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Book of the Month

May 2003

Gaius Valerius Flaccus 

Paris: 1519
Sp Coll Hunterian Bq.2.11

This copy of the Argonautica was printed in 1519 by Josse Bade in Paris. Emulating a manuscript in production, it is remarkable both for being printed on vellum and for being richly decorated throughout.

folio e2v: beginning of book 3

The Argonautica is an epic Latin poem that recounts the adventures of Jason and his fifty heroic companions in their ship, the Argo, in a quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis. In return for delivery of the Golden Fleece, Jason's uncle Pelias agreed to surrender his kingship of Iolcis in Thessaly to Jason, who was the rightful heir to the throne. Pelias had usurped Jason's father, Aeson, but - of course - set what he thought was an impossible task, the Golden Fleece being guarded in the distant grove of Ares by a sleepless dragon.

Originally written in the latter part of 1 AD, very little is known about the author of this work, Gaius Valerius Flaccus. His only known work, the Argonautica is Virgilian in style. In his prologue, Valerius invokes Vespasian, and the poem was in part intended to celebrate his achievements in establishing Roman rule in Britain. Amongst other contemporary events alluded to is the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Otherwise, Valerius imitates and partly translates from a work produced by Apollonius of Rhodes; written in around 200 BC, this poem survived only in fragments. Valerius' work is also incomplete: inconsistencies in the plot suggest that the poem was unrevised, while there are many passages where it is necessary to supply a line to complete the sense. However, the story is considerably augmented from Apollonius' earlier version, and Mozley praises Valerius' real gift for descriptive writing and picturesque expression. Furthermore, Valerius makes the hero, Jason, a real leader of men, rather than the colourless character of the earlier work.

Valerius' version of the legend was apparently unknown in the Middle Ages until 1416 when the Florentine humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered a manuscript of the Argonautica (now lost) at St. Gall. The work, not unsurprisingly, proved to be popular with Renaissance lovers of the classics. It is now known to survive in several manuscript copies and it has been proven that these all ultimately descend from a ninth century copy text (Vaticanus 3277).

This printed version was produced by Josse Bade (1462-1535; known also by the Latinized form of his name, Joducus Badius Ascencius), one of the great scholar printers of the early sixteenth century. Born at Asch near Ghent, he received a classical education at Louvain, and spent some time in Italy before settling in Lyons in 1492; there he taught, wrote commentaries on the classics, and acted as a literary editor for the printer Jean Treschel, whose daughter he married. After Treschel died, Bade collaborated with other printers in Lyons before moving to Paris in 1499. Here, he was associated with the printer Jean Petit, before setting his own press up in 1503.


folio g1v: beginning of book 4 (detail)

folio a2r: beginning of book 1

The reputation of Bade's 'Ascension' publishing house became well established with the leading humanists of the day, many of whom Bade knew personally. He corresponded with Erasmus and Budé amongst others, while his Parisian household was a rendezvous for intellectuals and writers, many of whose works he published. Over thirty years his press issued over 750 editions, its output reflecting primarily humanist interests, including many treatises on theology and philosophy, grammars and dictionaries, as well as classical and humanistic texts. The accuracy of Bade's classical texts was renowned; even more impressive is the fact that he edited or wrote the commentaries for most of them. Part of a close knit community, four of Bade's daughters married printers; one of them, Robert Estienne, took over Bade's press when he died.

The 1519 Argonautica was the third edition of the work to be printed by Bade within seven years. In 1512 he twice published a version of the poem edited by Gervais Aumen. Another edition appeared in 1517, edited by Gilles de Maizières. The 1519 volume was a new edition of this text, in which Gilles de Maizières' commentary was much extended; a new preface dedicated to Jacques Du Moulin was also added.

This luxurious copy was probably produced especially for the editor, Gilles de Maizières; his Latinized name appears on a scroll on the title-page. Some time Rector of the University of Paris, he wrote poetry as well as being responsible for editing several other classical texts, including the tragedies of Seneca in 1514 and Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights in 1521.

folio a1r: title-page

opening: folios b4v - b5r

As in so many Renaissance texts, the commentary of this work takes up much more space than the original poem; although it is typeset in a smaller font than the text, as can be seen here, it surrounds the poem and occasionally expands to cover entire pages. This large folio volume is consequently more than two hundred pages long. In addition to the massive commentary, the work is preceded by a comprehensive index to aid the erudite reader in navigating through the text. 

folio A5r (detail): beginning of index

Working at a time when much French printing was influenced by the Italian renaissance in book arts, Bade was no exception in being an admirer of great Venetian printers such as Aldus Manutius. As would be expected in a classical Italian production, the book is printed in an easy to read roman typeface, with only the running titles set in a gothic 'lettre de forme'. The use of different fonts of varying size -  including frequent quotations in Greek in the notes - as well as the sheer length of the work, would have made this a complicated book to print. It is, however, an outstanding example of fine book production.

folio h7r: beginning of book 5 (detail)

folio k5v: beginning of book 6 (detail)

The most unique feature of our copy is its sumptuous illustrations, enhanced by painted decoration added individually by hand after the printing process. As well as being adorned by illuminated initials throughout the text, each of its eight books is preceded by a delicately painted woodcut picture within a rich border of flowers and leaf scrolls on a gold ground.

folio m7r: beginning of book 7

It was not entirely unusual during this period for a few copies from an edition to be produced more luxuriously than the standard printed copies, usually for a specific patron or purchaser (see also, for example, the April 2002 article highlighting Jenson's 1478 Breviary). The identities of the woodcutter and illuminator in this book are not known, although there is evidence to suggest that many of Bade's woodcuts, including initials, were copied from Venetian models. 

The decorated woodcuts bring Jason's adventures to life, summing up the action of each book.  Shown here is the climax of the work: having survived arduous travels, Jason and his companions have reached Colchis. Aeetes, shown in the upper right, will not give up the Golden Fleece until Jason performs the task of ploughing the plain of Mars with fiery bulls (depicted at the centre) and sowing the field with the teeth of dragons. Jason, however, has already met Aeetes' daughter, the sorceress Medea. After a struggle between devotion to her father and love for Jason, Medea surrenders to love and gives Jason the magic drugs that will protect him from the bulls' fire (top left); she also advises him to cast a stone amongst the new born warriors that spring from the dragon's teeth (bottom left), thus ensuring that they fight to death amongst themselves. The object of all this endeavour, meanwhile, precariously hangs in the grove with, it has to be said, a rather sleepy dragon at its foot (bottom right).

This volume is from William Hunter's acclaimed library of books. Hunter acquired it at the Gaignat sale in France on 10 April, 1769 for 384 livres. Besides this volume, Hunter made several other outstanding purchases at this sale, spending almost £1000 in all.


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Julie Gardham May 2003