bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

More ways of making a point

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2011

I have already mentioned my interest in maniculae, those pointing hands that appear in printed books but also in manuscripts. When a history of manuscript annotation comes to be written — to stand alongsie Bill Sherman’s work on early-modern varieties — particular attention will be drawn to the manicula. It is not the only form of annotating symbol, a method of marking a passage of interest or significance; indeed, it is probably rather a late-comer, slapping out of the way the style of face-drawing that is more common in twelfth- or early-thirteeenth-century manuscripts. Sometimes those two forms stand side by side in late medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. I have before me at the moment an interesting specimen, as I sit in the Vatican Library (how things change — when I first came here sixteen years ago, the idea that in this sanctuary next to its roof-top cortile you could be in contact with a wider world was unimaginable. I hanker after those days).

The manuscript, a copy mainly of Pliny’s letters (in the 8 book tradition), has the shelfmark MS. Reg. lat. 1472. It is dated by its scribe to 1453; he signs himself ‘Val. Sal.’. Val not only writes the text, he adds frequent marginalia, in Greek and in Latin, in black and in red ink. He provides plentiful specimens of various maniculae but he does not confine his ‘nota marks’ to these — as I have said, he also includes several faces, one of them distinctive for the Cyrano-like size of his nose and a chin of stubble which is a few centuries ahead of fashion. But it does not stop there: he also provides an example of the annotating symbol which should be known as the ocululus: I know some examples in Leiden, but here the eye is weeping at the beauty of the text (without any water damage). There are also the familiar Greek symbols, and a few Nota monograms. There are other drawings as well: a flowering plant, for instance (presumably considered an appropriate sign to suggest the text should be put into a florilegium). More unusual and less explicable perhaps is the last intervention: the scribe also draws as a nota symbol a boar’s head, with tusks and an extended snout pointing to the text. The animal, I should add, is wearing an elegant collar.

As I have suggested, there is a history to be written of these symbols. You might think that mere antiquarianism but I hope my short description of the scribe’s playful activities in his book has persuaded you, if of nothing else, of the fact that this manuscript — if you pardon the expression — is no bore.


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  1. […] before, we probably should call an ocululi. In my experience, there are a few cases of the use of a disembodied eye as an annotating symbol before the mid-fifteenth century, so Bembo’s are early examples of what never became a very frequent presence in the margins of […]

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