This week our Venetian illustrations turn theatrical, with an illustrated copy of the plays of Plautus, and we welcome as guest blogger, the exhibition curator, Laura Moretti, of the University of St. Andrews.
Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254-184 BC), Comedies, edited by Bernard Saraceni, and Giovanni Pietro Valla. (Venice: Lazzaro de’ Soardi, 1511). Edinburgh University Library JY 1082.
The comedies by the Roman dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254-184 BC) were the subjects of a period of rebirth during the course of the fifteenth century. This was due – along with the favor that theatrical plays by Roman authors saw as a genre during the Renaissance – to the fact that twelve comedies by Plautus were rediscovered in the first half of the Quattrocento. Together with the eight already known at the time, the group of twenty comedies came to constitute a fundamental corpus for the theatre in the following decades, being represented with great success in Rome, Milan and Ferrara. They were reworked, modified, and translated into vernacular. Besides being copied in several manuscripts, from the beginning of the 1470s also printed editions started to appear. The texts were edited and commented by various authors, including Giorgio Merula, Ermolao Barbaro, Angelo Poliziano, Giovan Battista Pio, Filippo Beroaldo.
The present edition was published in 1511 by Lazzaro de’ Soardi. Active as a printer in Venice between 1490 and 1517, he published about fifty editions, especially Latin classics, religious texts, and works of ascetic, theological and philosophical character. The commentary by Bernardo Saraceni and Giovanni Pietro Valla had already been published in Venice in 1499 by Simone Bevilacqua. The Soardi edition, though, was the first one fully illustrated, presenting a full-page woodcut of a theatre and numerous woodcuts throughout.
This illustration already appeared in a previous edition of comedies by the Roman dramatist Terentius (c.195/185- c.159? BC), published in 1497 by the same Soardi. It is a rare image of a theatre seen from the unusual point of view of the actors. The audience sits on semicircular stalls, and is dressed in contemporary fashion. One actor is performing at the centre of the scene, while another oneis entering from a lateral door on the right.
The 1511 edition is completed by 316 woodcuts of scenes from the comedies. The illustrations are not designed individually, but composed assembling smaller blocks. The resulting images generally present the names of the characters in scrolls aligned at the top – also repeated underneath – and normally four, but sometimes up to six elements combining: one to six characters, one to two doors, one or tree trees, and one to four thin rectangular floral borders. It is possible to notice many repetitions of the individual elements, although the resulting illustrations are always different.
The above-mentioned 1497 edition of Terentius also presented woodcuts illustrating the scenes, but they were crafted individually.
These illustrations might look more coherent and better manufactered to our eyes than the ones from the 1511 edition, but in the latter, perhaps less refined and accurate, we can notice some elements of extreme relevance for the history of the printed book. In a period in which the industrialisation of the printing process was still in its infancy, these images represent the sign of a tendency and a way of thinking in terms of reproducibility, reuse, and flexibility.
Something similar, although more elaborated, already appeared in the edition of the comedies by Terentius published in Strasbourg in 1496 by Johannes Grüninger. This particular edition also presented in the titlepage the representation of a “theatre”, and might have inspired Soardi.
In the 1551 edition, while the characters often simulate some sort of stage action, the trees and – especially – the doors confer a sense of spacial recession, giving to the illustrations a three-dimensional effect and a stage-like appeareance, even if still pretty schematic. The page is composed presenting the original text in the central section, together with the illustrations, while the commentary unfolds around them.
The book formed part of the collection of Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), who studied at the University of Edinburgh and was Chair of Moral Philosophy there from 1785. His library included the books of his father Matthew (1717-85), Professor of Mathematics at the same institution. The collection passed into the hands of Dugald’s son Matthew (c.1784-1851), who bequeathed it – along with many of his own books – to the United Service Club in London. In 1910 the whole collection was transferred to the University of Edinburgh. It contains 3,432 titles in some 4,000 volumes, covering many topics, but is particularly strong in political economy, moral philosophy, and mathematics. There are a large number of presentation copies reflecting Dugald’s wide circle of acquaintances and admirers. The younger Matthew Stewart added some early printed books (there are 33 incunabula in the collection) and works on oriental subjects. A signature of a previous owner is visible on the titlepage; the Rare Books staff think it may be an institution – S[ancti] Ip[politi?] … but at the moment I am not able to identify it.
Dr Laura Moretti (University of St Andrews)
Fully digitised copy of the 1511 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s edition of Plautus comedies, digitised by the Bavarian State Library is available here.http://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/resolve/display/bsb10195815.html
The 1496 Johannes Grüninger’s edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, Technische Universität Darmstadt, is available here.http://tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/inc-iv-77/0001?sid=094bbe50d4659af0b4134f5d1d57ff78
The 1497 Lazzaro de’ Soardi’s edition of Terentius comedies, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München, is available here.http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0005/bsb00058998/images/index.html?id=00058998&groesser=&fip=eayaxdsydyztsxdsydeayawxdsydsdasqrsxdsydewqxs&no=2&seite=1
The 1499 Simone Bevilacqua’s edition of Plautus comedies, with commentary of Saraceni and Valla, digitised by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München, is available here.http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0006/bsb00064398/images/
The full catalogue record for the Edinburgh University Library copy is here: https://discovered.ed.ac.uk/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=44UOE_ALMA21104958570002466&context=L&vid=44UOE_VU2&search_scope=default_scope&tab=default_tab&lang=en_US