Non finito: Unfinished Initials in Princeton’s 1469 Apuleius

Unfinished initial and border in Princeton’s Apuleius (Rome: Sweynheym & Pannartz, 1469).

The first edition of the works of Lucius Apuleius of Madauros (ca. 124–ca. 170 CE), a North African philosopher and rhetorician, was published in Rome by Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz in 1469. Printed in an edition of 275 copies, it includes the ‘The Golden Ass’, a bawdy proto-novel in which the protagonist, Lucius, experiments with magic and thereby inadvertently transforms himself into a donkey, a circumstance that allows him to observe human behavior, undetected, from a new vantage point. The tale of Cupid and Psyche also appears here for the first time, narrated as a story within the story.

Illumination with ‘bianchi girari’ in Virgil’s Opera (Rome: Sweynheym & Pannartz, 1469).

As was customary in early printed books, Sweynheym and Pannartz left large open spaces at the beginnings of each of the ‘books’, each intended to be filled in by hand with rubricated or illuminated initial letters. One of the prevailing styles of hand-decoration in Italian books during this period featured spiraling white vine tendrils, called ‘bianchi girari’. Princeton’s rare first edition of the poetical works of Virgil, also printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz in 1469 (at left), exemplifies this colorful style.

The Apuleius of 1469 offers unusual insights into fifteenth-century book production in that it was intended to display ‘bianchi girari’ initials and borders, but the work was never finished:

Instead, the book displays graceful preparatory drawings for the decoration, executed in plummet (soft lead) for establishing the composition and brown ink for the final outlines. The initials A and B (shown here) would have been covered with gold leaf, and the interstices between the outlined tendrils would have been colored red, blue, and green, and possibly augmented with yellow. Sketchy little circles in the margins indicate where gilded ‘bezants’ would have provided additional ornamentation. One of the tendrils to the left of the initial A breaks off suddenly, just where it should have continued down the left margin of the text; this argues for the interrupted nature of the work, and seems to rule out the possibility that this is later ’embellishment’ by a nineteenth-century admirer of the fifteenth-century style.

The Duke of Hamilton’s engraved armorial bookplate, ca. 1820.

Princeton’s copy of the Apuleius was owned in the early nineteenth century by Alexander Douglas-Hamilton (1767–1852), 10th Duke of Hamilton and 7th Duke of Brandon, in Lanarkshire, Scotland. The Hamilton Palace Library was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on 1 May 1884, with the Apuleius listed as lot 95. It passed through the Quaritch firm in London in 1888 and entered the collection of Robert Hoe of New York City, whose books were sold by Anderson Galleries in 1911 (lot 91). The next known owner was Grenville Kane, a New York collector who obtained it in 1920. His estate sold his library to the Trustees of Princeton University in 1946.

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