Vespucci’s Odyssey: humanism and exploration

The wanderings of Odysseus on his return from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca have served as an archetype for more than two millennia of narratives about travel in western culture. Traditionally ascribed to the blind poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey are the culmination of an oral tradition dating back to the Mycenaean age, handed down and developed for performance by nameless poets over five or more centuries before reaching their present form around 675-725 BCE. The poems were probably put into writing by the mid-6th century BCE, and the earliest surviving manuscripts are papyri from the 3rd century BCE, when Alexandrian scholars produced a relatively stable text which was copied by scribes and spread across the Hellenistic world. About 300 medieval Greek manuscripts of Homer survive from the 9th to 15th centuries, but in western Europe, Homer’s poems were transmitted through Latin abridgements until the revival of Greek learning in the Renaissance, when the influx of Byzantine refugees after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought scholars and the writings of Greek authors to the west.

A 15th-century manuscript of the Odyssey in College Library bears witness to this Greek diaspora. Given to Eton in 1954 by the book collector and Old Etonian John Hely-Hutchinson, it is in a binding typical of books from the library of San Marco in Florence, and the scribe has been identified as Joannes Skoutariotes of Thessaly, who was active from 1442 to 1494. Written on fine vellum, the manuscript is mostly undecorated apart from the small illuminated initials and the very fine border of white vines attributed to the miniaturist Filippo de Matteo Torelli, with putti and other creatures peeping out of the vines and vignettes showing scenes from the poem of Penelope weaving and Odysseus coming ashore. A charming feature of the border is the way it incorporates a marginal correction by the scribe, about two thirds of the way down the right-hand margin.

Homer's Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

Homer’s Odyssey, 15th century Italian manuscript (Eton MS 261)

An inscription on the final leaf of the manuscript, erased and barely legible, identifies the owner: ‘Liber Georgii Antonii Vespucci’ [the book of Giorgio Antonio Vespucci]. The youngest of three brothers of the Vespucci family of Florence, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci studied with the notary and humanist scholar Filippo de Ser Ugolino Pieruzzi, who inspired in him an interest in voyages, astronomy and discussions of the shape of the earth. He became a Dominican friar, scribe and teacher of classics in humanist circles, numbering among his friends the Neoplatonist philosopher and astrologer Marsilio Ficino and the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In addition to copying books for the family library and for others, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci formed a notable collection of manuscript and printed books in Latin and Greek, estimated at between 150 and 200 volumes, and after his death the majority of these were bequeathed to the Dominican convent of San Marco.

As an educator, Vespucci taught young men from the best families in Florence and foreigners drawn to the city by the lure of humanism, including Greek and Byzantine exiles. Among those to whom he imparted his knowledge was his nephew Amerigo, who was intended for a commercial career which eventually led him to join between two and four voyages of exploration to the Americas in the service of Spain and Portugal around 1500. The exact number is disputed, as is Vespucci’s authorship of letters describing the voyages, which may be fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters. However, the publication and widespread circulation of the letters under a Latinised form of his name, Americus Vespucius, is thought to have inspired the cartographer Martin Waldeseemüller to coin the name ‘America’ in his 1507 world map, the Universalis Cosmographia, the first to show the Americas as a separate continent from Asia.


Domenico Ghirlandaio, ‘Madonna della Misericordia and Deposition’, fresco in the Vespucci Chapel, church of Ognissanti, Florence, 1473-1476. The twelve kneeling figures under the Virgin’s robe are members of the Vespucci family; however, scholars are not in agreement in the possible identifications of the individuals. Image from the Web Gallery of Art via WikiCommons

A composition book from Amerigo’s time at his uncle’s school survives in the Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence. In it, he set down ideas and discussions on a variety of subjects and translated them into Latin. They travelled together to Rome, and Giorgio Antonio seems to have inspired his nephew with a love of travel and belief in its benefits. One passage reads: ‘Going back and forth to many distant lands, where by talking and trading one can learn many things, not a few merchants have become wise and learned … Moving about and making enquiries concerning the world, whose limits we have not yet completely ascertained, they can furnish valuable advice …’. It is tempting to believe that perhaps Amerigo Vespucci pored over his uncle’s manuscript of the Odyssey, or at least listened to tales from the poem.

