bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Another humanist manuscript worth buying

Posted in Auctions by bonaelitterae on 19 June, 2010

Considering how the vast majority of manuscripts are now in institutional hands , it is exciting whenever a codex, previously unknown or unavailable, appears on the market. This year has already provided one discovery thanks to an auction house. Now, there is another, to be sold at Sotheby’s in London on 6th July.

Few may share the tingling sensation that courses through me when seeing the images of this book, but let me try to convince you of its interest.  The first folio, I will admit, is distracting — a case of what might be called creative vandalism with the ill-advised addition of an over-heavy and over-colourful border in the eighteenth century. It detracts from the original understated illumination often seen in humanist manuscripts, in this case in a style of interlace placed on a gold background typical of north-east Italy. In this there is little that it is unusual, nor is its content — Hegesippus, De Excidio Iudaeorum, copied — a matter of great surprise. Similarly, that the book is signed by its scribe does not make it stand out from the hundreds that are likewise revealing of their parentage, but the identity of this scribe is what makes this most interesting. It is not that he is well-known: ‘Petrus Lomer’ signs only two manuscripts in public libraries, one in Verona and one in Padua. But he was not a native of either of those cities, and rather one of the northern European scribes who mastered littera antiqua. The Sotheby’s catalogue rightly notes that the illumination to the manuscript in the Capitolare in Verona [MS. CCXXXIV (221)] is English in origin; in fact (pace the catalogue), so are the simpler initials in the manuscript, also in a capitular library, that of Padua, which is a copy of Salutati’s De Seculo et Religione [MS. C 78]. But we can not infer from this, as the catalogue does, that Mr Lomer was in fact an Englishman. In the manuscript in Verona, a copy of Giles of Rome’s popular speculum prinicipis, the De Regimine Principum, the scribe adds a table of contents, ending it with the words ‘Petrus Lomer de Colorna Deo gratias Ave Maria’. The place-name has been mistranscribed twice, and never satisfactorily explained – Orbis Latinus does not help, but the most likely explanation is that it refers to Cologne. Such an origin would fit well with both the sound of the scribe’s surname and the aspect of his script, an accomplished humanist bookhand which tends to add spiky elements to enhance its calligraphy.

So, there was a scribe, probably of German origin, who (we already knew) was at work in England. We might ask how his manuscripts got to Italy — and the copy of Giles of Rome provides something of an answer to that question, though it has not before been noticed. In that manuscript, some of the chapter headings are rubricated not by the main scribe but by another hand which I can identify as Tito Livio Frulovisi, who was secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester 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 about eight years or more in England and then returned to his hometown of Verona, where he became a member of the circle around Bishop Ermolao Barbaro. Is it too much to wonder whether Beccaria returned to Italy with one or both of the manuscripts that Lomer had copied in England?

Perhaps it is. My journeys in the crepuscular realm of manuscript provenance have taught me at least this: Ockham’s razor is a blunt instrument. The simple, the obvious, the logical is all too often just wrong. In the case of Lomer, the volume now on sale interestingly complicates the issue. As already mentioned, this manuscript was not illuminated in England: the catalogue suggests Padua, c. 1460 — while the dating is surely about right, the origin of the initials could equally be Verona. The dating is about twenty years later than the other two manuscripts:  if the initials are contemporaneous to the copying of the text, this would give us more information of the career of Lomer, suggesting he moved to Italy. If so, did he take his ‘English’ manuscripts with him? Or did he travel with Beccaria?

What, in fine, is exciting is that this does not answer questions but poses them. It complicates the information we have, and reminds us how little we know. The manuscript itself may answer some of the queries it sets: it would be interesting to know the quality of parchment used, which would help to ascertain its place of copying, and it would be immensely helpful to study the marginalia, the few examples of which displayed in the Sotheby’s catalogue enticingly suggest they are in a hand familiar to me. I say ‘would’ — the sale occurs while I am on honeymoon, and it is unlikely that I will be able to visit London before then. Nor do I think my future wife will be pleased if I make a bid for a manuscript that would mean re-mortgaging the house. So, will these mysteries be solved?

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3 Responses

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  1. […] have commented before on the excitement of previously little-known manuscripts coming up for sale. Lord knows that there […]

  2. […] Handwriting of the Italian Humanists series. In doing that, I have returned to the manuscripts of Petrus Lomer, a scribe who we know solely from four manuscripts. One of those is now in the University Library […]

  3. […] wedding present): a previously unknown manuscript by the one-eyed Dutch scribe Pieter Meghen, and another by an earlier compatriot of his, Petrus Lomer. The following year Sotheby’s revealed to the world a volume associated with the English […]


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