Friday, July 23, 2010

A Renaissance Artist's Copy of Vitruvius

Vitruvius, Pollio, De architectura libri decem
[Lyon] : Apud Ioan. Tornaesium, typogr. reg. Lugd., MDLXXXVI [1586].
[16], 460, [36] p., [1] folded leaf of plates : ill., port. ; 24 cm. (4to)
Renaissance Center copy is in contemporary (?) limp vellum; ms. annotations throughout.

Probably the book in our collection most heavily annotated by a contemporary reader, this sixteenth-century edition of the Roman engineer Vitruvius' landmark architectural work was likely owned by a trained artist. While the extensive marginal notes running through the entire volume demonstrate the owner's readerly labors and unquestionable interest in the text, numerous ink sketches--many illustrating content from the printed work--suggest the owner's formal training in artistic techniques.

It appears that most of the marginal drawings hold a direct relationship with adjacent chunks of printed text. As such, the illustrations could have served as mnemonic or reference devices, enabling the reader to quickly navigate the text by finding the corresponding illustration in the margins. On the other hand, this could have been the property of a student who transformed word into image as an exercise of some kind.
In the image above, one can see a drawing of a figure worshipping a vase; the corresponding text describes the Ancient Egyptian practice of storing sacred water in a “hydria” for safekeeping and worship in a temple. The last line of that paragraph, roughly translated, reads: “then laying down on the earth with hands raised to the heavens, they give thanks for divine benevolence.” And this is exactly what the illustration portrays. Considering the handwritten marking of the passage in addition to the illustration, it seems likely the owner accorded great importance to this part of the work. And if the illustrations do in fact serve a reference function of some kind, then they hold a practical role as a means of marking off the most important passages in a book filled with important passages.

The relation of the second image to its corresponding text is less direct than in my first example. You can see a drawing of four women looking into a mirror, complete with a reflection and lines indicating their field of vision. The corresponding text briefly describes the reflective properties of mirrors, noting, “no mirrors reflect fixed images.” The passage concludes with a bit of Senecan wisdom explaining how mirrors can benefit the beautiful, the ugly, the young, and the old alike. Nowhere in the passage is there any description of women looking in a mirror, but it is possible that the drawing reflects Seneca’s idea that “the young are admonished in the flower of age,” one of sententiae listed at the end of the paragraph. The drawing may also reflect the earlier sentence on the mirror’s inability to reflect fixed images, since the illustrated reflection doesn’t quite match up with the figures.

Some of the illustrations demonstrate the act of reading the text. In the above image, the eye of the reader/artist has digested, transformed, and visualized the words read on the page, physically recreating the architectural concept previously existing only in the abstract language of the text.

Here the book's owner has marked an important passage with the manicule (Latin for "little hand"), a device similar in function to the "nota bene" or "florigelum," i.e. one used to indicate quotable or important sections of a book. But unlike most of the crudely drawn manicules of the period, this one shows signs of an artist's touch; the graceful posture of the hand almost resembles Adam's in the famous painting of the Creation adorning the Sistine Chapel.

Here are a few more illustrations from the book:

Early modern sunbathing?

Is this man hiding? ducking? crawling?

larger image 

This image of Jupiter preparing to hurl lightning from the heavens probably corresponds to Vitruvius' discussion of "simulacra deorum" in the adjacent printed text.

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