The Bembo Jerome, Epistolae (Letters)
This grand humanist copy of the Letters of Saint Jerome once belonging to Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), a Venetian nobleman, important humanist, and envoy to the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici with marginal notes and maniculae in his own hand. The Letters of Saint Jerome were prized by humanist scholars, and the present manuscript offers an unusually fine example in immaculate condition. The classicizing script, elegantly painted putti, and white-vine decoration are likely from the scriptorium of Santa Maria degli Angeli, famous for its humanist works, and offer a striking example of book illumination from the early Florentine Renaissance. Following Bembo’s ownership, the manuscript boasts an illustrious provenance, included in the collections of Major J. R. Abbey, Peter and Irene Ludwig, and the J. Paul Getty Museum as well as a long-term deposit at the Parker Library in Cambridge.
ii + 353 folios (f. 134 doubled in modern pencil foliation, thus reaching f. 352.), in 36 gatherings (15 [2 bifolia and i singleton], 2-3610), complete, catchwords and traces of signatures, written in an early humanistic bookhand (which still retains a gothic flavor) in a greenish black ink, on 35 long lines, ruled in hard point (written space 225 x 165 mm.), rubrics in pale red, spaces left for Greek (but never filled in), 2-line introductory initials throughout in gold with white vine-stems on green, red and blue grounds, two very large vine-stem initials (ff. 5v and 6) in gold against green, light pink and blue grounds, one partial border (f. 6) of the same with a finely drawn putto holding a shield (still blank), slightly discolored vertical crease on f. i, otherwise in wonderfully fresh condition. Bound in crimson velvet over pasteboard, the spine restored. Dimensions, 353 × 255 mm.
1. Written and decorated in Florence in the 1430s, probably in the scriptorium of S. Maria degli Angeli (see below); a shield in the partial border on f. 6 has been left blank.
2. In the library of Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), Venetian nobleman, important humanist, envoy to the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and father of Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) with marginal notes and maniculae in Bembo’s hand (see Von Euw and Plotzek, 1981, pp. 54-55).
3. Several erasures on the verso of first flyleaf, with the outline of a red oval library stamp still visible; “no. 607” is written in pencil on the same page but is of later vintage.
4. Charles H. St. J. Hornby (1876-1946), MS 87; bought from Jacques Rosenthal on August 10, 1932 (according to a note in pencil on front pastedown).
5. Major J. R. Abbey (1894-1969), with engraved bookplate inside front cover, MS 32.27 (note in blue ink on back paste-down: JA 3227,15:9:46; bought with the Hornby collection in 1946); his sale, London, Sotheby’s, March 25, 1975, lot 2957.
6. Peter and Irene Ludwig, Aachen, MS XI 2; their usual book plates inside the front cover (see von Euw, A. and J. Plotzek, Die Handschriften der Sammlung Ludwig, vol. 3, Cologne, 1981, pp. 52-56, figs. 13 (f. 5v) and 14 (f. 2.2,6).
7. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, MS Ludwig XI 2, deaccessioned.
8. James and Elizabeth Ferrell Collection, United States, on long-term deposit at the Parker Library, Cambridge.
ff. i-3v, Table of Contents for the 149 letters and tracts with numbers, titles, and incipits: Indpiunt epistole sancti leronimi presbiteri per ordinem infrascripte; f. 4r-v ruled but blank;
ff. 5-351, The letters of St. Jerome: Incipiunt epistole sancta Ieronimi presbiteri per ordinem infrascripte (f. 5); 149 individual exegetical, hagiographical and polemical works that were either written by St. Jerome or written to him (Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 22, see below Online Resources for an English translation), beginning with several letters from and to Pope Damasus, including Epistola Damasi papae ad leronimum super tribus questionibus libri Geneseos. Prima. Dormientem te et longo iam tempore . . .; and Rescripta leronimi presbiteri ad papam Damasum de septem indicti Cain. Epistola tertia. Beatissimo papae Damaso Hieronymus ... (for a detailed list of the contents, see Alexander and de la Mare 1969, pp. 29-30; and Von Euw and Plotzek 1982, pp. 52 and 54); ff. 35iv-352v ruled but blank.
Belonging to an ancient patrician family, Bernardo Bembo held numerous political offices within the Republic of Venice, including diplomatic appointments in Florence where he cultivated important connections to the Medici court. As a statesman, Bembo was also an accomplished orator who spoke elegant Latin and was widely admired for his speeches, some of which are preserved in manuscripts at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice (cod. lat. IX 364; XI 130, 139, 246; XIV 2, 236; cod. Ferr. II 162). He was an active patron of the arts with many important commissions highlighted by the construction of the tomb of Dante Alighieri by Pietro Lombardo in Ravenna in 1483. A noted bibliophile, Bembo collected books from a young age and amassed one of the most important humanist libraries of the fifteenth century. His collection specialized in Latin and Greek literature, philosophy, and history with rare and valuable works by Virgil, Livy, Terence, and Boethius among others. His love of rhetoric perhaps led him to acquire this volume of the Letters by Saint Jerome, which were prized by Humanist scholars for their elegance and rhetorical sophistication.
