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Book of the Month - April 2002


Printed by Nicolaus Jenson, Venice: 1478

Sp Coll Hunterian Bf.1.18

The book of the month for April is a magnificent copy of the Breviarum Romanum, published in Venice in 1478 by the celebrated printer Nicolaus Jenson.  Printed on vellum, this is an exceptional book; it is unique in being enhanced by nine fully decorated pages painted by an artist identified as 'Petrus V'. 

Folio 16v (detail)

It is a commonplace that many early printed books mimic manuscripts in their production. This phenomenon is most immediately obvious in those books containing illuminations and decoration added individually by hand after the printing process. Such 'hand-illuminated' copies were widespread in the printed productions of the 1470s and were no doubt manufactured to meet the demands of wealthy purchasers. Examples range from volumes where simple rubrics (such as initials, chapter headings and paragraph markings) have been inserted, to more obviously "luxury" items where full pages have been enhanced by decorations and miniatures painted by masters of the craft.  

Folio 8r: Psalter (detail: King David pointing at his head)

Folio ir: Calendar (January & February)

Our Breviary is an outstanding example of a Venetian incunable receiving this top level of hand-illumination. At least 45 other copies from this edition still exist; many of these were decorated to some extent and over twenty were similarly printed on vellum. However, containing highly original artwork, our volume is the most extensively illuminated Italian copy known and is, in fact, of great significance for establishing the artistic abilities of Petrus V who was its sole illuminator. This same artist created several important works in Venice and Padua in the 1470s before moving to Rome where he worked in the 1480s. As well as being responsible for some illuminated manuscripts (including the major pictures in a manuscript Breviary from Ferrara, now at Harvard), Petrus is known to have worked on at least two other Venetian incunables, both copies of Pliny's Historia naturalis.

A Breviary is a book containing the divine office designed for use by the clergy. This edition contains all the standard components: Calendar; Psalter; Temporale; Sanctorale; and Common of Saints. In this copy the opening Calendar is adorned by pen and ink drawings. These are amongst the Breviary's most unusual features: instead of the standard imagery of Zodiacal signs or labours of the months, Petrus has drawn classical heads in roundels. To the left, Janus and a king are shown in the lower margin of the calendar page for January and February. 

Petrus' magnificent full page illuminations revel in all the typical features of the period, with architectural borders, putti in the margins and three-dimensional illusionistic compositions. Here, for example, the border decoration depicting a scene from the Resurrection surrounds the text upon the printed page to look as if it were a piece of parchment pinned to a monument. Such art work is typical in Venetian incunabula which are particularly notable for their trompe l'oeil illusionism. The artist's inventiveness is demonstrated in his mix of Christian and classical imagery; the subjects of the miniatures on other pages include figures from the Old and New Testaments set in open landscapes and surrounded by fashionable men in contemporary garb.  Folio 14r  (shown below) illustrates the page with the psalm beginning 'The fool saith in his heart, there is no God' and contrasts a shabbily dressed fool to jaunty youths in elegant attire. 

Although the first part of the work is richly decorated, from folio 147 onwards no further major illustrations occur: the pages are rubricated but not flourished. In fact, the volume is a composite made up from two copies of the original work. The book was bought for William Hunter at the Louis-Jean Gaignat sale in Paris in 1769 where it was simply described as a 'Psalter'; Van Praet's early nineteenth century catalogue of works printed on vellum notes that this Gaignat copy had been incomplete and was made-up using another copy of the Breviary formerly owned by Cardinal de Loménie.  

Folio 146v: Temporale (Resurrection scene)

Folio 1r: opening page of the Psalter (King David enthroned in a landscape)

The art of printing was perfected by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany by 1450. The first Italian press was set up by the partnership of Sweynheym and Pannartz at Subiaco outside Rome by 1465; four years later a German named Johannes de Spira began printing in Venice. Venice quickly became the printing capital of the fifteenth century. Boasting a huge immigrant population, it was renowned as a place where foreigners could thrive, all new settlers being promised protection and liberty. Most of the early 'Venetian' printers were in fact immigrants, including Nicolaus Jenson who was originally from France. His was one of the most successful Venetian printing establishments of the early years. He began by producing Latin works and classics, and managed to survive a collapse in the book trade in 1473 (largely thanks to a glut in the market owing to the over production of  classical works) by diversifying into the fields of law, theology and medicine. He endured in the precarious world of early printing by merging his business with that of a fellow Frenchman, Jacques le Rouge, and in 1474 entered into partnership with Johann Rauchfas and Peter Ugelheimer. 

The Breviary was produced in one of Jenson's most active periods. Cited as being one of his typographic masterpieces, Jenson designed the Gothic rotunda typeface and demonstrated his technical skill in printing the text in a combination of red and black inks. It is physically a large folio work consisting of some 404 leaves: it was probably intended to be read at a lectern rather than in the hand. 

