bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard VII: a master at work

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 9 May, 2018

The title for this post promises a single master but, with winning generosity, I am going to offer to you three masters.

The centrepiece of our discussion is Harvard’s MS. Typ. 447, an attractive little volume which, if it were a printed book, would be described as being in small chancery octavo format. It was designed to fit into a pocket, though why someone should want to carry its contents with them is a quandary. Its main text — though, as this description reveals, not its only one — is Palladius’s tract on agriculture, which one would imagine was hardly most people’s vademecum. What is unusual in this manuscript is that it is preceded by a devotional calendar, giving the saints’ days through the year. The combination of religious and pagan may strike us as curious but it has its logic: Palladius’s work is organised by the month, and the commissioner of the volume might have considered that his little book (we know it was a man) brought together different but complementary methods of framing time.

This is by no means the only element of interest to MS. Typ. 447. Its creator gives us both his name and that of the person for whom it was made, as well as the date and place of production. It was compiled in Verona and completed in 1460 (we can narrow that further by a reference to January of that year). The scribe introduces himself as Blasius de Saracenis, a citizen of Vicenza and son of Hieronymus; in modern scholarship, his name is sometimes vulgarised to Biagio Saraceni. What is notable is that the date of this manuscript makes Blasius’s work an early example of the italic bookhand, a style invented in the immediately preceding years. In particular, there are very few examples at this early date of one written at such a small module (the minims are no more than 1mm high).

The scribe most closely associated with the invention of italic is the second master we need to mention: Bartolomeo Sanvito. His stock is, at present, very high, in large part because of the detailed work done on him by the late Tilly de la Mare, carefully completed by Laura Nuvoloni. His skill is undoubted, and the beauty of many of his manuscripts remarkable, but we should not imagine he was a lone worker, creating a new script in solitary confinement. Even Poggio Bracciolini, the creator of humanist littera antiqua, was not experimenting alone, and his achievement was a revival and reform of an earlier bookhand. The creation of italic was arguably more revolutionary, a construction of a new vision of text on the page. To achieve this and, especially, to ensure it gained wider acceptance, what was surely required was not a single genius but team-work. In that équipe, Blasius had a significant role.

It is already known, thanks to de la Mare, that Blasius’s own innovations preceded those of Sanvito. It is likely that they knew each other as Blasius was in Sanvito’s hometown of Padua in the 1450s, until just before he made this manuscript. It is also clear that there were strong similarities between their practices. The best place to be able to observe this is here in the Houghton Library, for Harvard is the fortunate owner of three manuscripts written by Sanvito. One of those, a copy of Sallust which is MS. Richardson 17, dated by de la Mare and Nuvoloni to c. 1487-88. It is of nearly identical dimensions with MS. Typ. 447 (page size in the former: 136 x 90mm; in the latter: 138 x 93mm), and each is in an early binding, so they allow us to compare like with like.

Perhaps most notable is how both scribes present the title in painted capitals, with a change of colour for each line.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 10v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 17, fol. 1.

















Following Blasius’s opening title, he provides the colophon in blue, in a littera antiqua, but his main script and that of Sanvito’s bear share many characteristics. There is a difference: Sanvito’s bookhand looks more strident, an effect partly achieved by decreasing the distinction between thin and thick strokes which is on display in Blasius’s work. That should make us marvel at the skill with which Blasius wrote such tiny letters with frequent turns of the pen.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 17, fol. 138v.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 13.
















It is not on such palaeographical details that I want to dwell. Instead, look at the layout each chooses to use. There is, certainly, an obvious similarity: the majority of each page is blank. That, as I have written before, is a basic co-ordinate of any respectable manuscript, though both take it further than many would. Blasius’s written space occupies only 36% of the page, while Sanvito shows even greater chutzpah, allowing exactly two-thirds of the page to be margins. Yet, there is a contrast between their mise-en-page. It is that Sanvito’s perhaps looks less familiar: he employs a markedly narrow space for the text. It has been suggested by that leading bibliographer, Paul Needham, that Sanvito’s practice might, in general, have been inspired by an interest in the golden ratio — that is, the idea that there is a particularly proportion that is pleasing to the eye, which in mathematics is signified by the letter phi and which equals 1.618. That is to say, the height would be 1.618 times the width. In fact, Sanvito in this manuscript provides something a little different: in the page (the dimensions of which I have already given) the written space is 90 x 45mm. Thus, the width of the text is half its height which is the width of the page which is two-thirds of height of page, with the result that the width of the text is a third of the height of the page.

At this point, I will put in a plea to all those cataloguing manuscripts. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is usual to record solely the size of the page and of the written space, but to fully appreciate the layout, it is important to provide the measurements of the margins too, so that the reader can appreciate the placing of the text-block on the page. This is done in the Italian tradition in a formula (using the recto): (upper margin + [height] + lower margin) x (inner margin + [width] + outer margin). Thus, in this formula, MS. Richardson 17 = (11 + [90] + 35) x (16 + 45 + 29)mm. Those figures give a clearer sense of what Sanvito is doing: the written width is set within margins where the inner is half of the outer, so the proportions across the page are 1:3:2. The height, meanwhile, is placed within margins which are, in total, half of its height, divided unequally to be approximately 1:3.

Let us return to Blasius’s manuscript and his arrangement of the text. In the formula, MS. Typ. 447 = (14 + [86] + 38) x (13 + [54] + 26)mm. You may notice that margins of the width have, as in MS. Richardson 17, an inner margin half the size of the outer. The arrangement of the height is also similar, with the lower margin nearly three times that of the upper. It might be noted in passing, that these proportions would have surprised earlier generations, where (as Erik Kwakkel has noted) it was more usual to have a lower margin only twice the size of the upper. What, though, is more significant for us is that, while Sanvito and Blasius share some co-ordinates of the page, Blasius does not have the height of the written space as double that of the total margin space above and below it. Instead, the proportions are closer to 1.65. More tellingly, the height of the written space to its width and the height of the page to the height of the written space approximate to 1.61 — that is to say, close to the golden ratio.

If all these numbers have made you call for a icepack to cool your head, let us draw this to its conclusion: while Sanvito and Blasius are working with a similar sense of the beautiful page, and perhaps developed that aesthetic together when both were in Padua in the 1450s, there is also a difference. It is Blasius who ensures his page echoes the golden ratio, while Sanvito in later years moves away from it to develop instead a layout based on the prime numbers of two, three and five.

This is not quite the end of the tale or of the fascination of MS. Typ. 447. It has an interesting later history, including being owned by the early twentieth-century Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in that other Cambridge, in England. When it was bought by Sydney Cockerell in 1917, it had lost the opening page of its text. He turned to a known calligrapher, Graily Hewitt, to provide a supply leaf.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 447, fol. 12, supply leaf by Graily Hewitt (1917).

Hewitt’s work is very accomplished, though it patently contrasts in style of script with that used by Blasius. Part of Hewitt’s skill is in providing the exact number of words required while following the ruling Blasius used in his work. One wonders whether, in accepting that layout as his guide, this third master of the page was conscious that he too was paying homage to the golden ratio.


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  1. […] us start with a manuscript that was the centrepiece of my seventh postcard. While it is exceptional in many ways, in its placing and style of catchword, it reflects the most […]

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