Gesta Romanorum, Boethius, Ficino

The Letters of Ficino 1497

The Letters of Marsilio Ficino represent an essential core of his thought and influence as a chief architect of the Platonic and Hermetic revival, the philosophical and revelatory center of the new learning that was revamping religious vision and humanistic enquiry Italian Renaissance.

525J Marsilio Ficino 1433-1499

Epistolae Marsilii Ficini Florentini.

[Nuremberg] : Per Antonium Koberger impræsse,  1497

Price $30,000

Imprint from colophon./ 

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Chancery quarto 15 x 10cm. . Signatures: π¹⁰,A-Z⁸ a-g⁸ h⁴(lacking blank leaf h4); Errors in folation: D2 signed C2; G2 unsigned, G4 and G5 signed G3 and G4. Final leaf blank and wanting. Colophon reads: Marsilii Ficini Florentini eloquentissimi viri epistolae familiares per Antonium Koberger impraesse anno incarnate deitatis Mccccxcviixxiiii Februarii finiunt foeliciter./ Place of publication suggested by ISTC.

This copy is bound in seventh century, full vellum. With filled initial spaces, printed guide letters, foliation, without catchwords, The first initial letter is Illuminiated with colours on gilt background with tendrils and an arabesque on margin, red and blue initial letters. There is quite a bit of contemporary  marginalia and underlining. There is an ownership  note from the XVII century handwritten on title-front. Restoration on foot of spine, some damp staining. This copy is better than most of the copies that I have seen in person and online.

                   Paul Oskar Kristeller makes clear below that the Letters of Marsilio Ficino represent an essential core of his thought and influence as a chief architect of the Platonic and Hermetic revival, the philosophical and revelatory center of the new learning that was revamping religious vision and humanistic enquiry Italian Renaissance.

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Excerpt from Paul Oskar Kristeller Preface to volume 1 of the Letters of Ficino:   

 “The Letters occupy in fact a very important place in Ficino’s work. As historical documents, they give us a vivid picture of his personal relations with his friends and pupils, and of his own literary and scholarly activities. As pieces of literature, edited and collected by himself, the letters take their place among other correspondences of the time and are a monument of humanistic scholarship and literature. Finally, the letters are conscious vehicles of moral and philosophical teaching and often reach the dimensions of a short treatise. 

Ficino began to collect his letters in the 1470’s, gradually arranged them in twelve books, had them circulated in numerous manuscript copies, and finally had them printed in 1495. The first book contains letters written between 1457 and 1476, and its manuscript tradition is especially rich and complicated. These letters derive great interest from the time of their composition, for they were written at the same time as some of the commentaries on Plato and as the Platonic Theology, Ficino’s chief philosophical work. The correspondents include many persons of great significance: Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici, and members of other prominent Florentine families, allied or hostile to the Medici at different times: Albizzi and Pazzi, Soderini and Rucellai, Salviati and Bandini, Del Nero, Benci and Canigiani, Niccolini, Martelli and Minerbetti. There are two cardinals, Francesco Piccolomini, the later Pius III, a famous patron and bibliophile, and Bessarion, the great defender of Platonism. There is Bernardo Bembo, Venetian patrician and ambassador, Giovanni Antonio Campano, bishop and humanist. Francesco Marescalchi in Ferrara, and Giovanni Aurelio Augurelli from Rimini. There are the friends of Ficino’s youth, Michele Mercati and Antonio Morali called Serafico, and his favourite friend, Giovanni Cavalcanti. There are philosophers and physicians, and there are numerous scholars, of different generations, who occupy a more or less prominent place in the annals of literature: Matteo Palmieri and Donato Acciaiuoli, Benedetto Accolti, Bartolomeo Scala and Niccolò Michelozzi, all connected with the chancery, Cristoforo Landino, Bartolomeo della Fonte and Angelo Poliziano, Francesco da Castiglione, perhaps Ficino’s teacher of Greek, and Antonio degli Agli, bishop of Fiesole and Volterra, Jacopo Bracciolini the son of Poggio, and Carlo Marsuppini, the son of the humanist chancellor of the same name, Benedetto Colucci and Lorenzo Lippi, Domenico Galletti and Francesco Tedaldi, Antonio Calderini and Andrea Cambini, Cherubino Quarquagli and Baccio Ugolini, known for their vernacular verse, and a number of Latin poets: Peregrino Agli, Alessandro Braccesi, Amerigo Corsini, Naldo Naldi and Antonio Pelotti.

