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,_Cappella_vespucci

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 collections@etoncollege.org.uk or 01753 370590.

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

 

‘A dainty peece of entertainment’: John Milton’s early poems

Our second featured item is a very rare book, the first printed edition of poems by the author of Paradise Lost, one of the towering works of English literature.  Milton’s career as a poet was disrupted by the English Civil War, and then by the Restoration, when as a ‘regicide’ he spent months in hiding and in prison.  The epic Paradise Lost was finally completed in 1663, after years of dictation by the blind author.  It went on to become one of the most influential poems in the English canon, with its use of classical forms adopted from Virgil and Dante, and with its heroic depiction of Satan.

The book recently added to College Library’s collection contains the poems from the early part of Milton’s life, and reflect a world untouched by the imminent political upheavals. Included are pious works, such as On the morning of Christ’s nativity. Composed 1629; juvenilia; a series of sonnets in Italian, which, with the two long poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso demonstrate the influence on Milton of his Italian trip in 1638; and the masque written for the Earl of Bridgewater and his family, Comus. Included with Comus is a printed letter from Eton’s Provost, Sir Henry Wotton, commending the poem as ‘a dainty peece of entertainment’.  The second portion of the book contains Milton’s poems in Latin, part of his oeuvre now neglected but by his contemporaries considered to be par excellence.

As well as the book’s rarity, it also has typographical beauty to recommend it. The setting of all the verses on their pages, with broad margins and precise impressions, makes the book a delight to read.  We are extremely pleased to be able to show Milton’s poems in such a winning format, as they were read by his first audience.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

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Portrait of John Milton: frontispiece to Poems of John Milton (London, 1645)