The cover of our Italian Books catalogue series: A masterpiece of early Venetian woodcut borders
The white-on-black border framing the front cover of our Italian Books catalogue is taken from one of the finest ornamental title-pages designed in Venice in the fifteenth century, which was executed by the renowned artist Benedetto Bordone for his edition of Lucian of Samosata’s Vera historia, printed in 1494 (for the description click here).
Benedetto Bordone (or Bordon) was born around 1450/55 in Padua. Nothing is known about his formal studies, but his humanistic education is unquestionable, given his mastery of the Latin language and familiarity with classical literature. Strongly influenced by Andrea Mantegna and his school, at the end of the 1470s Bordone started working in the atelier of the famous illuminator Girolamo da Cremona; his name is also linked to the production of a set of eight juridical and philosophical incunabula printed in Venice by Nicolaus Jenson, illuminated on behalf of Jenson’s patron Peter Ugelheimer, a rich and learned German merchant. At the beginning of the 1490s (probably in 1492) Bordone moved to Venice where he headed a prominent workshop in San Zulian, close to St. Mark's Basilica, and became one of the greatest figures of the multi-faceted world of the Venetian book. At the beginning of 1530, he returned to Padua, where he died soon after. He is buried in the church of San Daniele.
Bordone was a versatile artist who learned to profit from the Venetian printing industry, re-defining and adapting his talent as a miniaturist and becoming one of the most esteemed and sought-after woodcut designers in a continuous and fruitful exchange between various media. Indeed, the first official appearance of his name in Venice is linked to the printing industry. On 3 May 1494 Benedictus miniator applied for a ten-year privilege to print a Latin translation of Lucian of Samosata’s dialogues, which he himself had edited. The edition was published on 25 August by the Venetian printer Simone Bevilaqua, at Bordone’s expense. The collection opens with Vera Historia, translated by Lilius Castellanus; twelve other works by Lucianus follow, including the spurious In amorem fugitivum and De asino aureo.
The first page of text is framed by an exquisite woodcut border all’antica on a black ground, the design of which is attributed to Bordone himself. This refined and delicate candelabra border is a perfect compendium of the artist’s extraordinary imagery and inventiveness, revealing his life-long passion for the ancient world and his virtuoso use of classical decorative themes and motifs: vases, vine leaves, foliate branches, the head of a ‘leafy old man’, a Roman eagle, horns, and winged animals. Single elements of his decorative vocabulary also find close parallel in ornamental headpieces and initials used by Aldus in the years 1495-1499, and several scholars share the opinion that Bordone was the principal designer of the 172 woodcuts illustrating the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the pinnacle of Aldus’ printing career.
In June 1500, the Lucian texts Bordone had edited in 1494 were re-issued by Giovan Battista Sessa, founder of the famous press ‘at the sign of the cat’. Sessa also reproduced the final verse address, in which Bordone invites the reader to take this book and relax with Lucian’s collected stories, as well as the privilege application submitted to the Venetian authority. The fine woodcut border is, however, lacking: in the Sessa edition, the only decorative element is a white-ground capital M with putti. As Christopher Witcombe has argued, there is “no doubt the privilegio was intended to protect Bordon’s illustrations as much as Lucian’s text” (C. L.C.E. Witcombe, Copyright in the Renaissance. Prints and the Privilegio in Sixteenth-Century Venice and Rome, Leiden 2004, p. 91).
The Lucian border is commonly associated with the border found, in larger format, in Lorenzo Valla’s translation of Herodotus’ Historiae, printed for Bordone by Johannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis on 8 March 1494 (for the description click here). This latter border is more elaborate, with two additional white-ground vignettes: the upper vignette shows a satyr preparing a sacrifice, while the lower one presents Hercules at the parting of the ways. A re-use of Bordone’s candelabra border appeared in 1497-1498, to illustrate one of the separate title pages of Hieronymus’ Commentaria in Bibliam, issued – like the fine Herodotus – by Johannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis (for the description click here).
Our copy of Bordone’s Lucian was once owned by Gilbert Richard Redgrave (1844-1941), president of the Bibliographical Society of London, and well known as the co-editor, with Alfred W. Pollard, of A Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad, 1475-1640. Redgrave assembled a notable collection of incunables, with special attention to illustrated editions, such as the Summa arithmetica by Luca Pacioli, and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. In this copy, a note on the front flyleaf written in Redgrave’s own hand states: ‘All writers on book ornament agree in attributing the splendid border on f. a2 to the same designer as the border of the Herodotus of 1494. These two borders are the most splendid works of the early Venetian press’. This opinion is shared by the compiler of the sale catalogue of Redgrave’s library, who highlighted the beauty of the “first page of text within a fine white on black woodcut border” (Catalogue of an Important Collection of Incunabula, Early Woodcuts, Emblem Books, &c.: Selected from the Library of Gilbert R. Redgrave, which will be sold by Sotheby & Co., on Monday, the 3rd of May, 1926, lot 161). The copy was purchased by the eminent London bookseller, scholar, and incunabula collector Ernst Philip Goldschmidt (1887-1954), for the high sum of 33 pounds.