2 Chapter One First Impressions: the editio princeps of 1489

Nicholas Bellinson

    The Hidden Treasure: From Petrarch to Print

Donant aurum quidam vel argentum, concupiscibilem
forte sed certe periculosissimam terre fecem; donant
spolia Rubri Maris et alge ditioris exuvias, lapillos
gemmasque, cometarum in morem sepe lugubre
prorsus ac sanguineum rutilantes; donant monilia et
baltheos, fuliginosorum decus artificum; donant,
squalentium opus architectorum, arces et menia. Tu
vero, vir optime, nil horum que et opulentiam largien
tis ostenderent et accipientis avaritiam irritarent. Quid
igitur? rarum munus et iocundum meque utinam, te
profecto dignissimum…. Quid enim vir ingeniosissi
mus atque eloquentissimus nisi ipsum ingenii et elo
quentie fontem daret?[1]

The great gift that Petrarch valued more than all the treasures of the East was a book, handwritten on about three hundred vellum leaves, containing the Greek text of Homer’s Iliad. The most ingenious and eloquent giver was the Byzantine ambassador Nicola Sigero, who had met Petrarch and promised him the volume in 1348. At the time, Petrarch was receiving rather unsatisfactory instruction in Greek from the monk Barlaam, who died in the same year, leaving Petrarch with completely inadequate reading knowledge of the language. On the authority of Latin authors he knew and loved well, Petrarch regarded Homer as the “source and origin of every divine invention,”[2] but his own ignorance of Greek made “your Homer deaf to me, or rather, me deaf to him.”[3] The most that the greatest humanist of the fourteenth century could do with this treasured volume was to hold it in his hands and imagine the pleasure of reading it:

sepe illum amplexus ac suspirans dico: ‘O magne vir, quam cupide te audirem! sed aurium mearum alteram mors obstruxit, alteram longinquitas invisa terrarum.’[4]

Frustration marked simultaneous efforts to bridge this distance through translation. Barlaam’s pupil Leontius Pilatus (Λεόντιος Πιλάτος), at the urging of both Petrarch and Boccaccio, did produce a Latin version of both the Iliad and the Odyssey in the 1360s, but the flavorless translation fell short of everyone’s expectations. It would take more than one hundred years for the West to unstop its ears to the splendors of Homeric Greek.

Finally, in 1489, the Greek editio princeps of Homer’s works appeared in Florence.[5] The combined efforts of Petrarch and Boccaccio, along with their fifteenth-century successors, had produced some partial and complete Latin translations. Meanwhile, Greek scholarship in Italy had advanced by leaps and bounds: the Medici circle in Florence boasted some extremely capable Hellenists, including Marsilio Ficino, who had translated Plato and the Corpus Hermeticum, the mystical polymath Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and the consummate commentator, humanist, and poet Angelo Poliziano. In other words, an audience of Greek readers had sprung up, enough to justify the first work printed entirely in Greek (in 1474; see below) and the continued creation of editiones principes of Greek authors. Greek typography still lagged well behind Latin in sophistication, but the 1489 Homer had the virtue of an entirely Greek font; many earlier Greek works were printed in confusing, hybrid fonts, like one which employed the Roman “a” for alpha, lambda, and delta.

The Homeric text of the editio princeps was edited by the native Athenian Demetrius Chalcondyles, a figure central to Greek studies in Italy during the second half of the fifteenth century. Chalcondyles came to Italy in 1447, where he enjoyed the patronage of Cardinal Bessarion and studied under Theodore Gaza—two other monumental figures in the Italian recovery of the Greek language. In 1463, he received an appointment at the University of Padua, and in 1479, Lorenzo de’ Medici summoned him to Florence, where he stayed until 1492. It was here that he encountered Marsilio Ficino and Angelo Poliziano, as well as the brothers Bernardo Nerli and Nerio Nerli who pressed him into service editing Homer.[6] In Bernardo’s Latin preface to the edition, he noted the less than desirable state of the text in its manuscript sources, but Chalcondyles’s triumph over these difficulties continued to impress even nineteenth-century scholars. As William Beloe put it in 1808,

He has shewn himself equal to the work of editing our Poet, as well by the labour, as by the critical skill which he bestowed on it, in which he appears to have exceeded all the other ancient editors. He began by collecting all the manuscripts which he could procure, but as he did not find any one copy that was perfect, and not corrupted in various parts, he set himself to form the best text that was in his power by the aid of and constant reference to the commentary of Eustathius. How well he succeeded is known from the opinions of later editors…. [His edition] has been repeatedly collated, but the valuable readings in it have not even yet been so entirely exhausted, as that some gleanings may not perhaps still be left for future scholars.[7]