ISTC,; if00155000; GW; 9874; Goff; F-155; IGI,; 3864; BM 15th cent.,; II, 443; BSB-Ink,; F-120 Walsh 

  • Locations :
  • Boston Public Library
  • Harvard Library, Countway Library of Medicine (2)
  • Bryn Mawr 
  • Claremont Colleges
  • College of Physicians of Philadelphia
  • Cornell Univ. 
  • Free Library of Philadelphia
  • Library of Congress, 
  • Columbia University, 
  • The Morgan Library 
  • Pennsylvania State Univ.
  • Sacramento Public 
  • Smithsonian Institution, 
  • Stanford Univ. 
  • Newberry Library
  • Univ. of California, 
  • Univ. of Chicago 
  • Univ. of Florida 
  • Univ. of Kansas, 
  • Univ. of Michigan, 
  • Univ. of North Carolina Library
  • Yale University.
  • University of Toronto

1Marsilio Ficino as a Man of Letters and the Glosses Attributed to Him in the Caetani Codex of Dante, Paul Oskar Kristeller. Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 1-47 

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Marsilio Ficino  directed the Platonic Academy in Florence, and it was the work of this Academy that gave the Renaissance in the 15th century its impulse and direction.
During his childhood Ficino was selected by Cosimo de’ Medici for an education in the humanities. Later Cosimo directed him to learn Greek and then to translate all the works of Plato into Latin. This enormous task he completed in about five years. He then wrote two important books, “The Platonic Theology” and “The Christian Religion”, showing how the Christian religion and Platonic philosophy were proclaiming the same message. The extraordinary influence the Platonic Academy came to exercise over the age arose from the fact that its leading spirits were already seeking fresh inspiration from the ideals of the civilizations of Greece and Rome and especially from the literary and philosophical sources of those ideals. Florence was the cultural and artistic centre of Europe at the time and leading men in so many fields were drawn to the Academy: Lorenzo de’Medici (Florence’s ruler), Alberti (the architect) and Poliziano (the poet).  Moreover Ficino bound together an enormous circle of correspondents throughout Europe, from the Pope in Rome to John Colet in London, from Reuchlin in Germany to de Ganay in France.

471J  Boethius, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus (480-524)

Sancti thome de aquino super libris Boecii de consolatione philosophie co[m]mentum cum expositione feliciter incipit.

Lyons: Guillaume le Roy, 1484 ( not after 24 December 1484).  Price: $22,000.

Chancery folio (296 x 210mm). signatures :a-x⁸ (a1 & xblank); Part I only, 166 leaves (of 168, without first and last blanks). Red initial with blue flourishing, smaller red and blue ink initials, red and blue paragraph marks (some leaves browned, repaired tear in text of one leaf, some dampstains). The text surrounded by commentary ascribed to Thomas Aquinas. Le Roy wass the first printer in Lyons and began printing in 1473.  Bound in Contemporary blind tooled morocco, remains of paper label on rear board (lacking clasps, losses to leather, rebacked preserving some original leather). 

