Luca Pacioli
Divina proportione

Venice: Paganino Paganini from Brescia, VI 1509, 4°
Cambridge, The Syndics of Cambridge University Library, F150.b.2.7

Pacioli’s celebrated and composite work on the theory and practice of “divina proportione” was published in Venice by the Paganini firm of printers and publishers in 1509, though the texts which go to make it up had been written a decade earlier, in Milan, where he frequented the Sforza court and came into contact with Leonardo. Three main parts can be distinguished in the book (although they are sometimes bound in different sequences in surviving copies): the Compendium de Divina Proportione, a treatise on the “golden section”; the Trattato dell’architettura, which shows the influence of Vitruvius and of Alberti; and the Libellus which is itself subdivided in tres partiales, a vernacular translation, notoriously unacknowledged in the edition, of the artist (and fellow-native of Pacioli from the town of Borgo San Sepolcro) Piero della Francesca’s Latin work De quinque corporibus regularibus. These texts are followed by two extensive series of large woodcut illustrations, finely executed and lavishly (in terms of the quantity of paper needed) displayed one to a leaf: the twenty-three letters of the Latin alphabet, drawn as capitals, as in monumental and epigraphic inscriptions, accompanied by geometrical explanations of the proportions, and the Euclidean solids, after designs by Leonardo. The work had a practical and applied focus as well as reflecting Pacioli’s theoretical interests as a mathematician: as the title-page declares, the work is destined “a tutti glingegni perspicaci e curiosi... ciascun studioso di philosophia prospectiva pictura sculptura architectura musica...”.
Pacioli was not the first scholar in the late fifteenth century to become interested in the geometrical analysis of letters or to produce a geometrical alphabet; Felice Feliciano and Damiano da Moile are both known to have devised their own. How these interests, born from the study of monumental inscriptions, forming part of an architectonic whole, and the formation and design of script and, in the new technology of printing, of typefaces, connect is a complex question; that they occupy a shared space of concern with proportion and harmony in Renaissance culture is evident. A well-known episode illustrates this common intellectual ambience: Pacioli tells us in his edition of Euclid published in the same year, 1509, as the Divina proportione (and also with the Paganini firm) that Aldus was in the audience for his lecture on the Greek mathematician in Venice in August 1508, together with various members of the Aldine circle (cat. 79; Morrison 1933, pp. 1-26; Antologia della Divina Proporzione 2010).

Catalogues: edit16, cnce 28200.

Stephen Parkin