By Stephie Coane, Deputy Curator of Modern Collections

Giorgio Antonio Vespucci’s copy of the Odyssey is on display in the current exhibition in College Library’s Tower Gallery, ‘VOYAGES: a journey in books’. The exhibition is open 24 November 2017 – 30 April 2018, Monday to Friday, 9.30-1 and 2-5 by appointment. To book, please contact us at or 01753 370590.

A Collections Christmas Cracker

Welcome to our final blog of the Michaelmas half!  We’ve chosen twelve of our favourite seasonal objects from the Collections, for your festive enjoyment.  Merry Christmas!

A distant prospect of Eton: or, on leaving presents

The poet Thomas Gray, most celebrated for his Elegy written in a country churchyard (1751), attended Eton College from 1725 until 1735, during which time he formed the self-styled ‘quadruple alliance’ with Thomas Ashton (1716–1775), Horace Walpole (1717–1797), and Richard West (1716–1742). Gray went on from Eton to become a scholar at Cambridge, but it was his acquaintance with Walpole (with whom he went on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1738) that helped to popularise his work. The Elegy was published with Walpole’s help in 1751, and Odes by Mr. Gray was printed at Walpole’s own Strawberry Hill Press, near Twickenham, six years later.

Gray was to leave a more personal legacy at Eton. During the nineteenth century, ‘leaving books’ were given by masters to boys upon their departure from Eton. Lavishly decorated volumes of Gray’s Poems were presented as leaving books, a practice which continues to this day. College Library has many examples of these gifts, including the leaving books of former Provost M. R. James (1862-1936) and former Assistant Master Hugh Macnaghten (1862-1929). Some leaving books were richly adorned with gilt edges and vellum bindings, and had bindings gold-stamped with the Eton coat of arms. The binding of a leaving book presented to the 6th Earl of Dartmouth, William Heneage Legge (1851-1936), is not only grandly embellished with gold decoration but also has a fore-edge painting which, when viewed from the right angle, beautifully depicts Eton College and Windsor Castle.

College Library holds many fine examples of Gray’s works of verse, and books from his own library. Gray’s personal copy of Juvenal dates from his schooldays at Eton, and contains an inscription reading: “E. libris Thomas Gray Schol: Eton: alum: 1733”.

Ownership inscription by Thomas Gray

Inscription by Thomas Gray, as an alumnus of Eton College, in his copy of Juvenal’s poetry (ECL Iaa2.5.6).

The first of Gray’s works to appear in print was his Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College. It is generally considered to be the reflections of a disillusioned adult returning to his schooldays, and it captures the magnificent scenery that surrounds Eton College. One of the more unusual items in this Gray collection is an album of cross-stitch of the Ode, vibrantly sewn in purple and green thread. The title-page depicts Eton’s motto and coat of arms.

Gray’s time at Eton is strongly reflected within his ode, and, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was immortalised for subsequent students within leaving books, irrevocably linking Thomas Gray to Eton.

By Eleanor Wale, Project Cataloguer


Aiming at the highest peaks: Wilfred Thesiger rewrites his first book

The explorer Wilfred Thesiger never intended to write a book about his travels, but in 1956 he was persuaded, and he began work on Arabian Sands.  Thesiger’s old Eton friend Valentine ffrench Blake commented on the first draft, calling certain paragraphs ‘clumsy’ or simply ‘no good’.  Thesiger was grateful for his friend’s advice and during the next three years the work was subjected to constant revision and proofing.

However, the meticulous revisions of the work took their toll and Thesiger became disillusioned with the whole thing.  Thesiger’s literary agent Graham Watson of Curtis Brown had to persuade him not to throw in the towel, writing in a telegram that ‘those who aim at the highest peaks must be judged by the highest standards’.  Watson was sympathetic but stern, insisting Thesiger labour through a steady working day even if redrafting was ‘darned discouraging work’ — good advice for any writer.

