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.

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

Incunable fragments

One of my recent tasks has been the identification and cataloguing of just over twenty loose sheets of printed material, found as fragments at ECL. Most of these are from ‘incunables’, books printed before 1500, when the printing process was in its infancy.  The rarity of printed books surviving from the 15th century means that even single sheets and fragments have been kept by collectors.

Although the ECL fragments are small and imperfect, they are each unique. For instance, most have had rubrics painted in by hand, so that they look more like the manuscripts fifteenth century readers were used to.  Some, like the fragment from Alphonso de Spina’s Fortaliter Fidei, even have beautiful decorated initials (whilst others, like the Dante, have gaps where painted initials should have been).

A list from the late 19th century identified some of the fragments, and I visited the Bodleian and Cambridge University Library to compare our fragments with complete copies there, and confirm each identification.  The remaining fragments involved more guesswork, identifying the text (the Bible was easy – bits of Plutarch and St Augustine much less so!) and working through the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Bodleian Incunable Catalogue to seek out likely candidates.  Again, I went to see complete copies in other libraries, and managed to identify most of our fragments this way.  A few still have me completely foxed!  I will put up photos of these some time, to see if anyone can help.

After identifying them, of course, I had to tackle the difficulty of cataloguing fragments. But that’s a whole different blogpost…

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

Edward IV, protector of Eton?

The end of 1460 had been a bad year for the Yorkists. Richard Duke of York and his younger son Edmond had been killed in battle. The elder son Edward was now Duke of York, and he assumed his father’s claim to the throne. The tide would now begin to turn in favour of the Yorkists.

Edward met the Lancastrian army at Mortimer’s Cross in Hertfordshire on 2 February 1461, and defeated them soundly. During the battle, three suns were seen to be rising, a portent, Edward of York claimed, of his upcoming success and that God was on his side. He took these suns as his emblem. Queen Margaret headed towards London, but was prevented from entering the city by Londoners who feared pillaging. The Yorkist army gave chase and also set off for the capital.

This must have been a very difficult time for Eton, very much Lancastrian in its outlook. Although they had not themselves taken up arms, Eton was Henry VI’s project and they feared reprisals. Some of the Fellows headed out to meet the Duke of York on his way to London.

They came away with a written letter of protection, signed by the new Duke [ECR 39/124]. Dated 27 February 1461, it reads

Be it knowen that We, Edward by the grace of God of Englande, Fraunce, and Irlande vray and just heire, Duc of York, Erl of the March and Ulvestre, have by thees our lettres taken and receyved the Provoste and felaship of the Collage of Eyton into our defense and saveguard.

Just a few weeks later the Battle of Towton took place, and Edward was now King of England. The College must have been very relieved that they had got this show of support from their new King when they did!

This protection was not to last long though, for in 1463 Edward decided to annex Eton to the College of St George, Windsor Castle. All property, money, vestments, support went to St George’s, and Eton was closed down.

By Eleanor Hoare, College Archivist