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Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120)

Lives of Scipio and Pompey c. 1508

Manuscript on vellum, 136 fols; gold and bodycolour | 33.6 x 22.1 cm (book measurement (conservation)) | RCIN 1047552

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  • Blue goatskin binding, gilt page edges.

    Plutarch of Chaeronea in central Greece was one of the most prolific writers of the classical era; a fourth-century list of his works mentions 227 items, of which 128 survive today, including 50 Lives. That so much has survived is due mainly to Byzantine scholars, especially Maximus Planudes (c. 1260-c. 1310), followed by the Italian humanists. Plutarch’s biographical approach to history made his Lives popular reading and numerous manuscript copies were in circulation. Editions in Latin were being printed in Italy from 1470. The first Greek edition was printed in 1517 in Florence, followed by a 1519 edition from the Aldine Press in Venice. The earliest edition outside Italy was printed in Strasbourg after 1470-71. The subject matter of the classical world, with its battles and triumphs, made them attractive works to illustrate, and the manuscripts, chiefly translated by the humanist scholar Leonardo Bruni (c. 1369-1444), as well as the new printed editions, were illuminated for wealthy patrons. The spread of printing and the greater accessibility of texts also encouraged book production, both printed and manuscript, in the vernacular.

    This copy of the Lives of Scipio and Pompey is one of the earliest translations into French of individual Lives by Plutarch, anticipating by about 50 years the complete printed French edition by Jacques Amyot (1513-93) in 1559. It was translated by Simon Bourgouyn, who was also responsible for translating Petrarch’s Trionfi into French, and who, by 1523, became attached to the household of Francis I as a 'valet de chambre extraordinaire'. His monogram SB appears on the colophon of the Life of Scipio. Bourgouyn’s earliest work on Plutarch’s Lives (those of Hannibal, Scipio and Pompey) was for Pierre II de Bourbon (1438-1503) and his wife Anne de France (1461-1522), daughter of Louis XI (1423-83). Subsequent translations of individual Lives were prepared for the family of the duc de Lorraine; a two-volume set of the Lives of Demosthenes, Cicero and Cato (now in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, ÖNB MS 2565) and the Lives of Romulus and Cato the Younger was prepared for Antoine, duc de Lorraine (1489-1522), with full-page miniatures (Sotheby's, London, 7 December 2010, lot 3). Three smaller volumes, of which the present volume is one (the other two are ÖNB 2587 and Phillipps 3110), were prepared for another member of his family, with miniatures containing text banners. Four of these manuscripts were later divided into two mismatched pairs in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, of which ÖNB 2565 and 2587 were presented to Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), and the present manuscript and the Hesketh manuscript were given to Françoise-Louise de Bassompierre, dame d’honneur to the Duchess of Lorraine. Both volumes later came into the collection of Louis César, duc de La Vallière (1708-80), one of the great bibliophiles of eighteenth-century France, and they appear side by side in his catalogue (numbers 5578, 5579). They remained together until the mid-nineteenth century, when Sir Thomas Phillipps, the well known ‘vellomaniac’, purchased it at the 1824 sale of Sir Gregory Page Turner (1748-1805). Phillipps presented volume two to Queen Victoria at a public levée in 1845.

    This opening shows a scene from chapter 42 of Pompey’s Life, shortly after the end of the Mithridatic War (75-63 BC) in which Pompey defeated Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (on the Black Sea). Pompey’s route back to Rome took him via Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, where he witnessed a contest of poets in the theatre. He was so impressed with the design of the theatre that he had sketches and plans made, with the intention of building a similar theatre back in Rome. To the right of the theatre building can be seen a figure with a sketch pad, making drawings for Pompey. The miniatures in this manuscript have been identified as being by Jean Pichore (c. 1501-1520) and the Master of Philippe de Gueldre (active c. 1500-1510, Paris, so named for a manuscript that he illuminated for Philippe de Gueldre, wife of René II, duc de Lorraine, father of Antoine de Lorraine), with additions to some of the faces by an artist who may be François Bourcier (active c.1500-1510 in Paris).

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011.

    Family of the duc de Lorraine; by descent; Françoise-Louise de Bassompierre, wife of the marquis de Stainville (d. 1758), dame d'honneur to Elisabeth, duchesse de Lorraine; signed by P. Dargnies, 1718, not yet identified; Louis César de La Baume Le Blanc, duc de La Vallière (1708-80); his sale, Paris 1784 (no. 5579), where acquired by Jacob Joseph van den Bloeck 1784; Sir Gregory Page Turner (1748-1805); his sale, Christie's, Battlesden House, 2 November 1824 (lot 2525), where acquired by Sir Thomas Phillipps; by whom presented to Queen Victoria, 1845

  • Medium and techniques

    Manuscript on vellum, 136 fols; gold and bodycolour


    33.6 x 22.1 cm (book measurement (conservation))

    38.0 x 5.5 cm (book in box)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Le ... Livre de plutarque de la vie Scipion et pompee / translate de latin en francois.