Latin Classics The Evolution and Transmission of Texts of Specific Works [by M. Buonocore]

Livius, Titus, 59 a.C.-17 d.C.

Despite its undeniable potentiality for inspiring images, given that it was built upon the succession of events, characters, and anecdotes related to the history of Rome, the Decades (groups of ten) of Titus Livy have not inspired coherent and structured figurative cycles in the tradition of illustrated manuscripts, figures which might illustrate the text emphasizing the passages and expanding the meaning. The original work consisted of 142 books, grouped in 10-year cycles; however, only Decades I, III and IV have been preserved. The considerable loss of material occurred probably during the textual transition from the roll to the codex (Reynolds, Livy, pp. 205-214). It is this misfortune or partial transmission that is presumably the reason that a set storyline based on images tied to Livy’s work failed to develop (Speciale, Tito Livio, p. 198). This deficiency was made even more evident by the manuscripts that transmit the Ab Urbe condita in editions of compendia or in the form of epitomes (see ms. Pal. lat. 895; Speciale, Tito Livio, p. 198), as they are either deprived or contain very poor efforts of even mere decoration, and were often intended for didactic use.

The text, however, was received with great success, so much so that in the late Middle Ages it was the object of frequent translation into vulgar languages, as evidenced by the monumental corpus of the Decades in French and in three volumes at the beginning of the sixteenth century, manuscripts, mss. Reg. lat. 719, 720, 721, but which give a translation from the fifties of the fourteenth century (Manzari, Schede nrr. 154-156, pp. 516-524; or all aspects mentioned above, see also Medieval Manuscripts of the Latin Classics, passim).

The oldest illustrated example of Ab Urbe condita to date is the famous and sumptuous manuscript lat. 5690 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France) of the first decades of the fourteenth century. The codex, belonged to the book collection of Francesco Petrarca, has a complex history of scholarship and is still the object of historiographical debate (see Reliquiarum servator, with bibliography, e Manzari, Presenze di miniatori, pp. 615-646 e Tomei, Pittori per la miniatura, pp. 353-374, both with bibliography).


Among the manuscripts selected for Latin Classics: The evolution and transmission of texts of specific works, all representative of a high level production and of a sophisticated patronage, l’Arch. Cap. S. Pietro. C. 132 is the oldest, dating back to the end of the fourteenth century. It unifies the three known Decades in a single volume and was produced in Padova for Francesco da Carrara il Vecchio (d. 1393). The codex’s decorative apparatus is rich in polychrome initials characterized by a widespread use of gold leaf, and often very consistent, but the major illustrative work is confined to the incipit pages alone that introduce the main divisions of the text. The four plates of miniatures consistently show battle scenes in general, although they are animated by knights portrayed with armor and late-medieval trappings, and which undoubtedly derive a certain visual appeal from the cycles accompanying the romances of chivalry (see Perriccioli Saggese, I romanzi cavallereschi miniati, passim), which were very popular in those years within the city courts. The only exception to this mise-en-page is the last illustration (f. 193r), in which the joust shares its space with a scene of the building of a city. This image represents an explicit reference to the rise of Rome, although a very common and ancient iconographic model has been employed, it is easily adaptable to the most diverse contexts.

Influences of the style typical of the court can also be found in Urb. lat. 426, which would be related to the entourage of the Sforza family of Pesaro (Guernelli, Tracce della biblioteca sforzesca, pp. 156-170) and can be placed within the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The incipit page of the manuscript displays the meeting between a rich man and a sovereign, both armed while they stride on mounts with precious harnesses.

The greatest success of the illuminated Livy, however, is limited only to the fifteenth century: the work especially spread among humanistic circles often connected to the Roman Curia and to the papal milieu (see Billanovich, La tradizione del testo, passim). This is the case for the three exemplars that contain the entire corpus of Ab Urbe condita, mss. Borgh. 368, Vat. lat. 1848 e Vat. lat. 1853, likely produced in Rome at the end of the century and belonging to the apostolic protonotary Ludovico Agnelli (d. 1499), an important collector of books. These are manuscripts with a decorative and illustrative apparatus of some importance, but whose illustrations are also confined to the incipit pages—built upon the Paduan-Ferrarese and Roman antiquarian language, an expressive modality very popular in those years—while the folios bear a sequence of initials in gold leaf adorned with flowers or multicolored foliate motifs and lush acanthus that draw attention to the main divisions of the text.

The Livy conserved in the book collection of Federico da Montefeltro (mss. Urb. lat. 423, 424, 425) is a similar case. The entirety of the notes for the Decades has been preserved in these manuscripts, and they are illuminated by a kind of decoration which is not substantially different from what has been said up to now. The incipit pages contain the greatest amount of visual appeal—with spaces full of busts of generals, portraits of the author, plates of miniatures with scenes related to the contents—while the run of the pages is interrupted from time to time by initials with bianchi girari.

In conclusion, the ms. Ferr. 562, also from the beginning of the fifteenth century, characterized by a purely decorative apparatus, is an example that seems to represent the most extreme point of the lack of development of figurative cycles in the illustrated tradition of the Decades.