The meat of the edition consisted of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the spurious Batrachomyomachia, and the Hymns; these were preceded by a Latin dedicatory letter by Bernardo Nerli and a Greek letter by Chalcondyles, along with excerpts on Homer’s life and work from pseudo-Herodotus, pseudo-Plutarch, and Dio Chrysostom. Bernardo included these excerpts not only for the light they shed on Homer’s biography, but also for their use in illuminating the teachings within the text—a nod to the long tradition of reading Homer allegorically.[8]

The history of Homeric allegory is too involved to be considered in any depth here, but the idea of reading beneath the literal meaning of Homer to find hidden philosophical or religious truths already had ancient proponents.[9] Stoic scholiasts interpreted the gods as symbols of elemental forces, making myth into natural philosophy. This way of reading had enormous appeal to Christian humanists in their enthusiasm for stoic thought and occasional discomfort with the pagan content of their favorite ancient authors. Thus, Bernardo’s reference to Homer’s teachings implicitly exhorted the reader to a particular mode of reading, prioritizing high seriousness over entertainment.

On the other hand, many humanists aspiring to Greek literacy in the latter half of the fifteenth century must have had a rather playful introduction to Homeric epic. Although Latin translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey had appeared in the fifteenth century, the only one of Homer’s works (as it was then thought to be) which had been printed in Greek before the complete editio princeps was the Batrachomyomachia, a mock-epic describing a heroic battle between frogs and mice. Indeed, its 1474 Brescia edition by Thomas Ferrandus was the first text ever printed entirely in Greek.[10] The nineteenth-century bibliophile Thomas Dibdin notes a further quarto edition, in Greek and Latin, in 1486, and a third one of an uncertain date but probably a couple of years after Chalcondyles’s Homer.[11] At just over 300 lines, the Battle of the Frogs and the Mice was certainly a more manageable project for a printing-house than the rest of Homer’s works. What we now take as evidence of a much later composition, contemporary readers saw as the immature style of a young poet; Byzantine schoolmasters found the text fittingly childish and taught it to their students as “a short and entertaining introduction to Homer”.[12] Between 1474 and 1489, therefore, any student without access to rare and precious manuscripts would have been reading about frogs and mice rather than Greeks and Trojans. Only with the publication of the editio princeps did the serious Homeric epics become objects of study for the larger community of humanists.

Anatomy of a Volume: Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana alc. Incun. 1489 .H6

In its entirety, the 1489 edition in folio consisted of 440 leaves, but most of the remaining copies are incomplete. Its richest realization, now in Naples (Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III S.Q. XXIII K 22), is very likely the copy presented to the dedicatee, Piero de’ Medici: it contains, along with exquisite illuminations, a full-page portrait of him by Gherardo di Giovanni di Miniato. Less eye-catching, though still impressive, is the Greek text itself, cast and set by Demetrius Damilas (a.k.a. Cretensis).[13] Damilas already had some experience with Greek fonts: in 1476, he had printed the Epitome of Constantine Lascaris, and his font for the Homer edition was based on this earlier type.[14] Among early modern Greek fonts, it is eminently legible, using upright characters and comparatively few ligatures (as Most et al. point out).[15] Both vellum and paper copies are recorded.[16]

The University of Chicago’s copy is incomplete and without formal adornment. Of the 440 original paper folia, 192 remain, comprising part of Chalcondyles’s introductory letter, the lives of Homer by pseudo-Herodotus, pseudo-Plutarch, and Dio Chrysostom, most of the Odyssey, the Batrachomyomachia, the Hymn to Apollo, and part of the Hymn to Hermes. It is regrettable that the provenance of this volume is almost completely unknown before it was purchased by M. C. Lang in 1989. We can, however, attempt to reconstruct the interests of whoever rebound the book by collating the sections missing from the Odyssey. These are as follows:

