Tag Archives: Jacob Bryant Bequest

Medieval Mnemonics

In the collection of incunabula bequeathed to King’s College by Jacob Bryant (1715-1804) is a first edition of Giacomo Publicio’s Artes orandi, epistolandi, memoranda, a treatise on the rhetorical arts published in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt on 30 November 1482. Not much is known about Publicio, of whom no other works survive; in the text he describes himself as Florentine, though he may have also been Spanish.

Leaf A2r of Artes orandi, epistolandi, memoranda (Bryant.XV.3.12), with a woodcut white-on-black floriated initial “S”

The third section of the work is devoted to the art of memory and is widely regarded as the first memory treatise to have been printed. Towards the end are seven pages containing 42 roundels forming a pictorial alphabet with two woodcuts for most letters, where each letter has been associated with objects of a similar shape. For example, A is coupled with a folding ladder and a pair of compasses, B with a mandolin, C with a horseshoe, D with a bull’s head, and so forth:

The visual alphabet is followed by a full-page woodcut of a mnemonic structure containing 25 animals, arranged alphabetically by the first letter of their Latin names.

The letter V is particularly “memorable” and may well represent the first instance of a simultaneous mooning and flashing to appear in print… Publicio’s book later influenced other scholars, including the English physician Robert Fludd (1574-1637) who devised his own mnemonic alphabet, as you can read here.


Taking the Bull by the Horns

When cataloguing the incunabula in the collection of rare books bequeathed to King’s College by Jacob Bryant (1715-1804), I came across a curious and unusual device in a copy of Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum, an overview of world history up until the time of the book’s publication (ca. 1490). The title page features two hand-drawn devices: the one at the centre depicts a black bull with horns and nose rings coloured in gold:

Title page of Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum (Strasbourg: Johann Prüss, ca. 1490; Bryant.XV.2.6). Underneath the device is an earlier inscription: “Martinus polonus Carsulanensis Ep[iscop]us, hoc Chronicon composuit”, evidently mistaking this work for the chronicle Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum by Martin of Opava (d. 1278). Another owner corrected this misattribution next to the title: “Wernerus fuit collector ha[rum] historia[rum]”.

This emblem appears to have puzzled the staff in King’s Library for over a century. Stuck to the flyleaf opposite the title page is a letter of 3 June 1912 addressed to Arthur Richard Benten, then under-librarian at King’s, by Beckwith A. Spencer of the Royal College of Art. In it, he states that he was unable to identify these two devices despite enlisting the help of Albert van der Put of the National Art Library:

The same device also appears in two other incunabula bequeathed by Jacob Bryant: as an illumination inside the initial of the first page in Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (1486):

Detail of leaf a2 recto in Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae (Strasbourg: Georg Husner, 1486; Bryant.XV.2.7).

and as a tail-piece painted at the bottom of a4 verso in our copy of Robert Gaguin’s Compendium De origine et gestis Francorum (1497):

Leaf a4 verso of Robert Gaguin’s Compendium De origine et gestis Francorum (Lyon: Johannes Trechsel, 1497; Bryant.XV.6.6). The bull device also rears its head as an illuminated initial on leaves b5 verso and g3 verso.

If anyone has any information that may help us identify this device and solve a century-old mystery, please do get in touch!


What’s in a Letter?

As we’ve seen in a previous post, illuminations in incunabula can be seen as a remnant of the manuscript tradition that persisted in the transition to the printing era. In our copy of Ognibene Bonisoli’s De octo partibus orationis (Padua, 1474), bequeathed to King’s College by Jacob Bryant (1715-1804), there are no guide letters in the spaces left blank for the illuminator, so it was up to him to choose which letter to write. On the first page is Bonisoli’s dedication to his pupil, the condottiere Federico Gonzaga (1441-84), who later became the third marquess of Mantua.

Federico Gonzaga (right) in one of Andrea Mantegna’s frescos in the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua, painted between 1465 and 1474.

Instead of inserting an “E” to give “En humanissime pri[n]ceps” (Lo, most humane leader), the illuminator added an “I”: “Inhumanissime pri[n]ceps” (Most inhumane leader):

First leaf of Ognibene Bonisoli’s De octo partibus orationis (Padua: Bartholomaeus de Valdezoccho and Martinus de Septem Arboribus, 1474; Bryant.XV.3.6). The manuscript inscription at the top indicates that the book belonged to the church of Santa Maria Incoronata in Milan, which was completed in 1460.

Though this is most likely to have been an unintentional error on the illuminator’s part, whose Latin perhaps was not up to scratch, it is tempting to imagine that it may have been a parting shot from a disgruntled employee on his final day at work…