A Christian humanist opusculum at auction
The latest Sotheby’s catalogue, for the sale on 7 July 2009, has plentiful reminders of the tenuous hold on survival that is the lot (if you pardon the pun) of many manuscripts. Holding a codex in our hand, we tend to imagine that nothing is more natural than its being here when, in reality, its existence can hide from us the magnitude of loss that the world of books repeatedly suffers. Partial remainders, fragments, cuttings and incomplete codices can provide some sort of witness to what we no longer have.
So, the heavily cropped miniature of King David, only just showing its scalloped border which belies its Milanese origins, is testimony to the manner in which manuscripts have been destroyed, with only a few pretty pictures being saved. All the more tantalising is the incomplete or acephalous manuscript which is lot 40: it is written in a thin littera antiqua, with a curious idiosyncracy of placing the letter following l above the line so that it sits within the arch of the preceding letter. The scribe provides the text of a humanist poem on the Passion of Christ. It is an example of a genre of writing that has not been much prized by latterday scholars but which, in the work of Battista Spagnoli and others, had a particular vogue at the end of the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century.
This particular text, having lost its opening, has also lost the name of its author and dedicatee. But it apparently includes a colophon addressing the poem to a ‘rex triumphantissimus’. The catalogue tentatively associates the dedicatee with one of the Kings of Naples, presumably on the basis that the Italianate script makes an Italianate parton likely, and Naples was the only kingdom in the peninsula. Of course, with my own interests, I would be excited if the king was precisely not an Italian, but some barbarian foreigner. The rather un-Italian style of gold paraph marks in the manuscript might, just possibly, suggest a non-Italian intervention in the manuscript but that is not enough to shed much light on this little work. It is likely to continue to stand as evidence of the depth of our uncertainty.