a. 1.1–2.220: invocation of the Muse; council of the Gods, excluding Poseidon, who is among the Ethiopians; Zeus, thinking of the murder of Agamemnon, says that humans are unjust in blaming the Gods for their misfortunes; Athena and Zeus discuss Odysseus’s woes; Athena goes down to Telemakhos to prepare him to seek news of his father; the suitors’ revels; Telemakhos welcomes Athena in the guise of Mentes; the feast continues; Athena’s prophecy and exhortation to Telemakhos; Athena departs in the form of a bird; Telemakhos commands Penelope to return to her room, where she bewails Odysseus until falling asleep; Telemakhos converses with the suitors; everyone goes home for the night, Eurukleia leads Telemakhos to bed; [Book 2] Telemakhos convenes the council and addresses them, Antinoos responds, Telemakhos responds; Zeus sends two eagles as omens, which Halitherses interprets; Eurumakhos dismisses the interpretation and tells Telemakhos that Penelope must re-marry; Telemakhos asks the suitors for ships to seek news of his father.

b. 2.376–3.70: Eurukleia swears not to tell Penelope of Telemakhos’s journey; Eurukleia prepares wine and barley for Telemakhos’s journey; Athena, in the guise of Telemakhos, gathers a ship and crew; they all depart, with Athena providing a favorable wind; they sacrifice to Athena; [Book 3] arrival at Pylos, where Nestor’s company is preparing a feast in honor of Poseidon; Athena, in the guise of Mentor, prays to Poseidon, and herself fulfills the prayer.

c. 3.384–4.250: Nestor’s libation to Athena; in the morning, sacrifice to Athena; Nestor gives Telemakhos horses, and he leaves for Sparta; [Book 4] arrival in Sparta, where Menelaos is giving a marriage-feast for his son; the strangers are welcomed by Menelaos; the feast; Menelaos recounts his wanderings in Africa; at the mention of Odysseus, Telemakhos weeps; Helen enters and recognizes Telemakhos; Peisistratos confirms their suspicion; general weeping; Peisistratos reveals his parentage and asks that they cease weeping and have supper; Helen drugs the wine with an Egyptian preparation which prevents sorrow; Helen begins to tell of Odysseus’s infiltration of Troy.

d. 8.578–9.55: Alkinoos asks Odysseus who he is; [Book 9] Odysseus praises the banquet, begins his story; Odysseus summarizes his travails; the drunken slaughter of the Ciconian cattle.

e. 10.481­–11.45: Kirke announces the journey to the underworld; Kirke describes the sacrifice and libation Odysseus will have to perform; Odysseus readies his men for departure; arrival at Okeanos; Odysseus performs the sacrifice.

The coincidence of the missing sections with discrete narrative episodes indicates a conscious selection; in every case, a narrative portion dealing with feasting, libation, or sacrifice has been removed. A particular focus on wine suggests itself, though the omission of Kirke’s wine potion is perhaps dispositive. Similarly, not all sacrificial scenes have been excerpted. Whether the unknown excerpter was motivated by anthropological or literary interest remains mysterious, but the common theme is clear from a sequential reading of the passages.

The volume also contains Greek marginalia, probably by another, earlier reader, whose interests of a different sort are vaguely traceable. Most frequently, these marginalia gloss an unfamiliar word for easy reference later on; errors in accentuation (kaneón for káneon and Demodókos for Demódokos at FFVIr), the elucidation of obscure morphology (hala dian is glossed by hals dia at FFVIr), and basic grammatical notes (like the insertion of an O! to mark an obscure vocative on the page facing DDIr) all suggest that the reader was an amateur student of the language rather than a master like Chalcondyles, Chrysoloras, or for that matter a mature Erasmus or Bentley. Corrections are made which suggest access to another, more authoritative edition, notably ti for me at DDIIr. The most frequently glossed words are people and places like Pharos and Eidothea (ibid.), but gnomic statements like theoi panta isasin, ‘the gods know all things’ (ibid.), are also copied. This reader may have had a particular interest in plants and agriculture: ‘Dulichium, rich in corn’ and ‘barley-groats, the marrow of men’ are both glossed, and II I v bears the single, awful annotation ‘molu,’ the magical plant which protected Odysseus from the charms of Kirke.

 The Batrachomyomachia is annotated once; the remaining hymns, not at all. Was our annotator already familiar with these shorter texts, or did he or she simply find them less interesting? Pseudo-Plutarch’s life of Homer is the only introductory material with consistent annotations, and these overwhelmingly indicate an interest in Homer’s many names and their origins. Pseudo-Plutarch’s association of the name “Homer” with blindness did not convince our reader, who wrote, Homeros poth’? ‘Whence “Homer”?’ in the margin. Perhaps, then, this reader was particularly interested in “The Homeric Question”, namely the issues of Homer’s identity and which works can actually be attributed to him – or her.