Marginal notes and maniculae from Bembo’s hand were first identified in this manuscript by A. C. de la Mare in 1981 (see von Euw and Plotzek 1981, p. 55). These first appear on folio 31v (“panibus non siliquis,” a reference to Luke 15:17) and continue intermittently, concluding in a final note on folio 335. Bembo’s distinctive maniculae are also present throughout. Bembo may have acquired this Jerome from the famous Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci during his first diplomatic mission to Florence in 1474 (von Euw and Plotzek 1981, p. 55).
The manuscript was likely produced between 1430-1440 by scribes working in the scriptorium of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence (see Alexander and de la Mare 1969, pp. xxv and xxxiv). The convent became an important site for the development of humanistic script and decoration under the stewardship of Ambrogio Traversari (1356-1439), first a monk and then, from 1431, the prior general of the Camaldolese Order. Traversari moved freely in humanist circles and was an important early advocate for the “new” script, which he actively encouraged his monks to learn. The white vine-stem decoration in the Bembo Jerome is characteristic of works produced in Santa Maria degli Angeli, exemplified by a manuscript of Dionysius Areopagita, which Battista di Biagio Sanguigni illuminated for Traversari in 1436 or just after (Padua, Bibl. Capit., MS C. 27). The Bembo Jerome does not appear itself to have been decorated by Sanguigni, but its illuminator must have belonged to his immediate circle (see von Euw and Plotzek 1982, p. 56).
The decoration of the Bembo Jerome is as quintessentially Florentine inspired by a mixture of medieval and classical motifs. The graceful, white vine-stems that trail around the letters and define the partial border on folio 6 were associated in the contemporary consciousness with antiquity, but like the script, they were derived from eleventh- and twelfth-century models. On the other hand, the elegant putto supporting the shield inside the border is directly modeled on ancient Roman works and is an early example of the classicizing style that would flourish in the following decades. While putti became staple motifs of Renaissance illumination, they are rarely found in manuscripts before this date. Some initials remain unfinished providing valuable insights into the working methods of the scribes. Exposed outlines are drawn in ink over metal point with pink bole supplied for the gold; in a few places the initials are missing entirely (e.g., ff. 140, 212, and 310).
The script is quintessential of the earliest “experimental” stage of humanistic script “invented” in Florence at the very beginning of the fifteenth century by the young Poggio Bracciolini (see Alexander and de la Mare 1969, pp. xxiii). While the text was written in a minuscule that is entirely humanistic, there is still a great deal of gothic influence in the forms of capitals, in the sometimes-heavy lines, and in the compact spacing. De la Mare has identified at least one other manuscript by the same scribe with similar decoration, a copy of Columella now in London, which may have originated from the Badia of Fiesole (British Library, Add. MS 17295).
The Bembo Jerome also relates to another fifteenth-century volume of the Epistolae with the ex-libris of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici (Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Plut. MS 19.12). The headings are comparable, and in the first half of the two manuscripts, the ordering is nearly identical; in the second halves, the ordering varies considerably, but the contents are almost the same. As the selection of Letters was never standardized in the Middle Ages, both manuscripts likely shared a similar exemplar. Analogous arrangements and orderings can be found in early copies of the Epistolae, such as a tenth- to eleventh-century example in the Vatican (MS Vat lat. 341), undoubtably similar to the volume that inspired the Bembo Jerome.
Produced by an influential scriptorium during the early years of Italian humanism, the Bembo Jerome is a pristine addition to the corpus of known works from Bembo’s celebrated library.
Alexander, Jonathan J. G. and Albinia C. de la Mare, The Italian Manuscripts in the Library of Major J. R. Abbey, London, 1969, no. 8 (MS 3227), pp. xxv and xxxiv, and pl. XII.
Clough, C. H. “The Library of Bernardo and of Pietro Bembo,” The Book Collector 33 (1984), pp. 302-331.
Giannetto, N. Bernardo Bembo: Umanista e politico veneziano, Florence, 1985.
Römer, R. Die handschriftliche Uberlieferung der Werke des Heiligen Augustinus 11/1.2 Grossbritannien und Irland, Vienna, 1972, p. 281.
Settimana del libro antico e raro (IV Fiera Internazionale del Libro, Catalogo di 100 preziosi volumi), Florence: Istituto Italiano del Libro, 1, no. 13, pi. XI (as belonging to Jacques Rosenthal).
von Euw, A. and J. Plotzek, Die Handschriften der Sammlung Ludwig, vol. 3, Cologne, 1981, pp. 52-56, figs. 13 (f. 5v) and 14 (f. 2.2,6).
Letters of St. Jerome (English)