Boethius became the connecting link between the logical and metaphysical science of antiquity and the scientific attempts of the Middle Ages. His influence on medieval thought was still greater through his De consolatione philosophiae. Whether Boethius was a Christian has been doubted Nevertheless, for a long time the book was read with the greatest reverence by all Christendom, and its author was regarded as a martyr for the true faith” (Schaff-Herzog). ¶ In this prosimetrical apocalyptic dialogue, Boethius our narrator encounters Lady-Philosophy , who appears in his time of need, the muse of poetry has in short failed him. Philosophy adresses among great protest Boethius’ bad interpretations and misunderstandings of fate and free will…. 

One thousand five hundred years later It is still fair to ask, the same questions which Boethius asks .. “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

And Philosophy answers: “The judgment of most people is based not on the merits of a case but on the fortune of its outcome; they think that only things which turn out happily are good.” “You have merely discovered the two-faced nature of this blind goddess [Fortune] … For now she has deserted you, and no man can ever be secure until he has been deserted by Fortune.” 

¶ “I [Fortune] spin my wheel and find pleasure in raising the low to a high place and lowering those who were on top. Go up, if you like, but only on condition that you will not feel abused when my sport requires your fall.” 

This copy was released/issued without the Pseudo-Boethian De disciplina scholarium from the same press  printed later, which usually accompanies it.

 ISTC ib00779000.; Goff; B779; GW; 4535; Walsh,  3737;Hain-Copinger; 3418; Copinger; 1107.

Copies in United States: Harvard (I) Gordon W. Jones, M.D., (I) Yale (I) 


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“They” (the Monks] “might be disposed occasionally to recreate their
minds with subjects of a light and amusing nature; and what could be
more innocent or delightful than the stories of the Gesta Romanorum’;”                                                                                       Douces’s  Illustration of Shakespeare.

Generally considered an English collection of anecdotes, compiled circa late 13th or early 14th century.

Because its stories have served as the basis for
countless other works of literature, the Gesta Romanorum is recognized as one of the primary sources of western European literature.

It is one of the greatest work in a genre popular during the late Middle Ages, the Gesta Romanorum is a collection of anecdotes, compiled anonymously and written in Latin, drawn from Eastern allegorical tales, legends collected by monks, classical narratives, and historical chronicles. Even though the title means “deeds of the Romans,” most of the stories in the Gesta Romanorum do not concern Rome or Romans. Originally designed for use by preachers in instilling Christian virtues and teaching theological doctrine, the tales in the Gesta Romanorum served as models for works by such authors as Giovanni Boccaccio, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare.

Some typical examples of these short stories are  cited by Joseph Albert Mosher are “how a clerk was saved by confession and penance from a compact with the devil; how a man was delivered for his piety; how certain tempting devils were vanquished; how a bishop was damned for neglecting God’s warning; [and] how a rich man was punished for robbing a poor widow.” The collection also includes many secular tales—for example, of Lear and his three daughters, of Pericles, of the three caskets, and of the pound of flesh. These were used by Shakespeare for plot lines in King Lear, Pericles, and The Merchant of Venice. Chaucer used the story of Constance in “The Man of Law’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales

463J  Anon [Gesta Romanorum]

Gesta romanorum cu[m] applicatio[n]ib[us] moralisatis ac misticis.

[Strassburg : Printer of the 1483 Jordanus de Quedlinburg (Georg Husner)], 13 Jan. 1499.

Price $18,000

Folio: [*]8, a8, b-o6, p7 (lacking p8 BLANK) 101 (of 102) leaves; lacking  only the final leaf, blank. This incunable edition is basically a page-for-page reprint of the Husner editions of 6 August 1489 and 25 January 1493. The date of publication as given in the colophon has caused some confusion: “Anno nostre salutis .Mccccxcix. In octaua epiphanie d[omi]ni ” Goff and the BMC interpret this to mean 7–12 January 1499. Ownership inscription in the top margin of leaf [pi]2r, in Latin, dated 1500 of Matthew Schach, the Carthusian Prior at Prüll, and “tit. Bp. of Salona (Dalmatia), suffragan Bp. of Freising” according to Paul Needham’s Index Possessorum Incunabulorum; mid-19th-century ownership signature on title-page of A. De Welles Miller, Charlotte, North Carolina, a Doctor of Divinity, but we do not know of which denomination. He was a devoted collector of early printed books. (Sincere thanks to Eric Johnson [Ohio State University Library] and Eric White [Princeton University Library] for assistance with the Shach provenance note.) 