The words had the desired effect and Thesiger went on to complete Arabian Sands and a further eleven books.  Thesiger maintained that Arabian Sands was his finest work.

By Ceri Brough, Project Archivist

Dame Judi Dench’s rehearsal script

The coffee stained pale blue card cover of this item does not divulge what you will find inside. There are some clues; some doodles, the handwritten name “Jude”, but it is otherwise unassuming. Opening it up you quickly realise it is a typescript of a play, and a good one, Edward Bond’s The Sea. Concurrently there is the recognition that this is covered with highlighted lines, annotations, a ms. cast list, and character and costume sketches, all in the hand of the person whose name appears at the top of the first page: “Judi Dench.”

The script really tells the story of working on the 1991 production from an actor’s perspective and shows the evident care that was taken in getting to know the character, in this case that of Mrs. Rafi. One of the best examples of this is the drawings of different glove styles, next to the passage in which Mrs. Rafi is shopping at a drapers’, examining their line in gloves. An amusing annotation appears at the end of a page of ms. notes made after a run-through: “VOICE INSTRUMENT OF BRAIN.” This item was kindly donated by Dame Judi to a charity auction.

By Louise Anderson, @LibrarianLCA

Discovering the modern collections, one book at a time

I have now been cataloguing the post 1800s printed collection at ECL for just over three years. Building this extensive collection is the work of half a decade of our Curator of Modern Collections, who started it under the guidance of the bibliophile John Carter in the 1960s. There had been no catalogue made of this collection until I started working on it, book by book. Although we had a good idea of what was there, exact details were hazy.

This is exciting for two reasons: The librarian in me loves creating order out of chaos. The human in me loves the element of discovery; and of these there have been some exciting ones. In the middle of a first edition of W. H. Auden’s City Without Walls sat a postcard about a trip to Europe and Egypt, casually signed from Alfred Wainwright. Scrawled across the front endpapers of Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems in pencil is the name Irene Rathbone, actress turned feminist author of We that were young, a woman’s experience of working in a WWI munitions factory.

Of the first discovery I am fairly confident that the postcard is in the hand of the hiking hero. The second is conjecture based solely on the likely subject of the book and the publication date falling within the lady’s lifespan. But the possibilities keep on coming. Dicken’s illustrators and Thackeray’s Rose and ring carry signatures of Fred Bennett and Mason Jackson respectively, both important illustrators of their time. Most recently I found the signature of an H. Gay Hewlett on the front wrappers of a couple of numbers from Robert Browning’s Bells and pomegranates, possibly the same H. Gay Hewlett that wrote a history of Europe. As I write this, that discovery was only yesterday, I wonder what I’ll find tomorrow…


By Louise Anderson, @LibrarianLCA

From the garden to the place of skulls: illustrations of the Easter story in a Book of Hours

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Some of the finest art of the Northern Renaissance can be found hidden in books – painted into Books of Hours. The Book of Hours was a popular form of prayer book, based on the hours of the monastic services (Prime, Terce, Nones, Lauds, etc.), but Books of Hours were usually made for an individual lay patron, and sometimes richly decorated.  The images below are taken from a Book of Hours written and painted in the Netherlands at the end of the 15th century, which includes a Passion story composed of verses taken from all four Gospels.  The use of contemporary clothing and architecture, and the trompe l’oeil effect of the borders where each flower is painted as if sitting on the surface of the page, were intended to soften the boundaries between reader and the page, and between the worshipper and the scenes of Christ’s suffering.  Late medieval piety emphasised personal identification with Christ’s life, and meditation on his sacrifice.  The flowers in the borders relate to the main images: the red rose symbolises Christ’s Passion, periwinkle, forget-me-not and pansy are associated with remembrance and meditation, and the daisy with St Mary.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian