealthy patrons, but also made fair copies for their own use. The Florentine scribe Domenico di Niccolò Pollini (1395-1473) probably copied this manuscript for himself. The illuminator, Giovanni Varnucci (1416-1457), represented Cicero not in the conventional guise of a Renaissance scholar, but as a replica of a classical relief. Cicero’s image is conceived in the same antiquarian spirit in which the manuscript reconstructs his text.

Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 8442, fols. 2v-3

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Donato Acciaiuoli, Life of Charlemagne
Italy, Florence, 1461

On the 2nd of January 1462 the Florentine ambassadors presented Louis XI of France (1461-1483) with this de luxe biography of his glorious ancestor. The author, Donato Acciaiuoli (1428-1478), belonged to the prominent family of Florentine bankers, and civil and ecclesiastical officials that served the Medici for generations. He was the Medici’s ambassador to Louis XI in 1461. The manuscript was produced by Vespasiano da Bistici, the ‘prince of booksellers’, copied by Messer Piero di Benedetto Strozzi (1416-c.1492), the finest Florentine scribe of the time, and illuminated by Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (active c.1452-d.1484), the favourite illuminator of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Few diplomatic gifts could have evoked the Humanistic ideal of the learned monarch more successfully and provided the French king with a more flattering gift.

Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 180, fols. 1v-2

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Macrobius, Convivia saturnalia
Italy, Rome, 1466

This manuscript preserves the most important work of the fifth-century Neoplatonic philosopher Macrobius. It formed a magnificent set together with a copy of In somnium Scipionis, Macrobius’ commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, now in the Vatican Library. The colophon records that the Cambridge volume was completed in Rome in April 1466 by Antonio Tophio (active c.1460-1470), one of the most prominent scribes in the household of Pope Paul II. The opening page, unusually rich and highly individual, is the work of Niccolò Polani, a priest in the households of Pius II and Paul II documented as a miniaturist in the papal accounts between 1459 and 1471.

Cambridge University Library, MS Add 4095, fol. 1

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Horace, Opera
Italy, Rome, 1485-1492

This elegant volume was copied by the distinguished Renaissance scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito (1435-1511), whose cursive script inspired the type designed for the Aldine Press and known to this day as Italic. It was made for the Venetian intellectual and diplomat, Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), one of Sanvito’s closest friends and earliest patrons. The opening page displays Bembo’s arms, motto ‘Virtue and honour’, and emblem, the winged Pegasus, as well as Sanvito’s celebrated epigraphic capitals. This volume is one of the few manuscripts that indisputably show Sanvito working as both scribe and illuminator.

King’s College, MS 34, fol. 1

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Libanius and others, Declamationes
Northern Netherlands, Louvain, 1503

This manuscript was written out by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) at Louvain in 1503 and was probably illuminated in Brabant. It consists of three declamations, the first by the fourth-century rhetorician Libanius (314-c.393). Erasmus set out his own translations of the three orations first, and followed them with the original Greek texts. He dedicated the work to Nicolas Ruistre, or Ruterius (c.1442-1509), Bishop of Arras, Chancellor of the University of Louvain, and a learned bibliophile. As an important figure at the Burgundian court, Ruterius had already commissioned from Erasmus a panegyric to welcome Philip the Handsome back from Spain in the autumn of 1503. The copy of the declamations was another product of his patronage. Erasmus received ten gold pieces for it.

Trinity College, MS R.9.26, fols. 3v-4

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Pliny the Elder, Natural History
Italian translation by Cristoforo Landino
Italy, Venice, 1476

Prized by Renaissance scholars as the most comprehensive anthology of ancient knowledge about the natural world, Pliny’s Natural History was first printed by Nicolas Jenson (c.1435-1480) in Latin in 1472. By 1473 the Florentine humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-1492) had translated it into Italian and dedicated it to Ferdinand of Aragon, King of Naples. Jenson’s 1476 edition of the Italian translation was one of the most ambitious and best-documented printing campaigns in fifteenth-century Italy. Sponsored by the Florentine banking firm of Filippo and Lorenzo Strozzi, Landino’s translation was to be printed in 1000 paper copies. In addition, Jenson printed some twenty copies on parchment to be illuminated by leading artists for the project’s sponsors, their associates, and distinguished bibliophiles. This is one of them, although the erased arms prevent an identification of the patron. The magnificent frontispiece showcases the work of the Master of the London Pliny (active c.1470-1490), one of the most inventive painters of classical imagery in Venice during the 1470s.

Cambridge University Library, Inc. I.B.3.2, fol. 22

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : The Humanistic Book

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