bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Lost Plutarch Lives, lost Humfrey manuscripts

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 9 July, 2009

As I have mentioned recently, I am working away on providing addenda and corrigenda to Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England, which, forty years after its author’s death, is to be resurrected virtually, as it were, with an on-line edition on the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature website. It has given me the opportunity to bring together some shards of information which help clarify, if not fully resolve, some quandaries. Here is one of those.

Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, owned several manuscripts of Latin translations of Plutarch’s Vitae, some of which he gave to the University of Oxford, in his donation of 1444, and one of which, as we shall see, was shipwrecked in Cambridge after his death. The relevant booklists have been or are being edited in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (that for Oxford by Rod Thomson, and that for King’s, Cambridge, already published, by Peter Clarke); I use the sigla of that series in the following notes. I will also cite the invaluable guide to the Latin Plutarch recently published by Marianne Pade and which I have discussed elsewhere.

Two of Humfrey’s Plutarch manuscripts are known now to survive. One is London: BL, MS. Harl. 3426, a set of translations by Leonardo Bruni, given to Oxford (UO3.97); the other Oxford: Magdalen College, MS. 37 (A), including renditions by the little-known (and less-loved) Antonio Pacini. This latter codex does not appear in Humfrey’s gifts to the University. Several other inventory entries attest to manuscripts that are now lost, like, for instance the mention of a Vita Pelopidae (UO3.100), which must be the translation produced by Humfrey’s secretary, Antonio Beccaria of Verona, and dedicated to Pietro del Monte (Pade, i, pp. 221 – 23 & ii, pp. 70 – 71). Another example occurs in the inventory of King’s College, Cambridge, probably made in 1457.

Here I should enter a caveat: as it is known that King’s asked for books owned by Humfrey on his death to be donated to the new college and as two surviving manuscripts from the King’s inventory (Cambridge: King’s College, MS. 27 and London: BL, MS. Harl. 1705) are, indeed, Humfrey books, it has sometimes been assumed that his library was given wholescale to King’s. This is demonstrably incorrect: probably only a small proportion of Humfrey’s collection reached Cambridge, as is shown by the fortunes of several of the prince’s other books; and only a proportion of the books listed in 1457 came to King’s from the chattels of the late duke of Gloucseter. But, having said all that, there is one lost book, formerly owned by King’s, that we can say for certain came from the duke’s palace of Greenwich. The entry reads ‘Vita Agidis et Cleomenis Lacedemoniorum regum…’ (UC29.154), which the modern editor, Peter Clarke, identifies as ‘Plutarch, Vita Agidis et Cleomenis, probably as tr. Antonio Beccaria (together with nine other of the lives)’. I think we should delete the word ‘probably’ , and the clause in parantheses.

The evidence Peter Clarke has in mind is a passage in a lively late-fifteenth-century eulogy of Vittorino da Feltre, schoolmaster to princes and to humanists like Beccaria. In it, the author, another of his pupils, Francesco Prendilacqua, takes the opporunity to praise Beccaria, and lists his works, which, he says, include translations of:

Vitas ex Plutarcho XI Romuli, Thesei, Solonis, Demetrii, Agidis, Cleomenis, Pelopidae, Coriolani, Alcibiadis, Timoleontis, Eumenis [F. Prendilacqua, De Vita Victorini Feltrensis Dialogus, ed. J. Morelli (Padua, 1774), pp. 66 – 67]

This list has sometimes been considered suspect and, certainly, for some of these translations there is no independent evidence, but Beccaria certainly did, as we have already seen, put into Latin while in England the Pelopidas, as well as the Romulus (even though that version, even including the dedication to Humfrey, was cribbed from Giovanni Tortelli). As the only other known translation of the Agis & Cleomenes was made in the late 1450s, after the production of the King’s catalogue, we should give Prendilacqua credence and be confident that the entry refers to Beccaria’s translation.

