Prodicus of Ceos (?)
Hercules in bivio [Ercole Senofontio]

copied by Felice Feliciano
c. 1463
parchment; 195 × 125 mm; ff. 34
Padua, Biblioteca Civica, ms. B.P. 1099

This codicetto (small codex) contains the Latin version by Sassolo da Prato (a pupil and biographer of Vittorino da Feltre) of an allegorical text narrating the choice made by Hercules at the crossroads between Vice and Virtue. The original Greek parable, perhaps composed by the philosopher Prodicus of Ceos (470–380 B.C.), was handed down by Xenophon in his Memorabilia as a model of virtue and heroism (Mem. 2.1.21–33). Sassolo translated it between 1442 and 1444 for Alessandro Gonzaga (1427–1466), the youngest son of Gianfrancesco Marquis of Mantua (1395–1444).

Seven manuscript versions of the fifteenth century text were handed down to us. The Padua codex was the second of two manuscripts copied directly from Sassolo’s original by the “antiquarian” Felice Feliciano from Verona, an eclectic humanist and scribe contemporary to Bartolomeo Sanvito (cats. 36, 53, 82, 84 and 88). Having already demonstrated his interest for the epigraph initial around 1460 in drawing the letters of the Latin alphabet according to precise classical standards in his Alphabetum romanum (Vat. lat. 6852; Feliciano Veronese 1960; Montecchi 1994a, pp. 65–69; Montecchi 1995, pp. 266–268, figs. 2, 93), the direct predecessor of Pacioli’s alphabet from 1509 (cat. 78), on this occasion Feliciano took the unusual decision of copying the entire Ercole Senofontio text in small epigraph capitals – anticipating the solution advocated by Lascaris thirty years later for the edition of Greek texts (Zamponi 2006b, pp. 25–26). The copy produced for personal use, dated 1463 and with no decoration, was written in brown ink so that the text stands out against the white margins as in a sequence of epigraphs (Vat. reg. lat. 1388; Montecchi 1994a, pp. 76–82 and passim; Montecchi 1995, pp. 273–279 and passim, figs. 4, 46, 97–98). The present manuscript, modelled at a later date on the personal copy, shows the title and preface in gold capitals on parchment dyed in purple or pink, followed by the text in polychrome capitals and set within frames of intertwined two-colour ribbons, reinterpreting this ancient motif in a very personal way (Marcon 2006, passim; Zamponi 2006b, passim). The preciousness of the writing and decoration identify the manuscript as a dedication copy or a commission, perhaps for or by a member of the House of Gonzaga, as supported by the motto Duce gratiae written in gold amidst the leaves of a small shrub (f. 3v) and by the residence of Feliciano in Mantua approximately between 1460 and 1464 (Zamponi 2006b, pp. 23–24; Deligiannis 2012, pp. 165–167). The two codices have the same measurements (which were rather usual at the time), but in the present manuscript the frames create a tall and narrow writing space, one that is even more conspicuous than those in Aldine press octavo editions. Feliciano favoured the oblong format in copying his own poems or those written by others, and he might have been inspired for this page layout by codices of Latin poetry produced at the close of the eleventh century and during the twelfth century. Hence, in this manuscript Feliciano revisited the harmonius ancient epigraphic capitals, the sole survivals of the antique Latin writing, and combined them with decorative and codicological features deriving from medieval Latin and Greek sources. In doing so, he confirmed himself as one of the most eccentric and resourceful book artists of the Renaissance (Zamponi 2006b).

Laura Nuvoloni