Incunables Italian Books I

The first fully illustrated Commedia, annotated by a Rosacrucian

Alighieri, Dante (1265-1321)

Comento di Christophoro Landino fiorentino sopra la Comedia di Dante Alighieri Poeta fiorentino. Venice, Bernardinus Benalius and Matteo Capcasa (from Codeca), 3 March 1491.

Folio (310x218 mm). Collation: [I]8, a-z8, &8, cum8, rum8, A8, B6, C-I8, K6, L8. [10], cclxxxxi, [1] leaves. Text in one column, surrounded by commentary on 61 lines. Type: 108R (text), 80R (commentary). Woodcut printer's device on fol. L8r. Four full-page woodcuts set within richly historiated borders (fols. a1v, s1v, C1r; one repeat on fol. s2v of the woodcut opening the Purgatorio). Ninety-seven woodcut vignettes. Six nine-line decorated initials; numerous smaller initials on black ground. Old vellum with running stitches, recased. A good copy, slightly browned in places. Fols. [I]1 and a2 probably from another copy, the lower blank margin remargined. Early seventeenth-century marginal notes and drawings on fols. c4v, r8r-v, and H1r taken from, or inspired to the Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae by Heinrich Khunrath (Hamburg 1595.).

Provenance: unidentified coat of arms on fol. a1v, set within a laurel wreath and held by two putti.

$ 58,000

One of the finest examples from the golden age of Venetian book illustration: the rare first fully illustrated Commedia, the first to contain a complete cycle of images for each cantica, and the first edition to include Landino's commentary as revised by Pietro da Figino, recently identified as the Tuscan theologian Pietro Mazzanti da Figline. What makes this edition particularly appealing is its illustrative apparatus, which far exceeds all previous illustrated editions: there are one hundred woodcuts, one for each of the poem's cantos, including three fullpage illustrations at the beginning of each cantica. For the images the Venetian printers employed the ‘popular artist' who illustrated the 1490 Malermi Bible, identified by Lilian Armstrong as the Master of the Pliny of Pico della Mirandola. For the first two canticheInferno and Purgatorio – the illustrator used earlier cycles, when available, as models. For the Paradiso there were no previous woodcut illustrations and the Pico Master created an entirely new sequence of images, rooting himself not in the manuscript tradition (the Paradiso is less frequently illustrated in the illuminated codices of the Commedia), but essentially in Landino's commentary. Another feature of interest lies in the early seventeenth-century notes and Rosacrucian symbolism, as with the Cross inscribed within a triangle, visible on some leaves, which are linked to the Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae, first published in 1595 by the mystic Heinrich Khunrath, a disciple of Paracelsus. For example, this unknown reader added the notes ‘procul hinc adeste Profani' on fol. c4v, referring to the Door to Hell, and ‘E Millibus vix uni' on fol. r8v, relating to the woodcut depiction of Lucifer; both quotations are taken from the Amphitheatrum. Over the centuries, several of Dante's readers, including John Starkey (1627-1665), Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854) and, later, René Guénon (1886-1951), tried to unveil the hidden meaning of the Comedy, showing Dante's influence on esoteric societies. It is therefore possible that the as-yet unknown early owner of this copy had been a Rosicrucian, or a member of another suspected fraternity.

HC 5949; GW 7969; BMC v, 373; IGI 363; Goff D-32; Essling 531; Sander 2313; De Batines I, p. 52; Mambelli 13.

The Painted Page

Lucianus Samosatensis (ca. 125-after 180)

Διάλογοι. Lorenzo de Alopa, 1496.

