Category Archives: 15th century


Seminar on the History of the Book: Martin McLaughlin, “From Cosimo Bartoli to James Leoni: translating and illustrating Alberti”, 18 February 2011

Engraving of a design for a triumphal arch, from James Leoni's 1726 English translation of Alberti's De re aedificatoria. The inscription on the arch alludes to the 1725 Treaty of Hanover signed by George I. (The Warden and Fellows, All Souls College, Oxford)

The fifth in the 2011 series of the Oxford Seminar on the History of the Book marked the birthday of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), on 18 February, with a presentation by Professor Martin McLaughlin on the subject of “From Cosimo Bartoli to James Leoni: translating and illustrating Alberti”.

The humanist and polymath Leon Battista Alberti was a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from architecture to cryptography, as well as of literary works in both Latin and Italian. Significantly for those interested in the history of the book, he is also responsible for perhaps the first known reference to the emerging technology of printing, in his De cyfris of ca. 1466. The session focused specifically on his treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria, and particularly on subsequent translations of it into other languages, notably those by Cosimo Bartoli and James Leoni.

De re aedificatoria was written in Latin sometime around 1452, in imitation of Vitruvius, and published for the first time in Florence in 1486, with subsequent Latin editions published in Paris in 1512 and in Strasbourg in 1541. It was probably expected to be read by learned patrons and antiquaries rather than used by practising architects. Although manuscript translations of the work into Italian were probably available from a fairly early stage, the first printed Italian translation, by Pietro Lauro of Siena, did not appear until 1546. Lauro’s translation was, however, almost immediately eclipsed by a clearer and more accurate version by Cosimo Bartoli, printed in Florence in 1550. Bartoli’s translation remained the only Italian version of De re aedificatoria for over 400 years, and was almost certainly an influence on Palladio, who was a friend of Bartoli’s. Bartoli’s edition was the first to divide the work into clearly titled chapters, and also the first to include illustrations. Bartoli was at great pains to use the best available text for his translation, and indeed claims, in his dedicatory letter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, to have been almost driven to give up the enterprise altogether because of the difficulty of finding a reliable Latin text to work on, and because of the numerous errors in all the available versions. He used the 1541 Strasbourg edition, which was probably the best available text at the time.

The first English edition of De re aedificatoria was printed in London in 1726, and consists of Bartoli’s Italian translation printed in parallel with a translation of it into English by Giacomo, or James, Leoni. This is a significantly more lavish affair than the 1550 edition, and includes illustrations, some of them pull-outs, engraved by Bernard Picart, after Leoni’s own drawings. These are clearly inspired by the woodcut illustrations to Bartoli’s Italian translation, with each of the original woodcuts having a corresponding engraving. Although the translation is generally attributed to Leoni, it is in fact unlikely that he had sufficient English to have made the translation on his own, and it is more likely the work of an uncredited team of translators. That Leoni and his team were working from Bartoli’s Italian version rather than from the Latin original is evidenced by a number of places where errors or misreadings found in Bartoli are unquestioningly followed by Leoni, and specific examples of these were considered, as well as some instances of mistranslations that appear to be entirely Leoni’s own work.

Some further examples were considered where Leoni appears to have adapted his translation to the English audience for whom he was writing; for example, a passage concerning tarantulas includes, in Leoni’s translation, the explanatory phrase “a small earth spider, commonly called a tarantula”, which does not appear either in the Latin original or in Bartoli’s Italian translation, both of which were written for an audience who could be expected to know what a tarantula was. A visual equivalent of this ‘domesticating’ strategy is seen in Leoni’s illustration of a triumphal arch: where Bartoli had shown an arch dedicated to his patron archduke Cosimo, Leoni’s arch (pictured) is dedicated to ‘Great Britain, Who Holds the Fate of Europe in Equal Balance’, an allusion to the 1725 Treaty of Hanover signed by George I.

Although much of the session did focus on these errors and mistranslations, these are in fact comparatively rare examples, and both Bartoli and Leoni’s translations show a high degree of accuracy. The popularity of both is demonstrated by the frequency with which they were reprinted after their original publication, with Bartoli’s translation reprinted twice in 1565, and Leoni’s reprinted in 1739 and 1755. Bartoli and Leoni in their different ways were responsible for keeping Alberti’s name alive in the centuries before the great revival of the humanist’s fame which began with Burckhardt’s well-known verbal portrait of Alberti in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).

A final discussion considering issues such as the translation of Alberti into other languages was followed by an opportunity to look at examples – from the Codrington Library at All Souls College – of some of the editions considered.

from Martha Repp

Re-reading the 15th century in digital images

Digitization of a number of inscriptions on Bodleian incunables has captured some of the evidence for the early use and ownership of pre-1500 printed books. Under the direction of Cristina Dondi, who contributed to the catalogue of incunables in the Bodleian Library (published in 2005), several pages and bindings bearing marks of ownership have been photographed and are accessible via the library’s Special Collections Images page, in the collection “Early Printing in Europe”. It’s now possible to share the copy-specific qualities of these books much more widely than before.