However, we should not entertain the suggestion that the King’s manuscript included all of the humanist’s renditions of Plutarch. That is, in fact, an impossibilty, since two of Beccaria’s known renditions of Plutarch, the Alcibiades paired with the Coriolanus, were composed about a decade after the humanist had returned to his homeland [Pade, i, pp. 323 – 26]. Nor would this suggestion sit well with what we can surmise of Beccaria’s habits. We know a fair amount about how Antonio Beccaria worked, because we have some other of his translations, from St. Athanasius, in his holograph, in London: BL, MS. Royal. 5 F. II and Cambridge: King’s, MS. 27. You can know see Beccaria’s script on-line, thanks to the generosity of the British Library. The manuscript now in the Royal collection is formed of booklets and it appears that he presented the work to his master, Humfrey, section by section: he practised the rule of small gifts often, rather than outsize presents irregularly. In that case, the booklets were gathered together and presented as one volume to Oxford (UO3.21). But, in the case of his Plutarch versions, the evidence of the book-list would suggest that each Life was kept separately and appears as a separate entry.

I have talked of there being ‘some’ lives are in the 1444 Oxford book-list. I have mentioned two, for both of which Humfrey’s copy is lost: Pelopidas, and Romulus (UO3.105). Immediately following the second entry, there is another (UO3.106), one which has left scholars, including myself, scratching our heads. It refers to a ‘Vita Demetrii’ — but the only known translation of Plutarch’s life of Demetrius comes from the end of the 1450s. However — and here is the point of this intricate discussion — look at the list from Prendilacqua above: he states that his former class-mate at Vittorino’s school translated this very work. The explanation for the entry, then, is that it was another Plutarch Vita translated by Humfrey’s Veronese secretary, presented to the duke and given away by him only a few years later.

This identification allows us to make a further, tentative suggestion. Note the ordering of Prendilacqua’s list. It would not seem to have any rationale in relation to the subjects of the Lives themselves and, of course, it could simply be random. But it is usually assumed that the Romulus was the first text presented by Beccaria to Humfrey in the late 1430s, and the Pelopidas is tentatively dated to 1441 – 2, while it is known, as I have mentioned, that the Alcibiades and Coriolanus were translated in the late 1450s. Might the list be in chronological order of translation? If so, it would suggest that Antonio Beccaria also rendered Plutarch’s Vitae of Solon and of Theseus into Latin while in England — versions which, like several others he produced, are lost.

The identification of Humfrey’s Vita Demetrii as being by Beccaria does away with the need to muse, as Marianne Pade does [i, pp. 254 – 56], about whether Guarino could have sent to Humfrey a translation of the Demetrius but which no longer survives. Guarino certainly wrote a letter to the duke, which may have been accompanied by a manuscript of Plutarch translations. Pade suggests that it might have included a collection of Guarino’s versions plus the Lucullus translated by Guarino’s pupil, Leonardo Giustiniani. If so, it would equate with the 1444 reference to ‘vitam Timonis et Lucilli 2o fo. hominibus (UO3.91, where the lectio probatoria appears in Giustiniani’s preface [Pade, ii, p. 120]). But there were other routes by which the Giustiniani, a popular translation, could have reached England, and if Guarino did send a manuscript with his letter, it may instead have been of his translation of Plutarch’s moral essays, one of which was certainly available in Oxford in the mid-1440s.

This brings me to my final point: the strange death of the Lives in England. Humfrey’s library shared the interest in Plutarchan biography that was fashionable in Italian humanist circles. But the taste at the ducal palace in Greenwich was no trail-blazer in England: interest in that aspect of Plutarch was surprisingly limited this side of the channel. It was, indeed, the moral essays that entertained Humfrey’s compatriots more. The neglect that eventually saw several translations of Plutarch vanish began soon after the duke of Gloucester’s own demise.


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  1. […] in the late 1430s (thus making the manuscript datable). His successor in that role was a humanist whom I have also had cause to mention before — Antonio Beccaria, translator of Plutarch, Athanasius and, indeed, Boccaccio. Beccaria spent […]

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