Contugi before Federico
The only direct link between the scribe and Florence that may suggest a likely “Florentine period” is testified by Plut. 54.20 of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence, undersigned on f. 54r («Manu Mathei domini Hèrculani de Contugiis de Vulterris et caetera»). The manuscript, which contains the Theophrastus of Aeneas of Gaza translated by Ambrogio Traversari, is characterized by a typically Florentine decoration. The six-ball emblem on f. 2r attests that it was made for a member of the Medici family. Albinia de la Mare, who makes a brief mention of the manuscript, dates it to around 1460 (de La Mare, New Research, p. 449 n. 224; see also Derolez, Codicologie des manuscrits II, p. 50 n. 205). References to Florence and to Tuscany are present in some letters of successive years sent to the marquis Ludovico Gonzaga, in which the copyist expresses the intention to go in search of good parchments or for other personal reasons, or at best, undefined (see Archivio di Stato di Mantova, Archivio Gonzaga, b. 2401, fasc. XIX, f. 23r-v). The writing of the Florentine manuscript, attributable to Matteo’s early years, is not yet so well-finished like that of the extraordinarily elegant manuscripts created for Federico. Similarly, the decoration is far from those models. The present Ott. lat. 1998 may also be attributed to an initial period; modest also in format, it is signed on f. 104v («per me Matheum domini Herculani De Vulterris»); it contains the Commedies of Terence.
Among the numerous colophons Contugi signed, only one is dated: ms. 113 preserved at the Christ Church College of Oxford, which today also constitutes the oldest witness of his activity: «Manu Mathei Domini Herchulani de Vulterris / Ad clarissimam civitatem F. et c(etera). MCCCCLVI» (f. 156v). On the basis of the decoration of the initials, bianchi girari with palmettes and phytomorphic branches of the Ferrara type, it was presumed that the manuscript was written in Ferrara. It is not clear, however, who the patron was, since the coat of arms in the lower margin of f. 2r has not been identified. The unsigned ms. 114 may also be attributed to his hand and contains the Eclogues and the Georgics.
Ferrara is explicitly mentioned in the colophon of a manuscript made for Ercole I d’Este at the beginning of the seventies. This was a vulgarization of the Cyropaedia of Xenophon written by Matteo Maria Boiardo (Modena, Biblioteca Estense, α. G. 5.1 = Ital. 416), which presents the following colophon: «Manu Matthaei de Contugiis de Vulterris: ad Clarissimam civitatem Ferrariae» (see Critelli, Per la carriera di Matteo Contugi, pp. 260-261, with bibliography). The link documented in subsequent years between Contugi and Ferrara and the illuminators of this school developed over time until the scribe probably came to play an active role in the involvement of artists from Ferrara for the formation of Federico’s library.
His correspondence with Ludovico Gonzaga offers the first certain news concerning his activity for the lords of Mantua, for whom he worked from at least 1463 (see Mantua, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Gonzaga, b. 2399, f. 638r-v), by copying some splendid manuscripts including a Petrarch belonging to Card. Francesco Gonzaga (London, British Library, Harley 3567), a Plautus (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Vitr. 22-5, not undersigned but unanimously attributed to him) and a Pliny (Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, J.I. 22-23), both for Ludovico Gonzaga and not signed but unanimously attributed (see Critelli, Per la carriera di Matteo Contugi, pp. 256-257 n. 11-15, with bibliography).
Among the numerous epistles, some offer interesting details about the long and substantial work carried out for the making of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, between requests of the patrons for the end of the works and just as many reminders from the scribe about recompenses that had not yet been honored. In particular, it emerges that Contugi acted as an intermediary for an offer from Guglielmo Giraldi for the decoration of the manuscript, written between 1463 and 1468 and subsequently illuminated by Pietro Guindaleri and other artists. If there is no trace on the manuscript of Giraldi’s collaboration (the scribe collaborated with him for the Plautus), the notice is important because it suggests the involvement of Contugi in the organization of the production of the manuscripts. This implies a type of work which was broader that of a copyist, as will happen later at the court of Urbino (see Critelli, Per la carriera di Matteo Contugi, pp. 259-260 and ntt. 19-23, with bibliography).