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Incunabula Cataloguing Project II

The first printed edition of the Roman poet Virgil

The book featured here is one of the great works of Western literature. Printed in 1469, it is the first edition (known as the editio princeps) of the works (“Opera” in Latin) of the ancient Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, better known simply as Virgil. It contains the Eclogues (or Bucolics), a series of pastoral poems; the Georgics, a poem on farming and in praise of country life; and his greatest work the Aeneid, an epic poem about the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled from Troy and, guided by the Olympian gods, fought for and settled the region of Latium in Italy, where his descendants would eventually found the city of Rome.

Virgil (70 B.C.-19 B.C.) was born into a rural family near Mantua in Northern Italy, is said to have attended schools in Cremona, Milan, Rome, and Naples, trained as a lawyer, but found his fame by writing poetry. He died after catching a fever whilst visiting Greece and was buried close to his home in Naples. He is said to have composed his own epitaph on his deathbed: Mantua bore me, Calabria snatched me away, now Parthenope [Naples] holds me; I sang of pastures, fields, and kings.

During the Renaissance, the study of Virgil was an essential part of education and many manuscript copies of his works survive from this period. He was also one of the most frequently printed authors during the 15th century: over 180 different editions of Virgil were printed between 1469 and 1500.

Figure 1. Decorated initials 'P', 'E', 'I' and 'A' at the beginning of the Aeneid.
Figure 1. The beginning of the Aeneid with decorated initials ‘P’, ‘E’, ‘I’ and ‘A’ with purple and red pen-work.

The German printers Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz printed the first edition of Virgil at Rome in 1469 (Fig. 1). Sweynheym and Pannartz were the first printers in Italy, having brought the new technology with them from Germany and in 1464/5 setting up the first printing press in the Benedictine monastery at Subiaco, about 45 miles to the east of Rome. In 1467, the two printers left Subiaco and settled in Rome.

In a later publication Sweynheym and Pannartz stated that they had printed 450 copies of Virgil. Only eight of them are known to have survived, of which two are in the UK (the John Rylands Library copy and one in the Bodleian Library, Oxford – more on this later). The others are in France (three copies), Italy (two copies), and the USA (the copy at Princeton University).

Figure 2. 15th century illuminated border with a coat of arms.
Figure 2. First page of the Bucolica with an Illuminated border containing a coat of arms.

The early history of the copy in the John Rylands Library is unknown. At the beginning of the main text there is a 15th-century illuminated border of red and blue flowers with gold dots, which contains the coat of arms of an early owner (Fig. 2). The arms of three blue hunting horns on gold are probably Italian but so far I have been unable to identify them. They were formerly attributed as the arms of Johannes Hornberger (died 1569), of Buda, a city official in Rottenburg in Germany, but this attribution is doubtful.

George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834) probably purchased this copy from the London bookseller James Edwards in 1797, as there is a book bill in the Althorp Papers in the British Library which records payment to Edwards but not what he paid for it: “Virgilius Editio princeps – Roma – paid for Sep. 22d [1797].” Edwards probably got this copy from the Augustinians of the Convento di Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome (my thanks to Eric White for this information).

Figure 3. Late 18th century[?] illuminated border with the coat of arms of George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834).
Figure 3. Late 18th century illuminated border with the coat of arms of the 2nd Earl Spencer.

That the 2nd Earl Spencer prized this book can be seen by the fact that he had his own coat of arms (Spencer quartering Churchill) painted in an illuminated border on the first page (Fig. 3). Also, mounted on the rear endpaper in the book are a few somewhat sorry-looking pressed leaves (Fig. 4, below). These are the remnants of a wreath of bay leaves taken from the tomb of Virgil in Naples. According to local legend, at the time of Virgil’s death a large bay tree grew near the entrance to the tomb. The tomb became a place of pilgrimage over the centuries and many visitors took branches and leaves from the bay tree as souvenirs. The original tree died, as did a replacement tree planted in the 14th century by the poet Petrarch. Perhaps Spencer took the souvenir leaves during his tour of the Continent in 1819-1820. He probably visited Naples when he met the Duke of Cassano, of Naples, who proposed selling to him his entire library, an offer that Spencer accepted.

Figure 4. A wreath of bay leaves taken from Virgil's tomb in Naples.
Figure 4. A wreath of bay leaves at the rear of the book, taken from the tomb of Virgil in Naples.

Earl Spencer, incidentally, owned a second but imperfect copy of the first edition of Virgil, which came with the Duke of Cassano’s library. Spencer did not habitually keep duplicate copies of books that he had acquired, so he sold the second copy at auction in 1821. The Bodleian Library, in Oxford, bought it for £63.

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