Folio 14r: Psalter (Fool and others in a landscape)

Folio 34r: Psalter

Folio 20r: Psalter (roundels of putti and angels)

Our copy of the Breviary was probably produced as an important gift for Leonardo Botta, the Milanese ambassador to Venice from 1470-1480.  Botta had earlier acted for Jenson in investigating a presumed embezzlement of the printer's funds by a bookseller in Pavia. According to Lilian Armstrong, the luxuriousness of this volume 'supports the notion that illuminated incunables functioned as vehicles to curry political and commercial favour'.

Folio 1r (detail of coat-of-arms)

The first figurative roundel illustrating the calendar depicts a gentleman in contemporary costume and Armstrong suggests that this may be a portrait of Botta. Although the coat-of-arms of the Du Prat family of Auvergne which appears both on the full-page frontispiece (shown here) and at the beginning of the Temporale (folio 39) is painted over the blazon of the original owner, Botta's name is indicated by the abbreviations LEO and BO on each side of the shield. The Botta provenance is further substantiated by the presence of the name 'Leonardus' written in a cursive script at the foot of folios 34 and 309; this suggests that Jenson reserved certain lots of vellum for special copies of his books to be made for particular clients. 

Folio ir (detail: possible portrait of Botta)

Folio 16v: Psalter (detail: King David praying in the waters) 

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 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. The overall uniformity of the work of this and other editions produced by Jenson, meanwhile, indicates the involvement of only a limited number of scribes in this work.

Other examples of sumptuously illustrated early books in Special Collections include Jenson's Gratian Decretum of 1474: Hunterian Bw.1.12: as well as some printing in red, there are illuminated initials throughout plus some 33 pen and ink drawings illustrating scenes from the examples of Canon Law described in the text (these are possibly uncoloured designs for miniatures that were left unpainted).

Other examples of incunables produced by Jenson in Special Collections:
Khalaf ibn 'Abbas Abu al-Qasim Liber Servitoris. Liber XXVIII (1471): Hunterian Bx.3.26 (with illuminated initials in pink and blue and pen & ink drawings);  Saint Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence Tertia pars Summe beati Antonini (1477): Hunterian Bg.2.14-15; Bible (1476): Hunterian Bx.2.19 (with decorated initials throughout); Cicero Epistolae ad Atticum: Brutum: et Quintum Fratrem: cum ipsius Attici vita (1470): Hunterian Be.2.12 (with spaces left for Greek to be inserted); Cicero Epistolarum familiarium (1471): Hunterian Be.3.4 (with some small illuminated initials); Cicero Somnium Scipionis ex Ciceronis libro De repvblica excerptum... (1472): Hunterian Bf.2.12 (opening page with painted initial and heraldic device in lower margin); Cornelius Nepos De virorum excellentium vita (1471): Hunterian Be.3.2; Diogenes Laertius Lives of the philosophers (1475): Hunterian Bx.2.18 and Euing BD7-d.20 (with coloured shield in Bx.2.18 copy); Gellius Aulus Noctium Atticarum commentarii (1472): Hunterian Be.2.4;  Jacobus de Voragine Le Legende de tutti li Sancti e le Sancte dalla Romana Sedia acceptati ed honorati (1475): Hunterian Bx.1.8; Joannes Marchesinus Liber qui appellatur Mamotrectus super totam Bibliam (1479): Euing BD7-e.2 (some large capitals surrounded by patterning for decoration); Niccolo Falcucci Antidotarium Nicolai (1471): Ferguson Am-z.41 (first page with fresh painted and illuminated initial with heraldic device); Pliny Historia naturalis (1472): Hunterian By.1.8; Pliny Historia naturalis (1476): Euing BD12-a.11 (opening page with illuminated initial, decorative border and heraldic shield in lower margin) and Hunterian Bx.1.10; Plutarch Virorum illustrium vitae (1478): Hunterian Bw.1.8-9; Quintilian Institutiones oratoriae (1471): Hunterian Bf.1.16; Scriptores rei rusticae: Columella, Palladius, Cato, Varro (1472): Hunterian Bg.2.17-18; Caius Julius Solinus De situ orbis et memorabilibus quae mundi ambitu continentur liber (1473): Hunterian Be.3.13 (first initial letter of main text decorated and illuminated); Giovanni Tortelli Orthographia (1471): Euing BD9-a.1 and Hunterian Bg.1.9 (text begins with historiated initial 'C')

The following articles by Lilian Armstrong are particularly useful and have been heavily drawn upon in compiling this page:
'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.

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Julie Gardham April 2002