On my recent visit to the Biblioteca Angelica I was at first stunned, then a little angered and finally, I know I will get such flack over this, secretly thrilled that we were given such close access to the treasures. The librarian handled them all without gloves and a few of our party did touch one or two of these incredible documents. When I asked her why she wasn’t wearing protective hand wear she shrugged it off and said: we don’t take these out all that often??????
This is the oldest European document (above and below) in the library’s collection. It is a simple Parish Book of the Remembrance – a list of those who have died and are to be remembered at mass – from a church in France. It is on vellum and some of the pages had holes in them, however the librarian explained that it wasn’t damage but cheap vellum, after all it was only a parish registry. The holes were from insect bites in the animal skin that expanded when it was worked to create the writing surface. The first entry dates from the middle of the 8th Century and the last somewhere in the 13th – 500 years of parish history. And of course as time passed the handwriting changed as the previous register’s name was entered in the hand of his successor.
I must admit that prior to this visit I had no idea what an incunabula was. As the Librarian casually brought out each book the term was explained – these are from the infancy (the incubation) of printing. In many cases the texts were done on a printing press but the decorations – illuminations, gilded lettering, title pages etc – were still being done by hand.
This is the first printed edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy; of the 300 printed only 14 copies have survived. As with many incunabuli it is a combination of printed word and hand illumination. It was published in Foligno by Johann Numeister and Evangelista Angelini on April 5th and 6th, 1472 and the enlarged photo is the colophon – the details of its printing – which until modern times always appeared, as it does here, at the back of a book. It reads (very loosely as it is in very old Italian): In 1472, the fourth month (April) the 5th and 6th days this worthy work was printed by me Maestro Johann Numeister this being the 10th impression and I was assisted by Elfulginato Evangelista (a monk).
This volume is unique for several reasons. It is an incunabula of one of the first books on pharmaceutics – De Materia Medica, five volumes written by Pendanius Dioscorides, a Greek doctor (40-90 CE) discussing the medicinal effects of herbs. This translation was printed in the 1500s but much later in the 16th century a student not only made notes in the margins but drew pictures of the various plants being described. It is a remarkable volume showing the library serving its purpose as the founder intended – a place for research and learning.
I have two more posts in this series of works which I was lucky enough to see on my day at the library however there may be a slight delay in posting as I head off to London and also wait for the new Mac with Photoshop installed.
Going to the Library – Part I
Going to the Library – Part II – Travel Guides
17 febbraio – Santi Sette Fondatori dell’Ordine dei Servi della Beata Vergine Maria