By Irene O’Daly
While most of my research involves eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts, occasionally I have an excuse to dig deeper into the collections at Leiden University. Sometimes these searches unearth manuscripts that, while they may be run-of-the-mill examples of their kind, are new and exciting to me as a medievalist. I recently found one like this when I was preparing a demonstration for some students working on texts written by humanist scholars in the Renaissance.
Although only 16 folia long, this manuscript (PER Q 18) was full of interesting features. The manuscript contained Leonardo Bruni’s (c. 1370-1444) translation and commentary on the first book of pseudo-Aristotle’s Economics, written c. 1420. Bruni, of course, was one of the ‘superstars’ of the humanist revival of interest in classical philosophy – and his translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian text was destined to become a medieval bestseller, surviving in over two hundred manuscripts. The Leiden example is in three parts. It contains a dedictory letter to Cosimo de Medici, a translation of book I of the text, and a copy of Bruni’s commentary on that book.
The opening dedication is presented in the style typical of Florentine book production in this period. The text is surrounded by a decorative border and opens with an initial containing a personification of Cosimo de Medici himself. As is typical of the period, the script references the rounded style of Carolingian miniscule, rather than the pointed characters of the Gothic. It is only lightly abbreviated, compared to the compressions of text common in the Gothic period. These archaising tendencies had a practical purpose – to increase legibility – but the aesthetic choice to make the volume emulate earlier (supposedly more accurate) exemplars was also reflected in other aspects. For example, the text is presented on pages that are ruled with a pointed stylus, rather than the dark lead lines favoured from the mid-twelfth on.
Bruni’s translation follows the opening dedication. Although accompanied by a decorative border, again the page gives a clean and uncluttered impression, emphasised by its finely produced parchment. Often humanist manuscripts were decorated sparsely, to allow the text stand for itself.
Bruni’s sentence-by-sentence commentary on the text follows. Interestingly, here the extracts taken from the Economics are presented in a different register of script – characterised by a different range of letter-forms (note particularly the a and the round-s) and in larger size for ease of consultation. Although a reference work, the manuscript was carefully copied by a professional scribe who was obviously at ease switching between scriptural registers and adept at making the text visually pleasing.
Vespasiano da Bisticci, a Florentine stationer, described how Bruni was able to walk around the city and see his works copied wherever he went. Bruni was a celebrity writer, and the Economics, with its advocacy of private wealth, seems to have held particular appeal in the mercantile economy of Florence in this period. Despite its diminutive size, therefore, Leiden UB PER Q 18 tells a story of changing fashions in book culture in the final heyday of manuscript production.