De officiis

copied by Bartolomeo Sanvito Rome, 14 February 1497
parchment; 153 × 99 mm; ff. 127
Windsor, The Provost and Fellows of Eton College, MS. 149

De officiis was one of the most read and studied works by Cicero and of the Latin classics through the centuries. The epitome of its success was in the society of Renaissance courts, as testified by the many surviving fifteenth century manuscripts and by the fact that it was the first classical text to be published in print. Its first edition (Mainz 1465) was followed by seventy more by the end of the century, with a peak between 1489 and 1500 (istc). At about the same time, but in direct contrast with the printed editions usually published in folio or in quarto format, Sanvito (a book artist who was always very careful in capturing every new cultural and artistic trend) copied Cicero’s text in at least five manuscripts and in a format that was similar to a narrow octavo. These were part of a group of works by Latin authors and poems by Dante that, following the isolated case of De officiis being copied for a Gonzaga around the year 1471, he produced regularly during the 1480s and ’90s in elegant pocket-size manuscripts written in his beautiful all’antica cursive hand (de la Mare, Nuvoloni 2009, nos. 53, 82–83, 86, 90, 97– 100, 102–103, 105, 108), perhaps encouraged by the positive reception of the pocket-size copies of Horace and Sallustius that he had copied for Bernardo Bembo (cat. 36; Cambridge – ma, Harvard University, Houghton Library, ms. Richardson 17). Apparently some of these were not prepared on commission, but in view of hypothetical future clients, not unlike the printed editions. He added his own initials to the colophon, as if to provide a quality guarantee. The elegant decoration in all’antica style of the manuscripts seemed to follow a precise programme of normalisation: architectural title pages decorated with plinths, candelabras and cornices; titles and colophons in epigraphic capitals of gold and colours; faceted initials set against grounds with classical-style decorations and inhabited by the figure of the author himself or of the goddess Roma on the title pages. We find a good example of the decoration of such initials in the cherub playing with the fragment of a letter and the candelabrum with its base decorated with dolphins in the ground of the beautiful letter “P” (P[ublium]) illuminated in gold at the beginning of Book 3 of De officiis in the Eton manuscript (it is worth mentioning that the dolphin, a common Renaissance decoration element, will be identified with Aldus’ books from the moment in which he began to use the anchor and dolphin as the device of his printing press; cat. 9. If the identification of the hand of Bernardo Bembo in some nota signs on the margins of this manuscript is correct (de la Mare, Nuvoloni 2009, no. 102), this Cicero might be one of the narrow and pocket-size codices that inspired Manutius his famous series of in octavo editions in an oblong format, printed in the first cursive typeface in the history of printing, with titles in small epigraphic capitals, on paper or parchment, with no decoration but with wide spaces and margins that would allow for illuminated initials and decoration to be added by hand.

Laura Nuvoloni