bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A previously unnoticed manuscript annotated by John Tiptoft

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 17 December, 2012

Manuscripts have a tendency to creep up on you when you are looking elsewhere, tap you on the shoulder and then punch you between the eyes. That has been my experience today in the Vatican Library. I called up a manuscript because of what is known of its late fifteenth-century provenance and did not expect to find staring up at me from the lectern a codex made several decades earlier, clearly (from the illumination) in Milan and, what is more, in a script very close to that of Milanus Burrus: he was a highly accomplished scribe who developed his own response to the Florentine palaeographical reforms and created a mise-en-page that reminds us that you do not need to have illumination on the parchment to be looking at a work of art.

And when one manuscript has softened you up, another then comes in and knocks you sideways. As this is my last day of this research trip, I was attempting to tie things up neatly — whenever you do that, the books tend to have other plans for you. So, revisiting the manuscript of his Synesius translation that John Free made, with little expense spared, for Paul II, I wanted to compare the capitals and so ordered up another volume for comparison. The volume was MS. Vat. lat. 3162, a copy of Juvenal and Persius which is known to be Paduan and has interventions by Bartolomeo Sanvito, though, as Laura Nuvoloni explains in the sumptuous recent volume in ‘The Handwriting of the Italian Humanists’ series, the main scribe is a separate person, writing in a similar style. What caught me off-guard was that, looking through the codex, I came across one occasion where there is an alternative reading added into the margin by a hand which is very familiar to me — it is that of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester.

Those of you who have explored this site will already appreciate the importance of Tiptoft, whose library was perhaps second only to that of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the fifteenth century. We now have over thirty books from his collection, dispersed across Europe (his hopes of donating his books to Oxford where thwarted by his own execution). In one sense, it is perfectly understandable that this manuscript should have passed through the earl’s hands: he certainly knew its scribe, owning another volume which was produced by him (it is no. 11 in my listing). But there are two factors which are more surprising. The first of them is its location — there is, as you can see from the listing of the known Tiptoft manuscripts, no other book of his which is in the Vatican. The second relates to the contents of the codex: a few years ago I identified a copy of Juvenal and Persius from his library, written by Sanvito himself, and definitely in England in the late fifteenth century (no. 13 in the listing). Would he have had two rather similar-looking copies of the same texts? It is not impossible but surely unlikely. Perhaps, though, there is another explanation: Tiptoft is not the only annotator on the volume — the two other marginalia could well be by his secretary, who later presented his translation to Synesius to Paul II, John Free. We know that he remained in Italy when Tiptoft returned to their homeland, and it was in Rome that Free died prematurely in 1465. Now, MS. Vat. lat. 3162 did not arrive in the papal library earlier — it shows evidence of Italian ownership in the fifteenth and the sixteenth century — but we can posit a history for it: cast off by Tiptoft, who had a more elegant copy of the works it included, he passed it to Free, who took it to Rome, where, after his death, it circulated, only to end up in the Vatican some decades later.

This, I should say, is not the only discovery — and perhaps not the most important one — of the day. Having been pushed around by one manuscript, knocked about by another, I was then hit between the eyes by yet one more. So, I have been left punch-drunk and gasping for air, at the same time wishing that I could get more of the same and also knowing that I simply will, God and Mammon (aka research grants) both willing, have to return here to give the manuscripts as good as I have got from them.

Hercules in the Vatican

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2011

For all the acreage of frescoes on the walls of the Vatican Palace, it is surely the case that what has been lost over time is more substantial than what we can see now. Much of the fifteenth-century art, let alone that of earlier generations, has been destroyed or covered over by later generations. We can reconstruct some of what was there and we know of particular moments of frenetic activity, the pontificate of Nicholas V (1447 – 55) being one.

Yesterday, I came across a reference to decorations in the Vatican during his pontificate; a quick look in the obvious secondary material provides no mention of this passage or corroboration of it. So, loyal reader, this is for you to consider, to research further or to advise me on where it is discussed.

The brief passage comes from an unpublished humanist text, a commentary on Juvenal by Gaspare da Verona, now better known for his later biography of another pope, more controversial but no less corpulent than Nicholas, that is Paul II. Gaspare’s commentary, which must have been written in 1449, was intended for presentation to Nicholas V, and the author makes no secret of his desire for pecuniary recompense for his efforts. It was a hope that seems to have been little rewarded — or maybe not at all — by the learned pope. However that may be, in the commentary, Gaspare takes a mention of Hercules in Juvenal as reason to outline the mythical hero’s twelve labours. At the end of his discussion, he adds a characteristically contemporary comment:

…quae nisi fallor et ficte sunt ab egregio pictore in palatio longe pulcherrime sancti petri iussu quidem glorissimi et maximi pontificis summique domini nicolae quinti qui ita decora palatium curavit ut iam non teneat italia immo nec ulla transaplina regio magnificentius quantum memini me videre in gallia hispania germania…

So, it is Gaspare’s assertion that in some part of the palace, Nicholas had commissioned, early in his pontificate, a set of frescoes of Hercules’ Labours, from a ‘famous’ artist. Who this was and exactly where they were it seems we do not know. And, indeed, it may be that Gaspare himself was not that certain. He crowds his text with repeated praise of the pope but he also says at one point that he sees him rarely; it is likely that he was equally no habitué of the Vatican Palace. Perhaps, then, he was speaking from hearsay, and gives us a sign of what was talked about in Rome in the late 1440s. Of course, we could go further and say that he might have been mistaken and there was no such fresco — at which point the paintings revealed in prose would disappear again, to be as lost as so many others that once adorned the Vatican. Let us hope that we can stop short of that and that some learned scholar can tell us more about them.