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Evidence of readership:

 Early marginalia next to chapters (or their morals) 15, 16, 28, 33, 36, 43, 47, 55, 72, 80, 91, 92, 106, 111, 125, 128, 135, 144, 164, 173, and 178. A correction to the moral of 115 and an interlinear addition to moral 55. 

Bound in recent ebony-brown calf old style: Round spine with raised bands accented by gilt rules, cream leather title label, fillets extending onto covers from each band to terminate in trefoils. Title-leaf stained and with old repairs, pencilling, and ownership indicia as above; very old bookseller’s description glued to same not approaching type or inkings. Variable waterstaining throughout; pinhole-type worming, minor and not costing letters; leaf l4 torn in upper margin extending into text with loss a very few words in the top two lines of one column on each page of the leaf. Lacks the final blank (only) Initials, capital strokes, paragraph marks, and underlining in red.  Leaves a bit wrinkled and some minor dampstaining to upper margin at the end. Overall a very good, clean copy

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The Gesta Romanorum is “One of the best known collections of stories in Latin, the Gesta Romanorum is a medieval collection of anecdotes, to which moral reflections are attached. It was compiled in Latin, probably by a priest, late in the thirteenth or early in the fourteenth century. The ascription of authorship to Berchorius or Helinandus can no longer be maintained. The original objective of the work seems to have been to provide preachers with a store of anecdotes with suitable moral applications. Each story has a heading referring to some virtue or vice (e.g. de dilectione); then comes the anecdote followed by the moralisatio. The collection became so popular throughout Western Europe that copies were multiplied, often with local additions, so that it is not now possible to determine whether it was originally written in England, Germany, or France. Oesterley, a  critical editor (Berlin, 1872), is of the opinion that it was originally composed in England, whence it passed to the Continent, and that by the middle of the fourteenth century there existed three distinct families of manuscripts: the English group, written in Latin; the Latin and German group; and a third group represented by the first printed editions. The manuscripts differ considerably as to number and arrangement of articles, but no one manuscript representing the printed editions exists. Probably the editors of the first printed edition selected 151 stories/chapters  from various manuscripts.

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Shortly after this collection had been published, an enlarged edition, now known as the Vulgate, was issued, containing 181 stories*. This was compiled from the third group of manuscripts, and was printed by Ulrich Zell at Cologne. Though the title of the work suggests Roman history as the chief source of the stories, many of them are taken from later Latin and German chronicles, while several are Oriental in character. In estimating the wide influence of the ‘Gesta’ it must be remembered that the collection proved a mine of anecdotes, not only for preachers, but for poets, from Chaucer, Lydgate, and Boccaccio down through Shakespeare to Schiller and Rossetti, so that many of these old stories are now enshrined in masterpieces of European literature.” (CE vol. VI, page 539-540)

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*I. Printed editions.
A. The editio princeps, printed in folio by Ketelaer and De Leempt, at Utrecht. Date uncertain. It contains 150 (not 152, as Douce erroneously says*) chapters.f
(a) A second edition of the editio princeps, printed by Arnold Ter Hoenen, at Cologne. Date uncertain. It contains 151 chapters.
B. The Vulgate (vulgartext), or second editio princeps, printed by Ulrich Zell, at Cologne. Date uncertain. It contains 181 chapters.
Subsequent to the Vulgate numerous editions were printed resembling it in all essentials.
There is no doubt, according to Herr Oesterley, that all three editions [A, (a), & B] appeared between 1472 and 1475.