Certain marginalia offer glimpses of the reader’s experience of the poem. A vertical line in the margin marks various passages of the Odyssey as significant, among which are Penelope’s sententious utterance about good and bad men (around 19.328ff) and many of the striking passages about bards. The marginalia are clustered around particularly stirring episodes like Odysseus’s homecoming and Demodokos’s song.

Beyond this sketch, there is little one can do to situate the reader in time or space. The hand is exclusively in Greek, and our provenance is too sparse to exclude any milieu between fifteenth-century Florence and the New York dealer from whom Lang acquired the volume. A note on 23.296 marks the line as “the end of the Odyssey, as most people say”; this opinion descends from the Alexandrian arch-editors of Homer, Aristarkhos and Aristophanes.[17] It was Aristarkhos, Librarian of Alexandria from 181–71 BCE, whose “interpret Homer from Homer” became a maxim for anti-allegorical readers of the pagan past. Eustathius’s commentary, which we know Chalcondyles to have consulted, had already transmitted this opinion to humanists, but the diffusion of this judgment implied by “most people,” along with the reliance noted above on at least one other, more authoritative edition of the text, point to a world of scholarship at least a few generations more sophisticated than that in which the editio princeps appeared.

*                      *                      *                      *

Despite the importance of this first edition to the Western reception of Homer, its fame is often eclipsed by that of the 1504 Aldus (see Felix Szabo’s chapter in this volume). In 1827, Dibdin estimated that there were fifty copies of the editio princeps in Great Britain and Ireland alone, though this amends his statement of 1814 that the edition was “uncommon.”[18] Gibbon admonishes us not to forget in the sight of Aldus’s brilliant edition that “the Florence Homer of 1488 displays all the luxury of the typographical art.”[19] In the line-up of Renaissance Homer editions, however, the value of Chalcondyles’s edition will always be primarily symbolic, standing for a confluence of the necessary conditions—the right Hellenist, the right font, the right patrons—for ending the Petrarchan deafness and allowing Homer to speak.[20]


Keywords: Library of Alexandria, allegory, Aristarchus of Samothrace, Aristophanes of Byzantium, Barlaam, William Beloe, Richard Bentley, Basilios Bessarion, Bible, Giovanni Boccaccio, subscription, Demetrius Chalcondyles, University of Chicago, Christianity, Manuel Chrysoloras, Dio Chrysostom, Corpus Hermeticum, Demetrius Damilas, dedicatory epistles, Thomas Dibidin, Desiderius Erasmus, Eustathius of Thessalonica, Thomas Ferrandus, Marsilio Ficino, Theodore Gaza, epic genre, Edward Gibbon, Greek, Herodotus, interpretation, Italian, Italy, Brescia, Florence, Naples, Ireland, M.C. Lang, Constantine Lascaris, Latin, literacy, Macrobius, Aldus Manutius, Medici, Piero de’Medici, Gherardo di Giovanni di Miniato, Bernardo & Nerio Nerli, University of Padua, annotation, commentary, dedicatory epistles, marginalia, prefatory material, patron, Petrarch, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Leontius Pilatus, Plato, Angelo Poliziano, Pseudo-Herodutus, Pseudo-Plutarch, scholiasts, Nicola Sigero, typography



Beloe, William. Anecdotes of Literature and Scarce Books. 6 vols. London: Law & Gilbert, 1807–12.

Bisaha, Nancy. Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and Ottoman Turks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Dibdin, Thomas Frognall. Bibliotheca Spenceriana; or, A descriptive catalogue of the books printed in the fifteenth Century . . . in the library of George John Earl Spencer. . . . 7 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, 1814–23.

———. An introduction to the knowledge of rare and valuable editions of the Greek and Latin classics: together with an account of Polyglot Bibles, Polyglot psalters, Hebrew Bibles, Greek Bibles and Greek Testaments; the Greek fathers, and the Latin fathers. 2 vols. London: Harding and Lepard, 1827.

Jenkins, Fred W. Review of Homer in Print, edited by Glenn W. Most and Alice Schreyer. Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2014): http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2014/2014-07-49.html.

Jones, Howard. Printing the Classical Text. Utrecht: Hes & De Graaf, 2004.