Folio (330x235 mm). Collation: Α-Β8, α-ω8, αα-ηη8. 262 of [264] leaves, lacking the first and last blanks. Text in one column, 41-44 lines. Type: 5:IIIGk. Blank spaces for capitals, with no guide letters. Opening page framed in a fine and lavishly illuminated full-border, with small flowers, acanthus leaves, fruits, birds, and gold-rayed discs. At the top two cornucopias, the lower panel containing a large cartouche including a blue lion coat of arms, flanked by the gold initials 'IO' and perhaps 'M' (smudged). The right panel exquisitely painted, depicting a scholar, quite surely Lucianus himself, with long curly hair, sitting and reading a book. On the same leaf a ten-line gold initial 'a' with interlaced branches on black ground, and a portion of a portico supported by a cherub. Seventeenth-century limp vellum. Spine with five raised bands underlined by gilt fillets, compartments decorated with floral tool, title in gilt on red lettering-piece. Edges slightly speckled purple, A very good copy, with wide margins. A few early ink stains, foxing and browning in places. In the last quires pale waterstain to the lower blank margins, a few minor stains to the gutter of the two final leaves. Early inked foliation, and marginalia in Greek and Latin, in the same hand. On the front pastedown the early inked shelfmark 'A. 58.', and an erased, not legible annotation.

A magnificent example of a Florentine incunable receiving a high-quality illumination: the rare editio princeps of Lucianus' Dialogues edited by Ianos Laskaris, an absolute chef d'oeuvre of early Greek typography. It is one of the three dated editions published by Lorenzo de Alopa, the first Florentine printer to produce books in Greek, the others being the Anthologia Graeca of 1494 and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, which appeared in 1496. The text of Lucianus was set in the third Greek type cut for Alopa, a lower-case with accents and breathings, used also for the commentary surrounding Apollonius' Argonautica.

The opening leaf of the sumptuos copy presented here represents a highly original artwork, and was executed by an artist of considerable skill. The decorative pattern of the border, the particular palette of colours and tones, the illusionistic three-dimensional composition, the hair- and beard-style of the figure reading a book on the right panel – doubtless a depiction of Lucian himself – have many similarities to illuminations attributed to the miniaturist known as 'Petrus V', possibly originating from Lombardy. This artist was also active in Padua and Venice in the 1470s in the production of illuminated incunables, creating masterful illustrations for a distinguished clientele, as demonstrated by the magnificent Glasgow copy of the Breviarium Romanum printed in 1478 by Nicolaus Jenson (Glasgow University Library, B.f.1.18). From Veneto he moved to Rome, where he worked in the 1480s and 1490s, receiving several commissions from prestigious patrons for illuminating printed books.

A refined work for a refined patron: the smudged coat of arms included in the border is similar to that of the famous and wealthy Sforza family, while the capital letters painted in gold may be read as 'IO' and 'M', suggesting the possible identity of the first owner of the present copy: Giovanni Maria Sforza (d. ca. 1520), the son of Francesco, Duke of Milan. As a Protonotary Apostolic he was a member of the Roman curia, and in 1498 was appointed Archbishop of Genoa. The Elmer Belt Library of the University of California at Los Angeles preserves a single leaf from Book II of the Nicolaus Jenson edition of Pliny the Elder's Historia naturalis of 1476, whose border and first initial were possibly illuminated for Gian Galeazzo Sforza (1469-1494). In this leaf the inscription, only partially legible, 'OPVS PETRI V M' supports “the Lombard origins of this intriguing artist. The letters of Petrus' surname suggest Vimercate, the name of a town midway between Milan and Bergamo, earlier the patria of another illuminator, Guinifortus de Vicomercato” (The Painted Page, p. 178).

HC (+Add) 10258*; GW M18976; BMC VI, 667; IGI 5834; Goff L-320; Rhodes Firenze, 416; Flodr Lucianus, 1; Hoffman III, pp. 29-30; Legrand I, 19; Staikos, Charta, pp. 277-278; J. J. G. Alexander (ed.), The Painted Page. Italian Renaissance Book Illumination, London-New York 1995, pp. 178-180 (catalogues entries nos. 86-88 by L. Armstrong); M. Conway, “The Early Career of Lorenzo Alopa”, La Bibliofilia, 102 (2000), pp. 1-10; L. Armstrong, “Opus Petri: Renaissance Book Illuminations from Venice and Rome”, Eadem, Studies of Renaissance Miniaturists in Venice, London 2003, 1, pp. 339-405; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 38.