Here as an english translation of an excerpted story, as you read you can see the immensely enjoyable use of language and rhetorical tropes which make the stories so amusing.

A CERTAIN tyrannical and cruel knight retained in his service a very faithful servant. One day, when he had been to the market, he returned with this servant through a grove; and by the way lost thirty silver marks. As soon as he discovered the loss, he questioned his servant about it. The man solemnly denied all knowledge of the matter, and he spoke truth. But when the money was not to be found, he cut off the servant’s foot, and leaving him in that place, rode home. A hermit, hearing the groans and cries of the man, went speedily to his help. He confessed him; and being satisfied of his innocence, conveyed him upon his shoulders to his hermitage.
Then entering the oratory, he dared to reproach the All-just with want of justice, inasmuch as he had permitted an innocent man to lose his foot.
For a length of time he continued in tears, and prayers, and reproaches; until at last an angel of the Lord ‘appeared to him, and said, “Hast thou not read in the Psalms, ‘God is a just judge, strong and patient?’”
“Often,” answered the hermit meekly, “have I read and believed it from my heart; but to-day I have erred. That wretched man, Whose foot has been cut off, perhaps under the veil of confession deceived me.”
“‘Tax not the Lord with injustice,” said the angel; “His way is truth, and His judgments equitable. Recollect how often thou hast read, ‘The decrees of God are unfathomable.’ Know that he who lost his foot, lost it for a former crime. With the same foot he maliciously spurned his mother, and cast her from a chariot–for which eternal condemnation overtook him. The knight, his master, was desirous of purchasing a war-horse, to collect more wealth, to the destruction of his soul; and therefore, by the just sentence of God, the money which he had provided for the purchase was lost. Now hear; there is a very poor man with his wife and little ones, who daily supplicate heaven, and perform every religious exercise. He found the money, when otherwise he would have starved, and therewith pro­cured for himself and family the necessaries of life, entrust­ing a portion to his confessor to distribute to the poor. But first he diligently endeavoured to find out the right owner. Not accomplishing this, the poor man applied it to its proper use. Place then a bridle upon thy thoughts; and no more upbraid the righteous Disposer of all things, as thou but lately didst. For he is just, and strong, and patient.”

“The Stories of the Gesta seem to have been a mine for later writers, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Schiller.” (Mediaeval Latin, 1925. p 432).

Goff Lists 17 editions, and I’ve locate two others of the latin versions . Goff G296; HC 7751*; Walsh 265, 266; Bod-inc G-156; Sheppard 502; Pr 631; BMC I 146;GW 10902BSB-Ink G-214;Pell 5259; IGI 4274; IBP 2405; SI 1680; CCIR G-30; Kotvan 530; Sajó-Soltész 1433; IJL2 185; Coll(S) 463; Madsen 1736, T26; Ohly-Sack 1237, 1238, 1239; Sack(Freiburg) 1570; Borm 1154; Voull(Trier) 1554; Voull(B) 2467; Günt(L) 2699; Döring-Fuchs G-94, G-95; 

I found these three books (electronically on Hathi Trust) quite informative.

Illustrations of Shakespeare and of ancient manners : with dissertations on the clowns and fools of Shakespeare ; on the collection of popular tales entitled Gesta Romanorum, and on the English Morris dance  (London : Printed for T. Tegg, 1839), by Francis Douce

 The history of English poetry, from the close of the eleventh to the commencement of the eithteenth century. To which are prefixed, two dissertations. I. On the origin of romantic fiction in Europe. II. On the introduction of learning into England. (London, J. Dodsley; [etc., etc.], 1775-), by Thomas Warton

Ein letztes Wort betreffend die anonyme Recension von Dr. W. Dicks Ausgabe der Innsbruck-Münchener Redaktion der Gesta Romanorum und Herrn Dr. Ewald Flügel in Leipzig, von Hermann Varnhagen. (Erlangen, F. Junge, 1891), by Hermann Varnhagen


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