Knauer, Georg N. “Iter per miscellanea: Homer’s Batrachomyomachia and Johannes Reuchlin.” In The Whole Book: Cultural Perspectives on the Medieval Miscellany, edited by Stephen G. Nicholas and Siegried Wenzel, 23–36. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Most, Glenn W., and Alice Schreyer, eds. Homer in Print: A Catalogue of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana at the University of Chicago Library. Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 2013.

Moulton, Carroll, “The End of the Odyssey.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 15 (1974): 153–69.

Nagy, Gregory. “Homeric Scholia.” In A New Companion to Homer, edited by Ian Morris and Barry Powell. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

Petrarch, Francesco, Epistolae familiares XVIII 2, “Ad Nicolaum Sygeros pretorem Grecorum, gratiarum actio pro transmisso Homeri libro.” http://www.cassiciaco.it/navigazione/scriptorium/testi medioevo/petrarca/familiares/lettera_XVIII_2.html.

Reynolds, L. D., and N. G. Wilson. Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Sandys, John Edwin. Harvard Lectures on the Revival of Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1905.

West, Martin L., ed. and trans. Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

  1. “Some give gold and silver, the perhaps desirable but certainly extremely dangerous dregs of the earth; some give booty of the Red Sea and the spoils of sumptuous sea-weed, stones and gems, which often in the manner of comets emit a mournful and bloody glow; some give necklaces and girdles, the splendor of sooty workmen; some give citadels and walls, the work of dirt-caked builders. But you, O best of men, gave none of these things which both display the opulence of the giver and excite greed in the receiver. What, then, did you give? A rare gift, and delightful—if only I were as worthy of it as you who have left… What then could the most ingenious and eloquent of men give, if not the source itself of ingenuity and eloquence?” Petrarch, Epistolae familiares XVIII 2. My translation.
  2. Ibid. Quoting Macrobius.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “often I embrace him and say, sighing, ‘O great man, how longingly I would listen to you! But of my ears, death has blocked one up, the other the hated distance of our homelands.’” Ibid.
  5. The printing-house is uncertain. Proctor argues for Bartolomeo de’ Libri, others for the Nerli brothers themselves.
  6. William Beloe, Anecdotes of Literature and Scarce Books, vol3 (London: Law & Gilbert, 1808), 302.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Glenn W. Most and Alice Schreyer, eds., Homer in Print: A Catalogue of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana at the University of Chicago Library (Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 2013), 20.
  9. Nor did it lack for modern ones, enduring at least into the twentieth century.
  10. Howard Jones, Printing the Classical Text (Utrecht: Hes & De Graaf, 2004), 145.
  11. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, An introduction to the knowledge of rare and valuable editions of the Greek and Latin classics: together with an account of Polyglot Bibles, Polyglot psalters, Hebrew Bibles, Greek Bibles and Greek Testaments; the Greek fathers, and the Latin fathers, vol. 2 (London: Harding and Lepard, 1827), 51–55.
  12. Martin L. West, ed. and trans., Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 235.
  13. Most and Schreyer, Homer in Print, 20; Beloe, Anecdotes, 303.
  14. For a discussion of other works using the same or a similar font, see Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Bibliotheca Spenceriana; or, a descriptive catalogue of the books printed in the fifteenth century . . . in the library of George John Earl Spencer . . . , vol. 2 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, 1814–23), 60f.
  15. Most and Schreyer, Homer in Print, 20. (Though see Dibdin’s comments, discussed below).
  16. Beloe, Anecdotes, 304.
  17. Carroll Moulton, “The End of the Odyssey,” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 15, no. 2 (1974): 153.
  18. Dibdin, Bibliotheca Spenceriana, 55; Didbin, Introduction to the Classics, 43.
  19. Though Dibdin, quoting Gibbon (Dibdin, An Introduction to the Classics, 40), also laments the quality of the font. The variation in date between 1488 and 1489 is partly due to the Gregorian calendric reform, in which the new year was moved from March 25th to January 1st. Thus January 1489 in our calendar, the latest month in which the editio princeps could have been printed, was January 1488 to contemporaries. I prefer to use the latest possible date of publication, 1489, so as not to imply the volume’s contemporaneity with works published in 1488.
  20. I am indebted to Glenn Most for steering an earlier version of this chapter clear of certain errors, and to M. C. Lang for his willingness to discuss this volume’s acquisition.


Homer Among the Moderns Copyright © by Nicholas Bellinson. All Rights Reserved.

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