Link to images of provenance evidence in Bodleian incunables.

Looking at the high-quality images available via the Luna browser, early books scholar Martin Davies was able to read an inscription in a book, Scriptores rei militaris ed. Philippus Beroaldus, (catalogue reference Bod-inc S-121) that named the earliest owner. He corrected an earlier reading of the person named — not Anthonius Vieris, as Dr Dondi had originally thought, but Anthonius Urceus, or Antonio Urceo (1446-1500), who was himself a humanist author. The inscription is now recorded as: ‘1496. Kl. martijs hos libros emi e[g]o Anthonius Vrceus de Platone librario sol. .xij.’

See the Bodleian Incunable catalogue (Bod-inc) online

Tracking Incunables between Venice and Oxford

1574 die xii mensis septembris. Philippi [Basadone] d Francisci q. v. H. D. Philippi liber quem emit apud S. Marcum ad horologium pro solidis quadringentis paruorum

Inscription on Livy, Historiae Romanae decades, publ. Venice 1481, Bodleian Auct. Q inf. 2.21: 1574 die xii mensis septembris. Philippi d Francisci q. v. H. D. Philippi liber quem emit apud S. Marcum ad horologium pro solidis quadringentis paruorum

Dr. Cristina Dondi of the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) presented to the Seminar on the History of the Book at All Souls College a wealth of evidence on the provenance of copies of early printed Venetian books held at the Bodleian Library, together with an argument about their place in the wider history of the book trade.

Drawing on a sample of over 1400 books printed at Venice in the fifteenth century, Dr. Dondi called for book historians to engage with economic history, remarking that many economic histories of the book trade had been written without reference to the book itself.

Giving a detailed account of the formation of the Bodleian’s exceptional collection of incunabula over several centuries, she argued that provenance research should orient itself away from the history of collections as such, favouring instead a broader history of the book trade and of the demand for particular categories of books. Individual copies of some of the earliest printed books, produced in Europe’s greatest centre of print production, bore ‘stratified evidence of their history’ – in the form of bindings, decorations and manuscript annotations.

Her presentation moved from close reading of the marks of ownership of individual copies to tabulating the evidence as a whole, substituting ‘precise numbers for impressions and generalisations’. Books could be read as ‘archaeological specimens’ that bore witness to the distribution of books across Europe, and to the knowledges contained within them.

For example, provenance could reveal patterns in the degree of interest in books of laws, science or philosophy in various parts of Europe. Lastly, and in questions, Dr. Dondi called for copy-specific data to be added to bibliographic catalogues such as the multinational Incunabula Short-Title Catalogue (ISTC), furthering the history of the book in its widest sense.  — Giles Bergel

Rubrication : articulation, not decoration

‘Rubrication’ can refer to several types of coloured (usually red) elements added to a printed page in order to articulate the text. This practice carried a tradition of handwritten emphasis from the manuscript period into the 15th century and the age of print — but this tradition was later overtaken by typographic innovations.

Dr Margaret M. Smith opened the fifteenth year of the Seminar on the History of the Book, 1450-1830 (convened at All Souls College, Oxford) with a paper presenting observations from her research in progress on ‘Hand rubrication: the mid-fifteenth-century method of textual articulation’.

Was rubrication part of the publication process? Examination of many copies of the same edition suggests that hand rubrication was not done in the printer’s shop and is not uniform across a given edition or text. It was not uncommon, however, for the printer to leave spaces in the printed text for the addition of rubricated elements such as paragraph signs or larger initials at the beginning of major text divisions. Similarly, the existence of printed tables providing the wording for rubricated headings indicates that the printer expected some texts to be rubricated as part of the process of completing the book. The rubrication would have been done by a professional or by a knowledgeable owner.

Dr Smith showed two leaves from 15th-century books bearing five main types of rubrication: large initials, paragraph signs, underlining, initial strokes (single penstrokes that highlight a printed initial), and headlines at the top of a page.

In the page reproduced here (a leaf of Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job, printed by Kesler in Basel in 1496, part of Book 14, ISTC ig00432000.), large Lombard-style initials mark the beginning of chapters; paragraph signs mark the beginning of extracts from the book of Job (lemmas); underlining highlights chapter numbers, the marginal cue for ‘Tex.’ and some marginal references to other Biblical books; initial strokes mark upper case letters; and the running titles at the top of the page are underlined. In each of these instances the rubrication helps the reader orient themselves in a way that Dr Smith observed is analogous to punctuation.

Dr Smith’s quantitative research suggests that just under 50% of extant incunables received rubrication and that hand rubrication declined from the 1470s to the 1490s. Many of the functions of hand rubrication were taken over by changes in page design and by typographical signals, such as today’s use of italic type to distinguish particulars words in a text.

Finally, cataloguers of antiquarian books were urged to note the presence of hand rubrication in copy notes, to make available the kind of quantitative evidence on which Dr Smith’s work was based. — Julia Walworth

Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job, printed by Kesler in Basel in 1496

Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job, printed by Kesler in Basel in 1496