Vespasiano da Bisticci: cartolaio and biographer
Many manuscripts belonging to Federico were made in the most famous workshop of the time, the Florentine one of Vespasiano da Bisticci (1422/23-1498), entrepreneur of the manuscript book. Da Bisticci’s workshop employed a dense network of scribes and illuminators who were among the most illustrious of the time (see de la Mare, Vespasiano da Bisticci; Ead., Vespasiano da Bisticci as Producer).
His workshop produced sumptuous manuscripts for the most important noble libraries of the time, those of the Medici, the Estensi, the Sforza, the Aragonese, as well as wealthy foreign lords, not least of which, the King of Hungary, Mattia Corvino. The workshop was active from about 1440 to about 1480, when (also due to the invention of printing) Vespasiano retired from the activity and devoted himself to writing the Vite of the figures he had come to know, either directly or indirectly, among which is also the Commentario de la vita del signore Federico duca d’Urbino.
The Florentine bookseller, therefore, who had played a leading role in the establishment of Federico’s library, is also the biographer of one of his principal patrons. In retracing his life, Vespasiano furnishes important information on the library and its development. It is clear today that his scope was mainly celebratory and that the information he provided is therefore not to be read with strict historical accuracy, but rather to be interpreted with prudence and subjected to critical scrutiny. The type of profile of Federico that emerges from the biography is certainly an idealized portrait of a man, who strikes a perfect balance between otium and negotium, in which the qualities of the educated intellectual and expert leader and statesman combine in an exceptional synthesis.
The information provided by Vespasiano, however, remains an important source, also due to its direct involvement in the preparation of the collection. If in fact, inaccuracies have been found in the information proposed, such as the one concerning the absence of printed books in the collection, other reports have been confirmed by specific studies: the information that he provided about forty active scribes for Federico was corroborated by the study conducted by Albinia de la Mare on Florentine scribes (see de la Mare, New Research, p. 449; Ead., Vespasiano da Bisticci, p. 90); likewise the albeit brief summary of the texts contained in the library (see Con gli occhi di Vespasiano) may be supported by the Indice vecchio, an inventory drawn up shortly after Federico’s death.
Traditionally, starting from the information provided by the Florentine cartolaio, it is believed that the library was established quickly, in the span of about fifteen years, starting from the sixties of the fifteenth century. In the Vite, written around 1482, it is stated that Federico had begun to gather his collection, increasing the family’s collection fourteen years before (Vespasiano, Lives, p. 102: "It is now fourteen or more years ago since he began the library").
Hence ca. 1468, a date that in some studies was considered a precise starting point for the formation of the collection. Around the same period, the design and construction of the part of the ducal palace to house the library, is carried out.
In some manuscripts Vespasian is explicitly cited as an entrepreneur. This is the case in Urb. lat. 383, which contains Cassiodorus, in whose colophon the scribe Petrus de Traiecto undersigns as follows: “[...] scriptum per Petrum de Traiecto Almano, Florentiae, sub Vespasiano librario [...]” (f. 252r; the scribe copied ten manuscripts of Federico, dated or datable either before or after 1474 (see de la Mare, Vespasiano da Bisticci, p. 85). In Urb. lat. 1314, which contains the works of Plato translated by Leonardo Bruni, the famous notary and scribe, Ser Gherardo del Ciriagio, thus subscribes: “Gherardus del Ciriagio florentinus scripsit Anno MCCCCLXXII pro Magnifico d(omi)no, Domino Federico Urbini et montis Feretri d(omi)no. procurante Vespasiano Philippi, principe omnium librariorum florentinorum” (f. 165r; de la Mare, New Research, pp. 497, 567; Ead., Vespasiano da Bisticci, pp. 85-86; Ead., Vespasiano da Bisticci as Producer, pp. 194, 199, fig. 26).
The manuscripts that came from Florence thus arrived in Urbino after having already been produced. Later, in the second half of the seventies, when relations with Florence and Lorenzo the Magnificent lessened after the Pazzi conspiracy (1478), in which Federico was not unconnected, the manner of patronage changed: Urbino became a center of manuscript production, and Federico began to turn for the most part to artists from the Padano-Ferrarese area and artists from the local area.
It should be noted, however, that an urban scribe like Federico Veterani undersigned manuscripts for Federico as early as 1471 (Urb. lat. 419, 420, 651); at the same time Florentine manuscripts continued to be added to the collection even after the Urbino scriptorium was already active (see Urb. lat. 328, dated 1481). This is proven by its most important assignment, its masterpiece: the Urbino Bible (Urb. lat. 1-2), written in two volumes in 1477 and 1478 respectively by Hugo de Cominellis, who in the colophon claims to have worked “[...] Vespasiano Philippi filio fiorentino librario procurante [...]” (f. 311r). In a famous letter dated June 21, 1478, Federico writes to Lorenzo thanking him for having interceded so that the second volume of the Bible be delivered to his patron (cfr. Franceschini, Figure del Rinascimento, p. 142).
Urb. lat. 1, f. 1v - Urb. lat. 2, f. 2r
Vespasiano officially ceased his activity (during the years 1478 or 1479. For the closure of Vespasiano’s workshop see Cagni, Vespasiano da Bisticci¸pp. 36, 85 e de la Mare – Hellinga, The first book, p. 216 nt. 68), but nevertheless continued to be involved in the production of books for Federico.
In the Vite, Vespasian tells of having visited the library in Urbino in 1482, that is when the construction of the library was completed, shortly before the death of the duke, and thus expresses the pleased and admiring opinion that those who visited must have felt: “and what a noble set of letters and writings we have here!” (Vespasiano, Lives, p. 102).