The marginalia of printed books can sometimes reveal hidden worlds. Printed books themselves can be considered historical evidence, as I learned several years ago at university and as I have continued to discover in working more widely with these materials during the last two years. One of the salient features of my current research lies in looking for and interpreting the traces that readers have left on the books they used, and on 15th century books of medicine in particular.
Among the many incunabula kept in the Marciana Library in Venice (around 2,800 titles), I once came across a mysterious weighty tome whose early-18th-century binding, in full shabby parchment, was not particularly attractive. But, even lying closed upon my reading table, its lack of beauty disclosed clues about its past. The limp binding suggested that it had been handled, comfortably, in frequent readings and the worn appearance of the cover made me think that the tome had been used as a reference book. Indeed the title-page confirmed this supposition.
The Marciana incunabulum Inc. 333 is a copy of one of the seven 15th-century editions of the Hortus sanitatis contained within the ISTC census. This one was published in Strassbourg in 1497, and it survives in 90 copies all around the world.
The Hortus (or Ortus) sanitatis, that is, The Garden of Health, is a sort of encyclopedic book of nature which describes the characteristics and medicinal uses of plants and more briefly of animals and minerals. We might really consider it a bestseller among the medical genres, if we take into account the frequency of its Latin editions and translations in the vernacular languages of early modern Europe.
But let us go back to our copy.
Unlike most copies, which feature rich leather bindings with blind tooled decorations on their plates – see, for instance, the Wien National Library exemplar – which seem suggest that these books were precious objects kept on bookshelves and which bear little evidence of their use, the Marciana Library copy is heavily annotated, mostly by one hand.
Almost all of the manuscript notes are recipes written in clumsy Latin.
What a gold-mine of recipes! Unfortunately, no ownership inscription or purchase note peeps out from the initial or the final pages. No claim of possession occurs either in the myriad passages of the printed text, which are densely annotated, or in the eight final pages, which are crammed with further recipes.
So I had to detect the profile of the annotator with my own bare forces.
The handwriting module is very small and looks as if it was gradually shrinking as the blank space available to the writer was decreasing. The hand looks to be Italian, from around the second half of the 16th century. While browsing the pages, among the overflow of recipes in barely-decipherable handwriting, I finally came across a few key sentences which hinted at the geographical origins of the writer. Thanks to a common early modern habit, in which readers translated the names of herbs to those which were more familiar to them locally, the anonymous author writes next to the Atriplex Hortensis ‘Vilani paduani trebese’ and ‘Schiavo Loboda’, which means ‘Paduan paesants call it Trebese’ and ‘in Slavic language Loboda’ (fol. d1r). Many folios later, next to the dandelion, a plant frequently found in temperate climates, the author comments ‘Nos Veneti dicimus lactexuol’ (‘We Venetians call it lactexuol’, fol. h1r) and alongside the description of the Morsus gallinae or Anagallus the author writes ‘quem nos dicimus pavarina’ (‘which we call pavarina’, fol. s5r): all undeniable references to the Venetian area, confirmed by Giuseppe Boerio’s Dizionario del dialetto veneziano (Venice, 1829).
Going through the many recipes I also detected, in the same hand, some rare Italian annotations, characterized by Venetian distortions and scriptio continua (writing with no space between words). Who was the annotator? What was his cultural horizon? He rarely uses symbols for quantities – which are always inscribed in the most common amounts (pounds, ounces etc.) – and almost never uses them for substances, except in the first few pages. For many entries on herbs the anonymous writer adds short notes about their properties, which he extracted from classical and Medieval authorities, such as Serapion of Alexandria, Plinius Secundus, Dioscorides, Mesue, Avicenna, and Magister Maurus Salernitanus (ca. 1160–1214). But sometimes he adds references to plants – drawings and explanations – that offer evidence that he read specific early modern books, such as those written by Jacobus Theodorus (1510-1590) and Castore Durante’s Herbal of 1585. This tells us much more about his background.
Pausing here in my search for the identity of the first author of the marginalia, I’d like to speak briefly about the subsequent owners of this Herbal.
At the top spine of the early 18th century binding of the book, there is a clear shelfmark, ‘A | 16.3.3’ gilt-tooled on a green leather label. There is also a lower (and more recent) shelfmark in brown ink: 17.6.19. These are undoubtedly the shelfmarks of a well-organized library, and probably not a private one.
By poring over the Marciana Archives – quite a time-consuming operation! – I discovered that the only Marciana copy of this Herbal came from the Clerics Regular of Somasca, of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Salute, founded in 1656 (BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812′, file 4): the title of the incunable appears in the 1811 list of books belonging to their library and transferred to the Marciana Library after the Napoleonic suppression of the monastery. And there is more. The second shelfmark appears in a 18th century manuscript catalogue of the same religious library, which luckily still survives among the Marciana collections (Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271).
In my next post I will thoroughly explore the (print) sources of the 16th century annotator side-by-side with the evidence of his own experience, the extent of his additions, his organizing structure, the materials to which he referred while explaining his recipes (bombaxina, black wool, etc.) and much more. We will enter into the content of the recipes and there will be several surprises, which will enlighten us as to the anonymous identity of the author as well as the subsequent uses of this fascinating book.
Sabrina Minuzzi is a book historian with strong interests in the social history of medicine and household medicine in particular. Her Ph.D. in Early Modern History focused on the practice, by the Venetian Health authorities, of granting privileges for medicinal secrets devised by common people. She reconstructed the life and vicissitudes of some of them through archival documents and printed sources. Her research has become a book, Sul filo dei segreti. Farmacopea, libri e pratiche terapeutiche a Venezia in età moderna (Milan: Unicopli, 2016). A sample of her investigation will be shortly available in Social History of Medicine (‘Quick to say quack. Medicinal secrets from the household to the apothecary’s shop in early eighteenth-century Venice’). She is now part of the team of the 15cBOOKTRADE.