GIOVANNI BALBI of Genoa (d.1298), Summa Grammaticalis quae vocatur Catholicon, DECORATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM
[northern Italy, mid-15th century]
413 x 305mm. 329 leaves: 1-1810, 199(of 10, iii cancelled blank), 20-3310, COMPLETE, catchwords in lower margins of final versos, signature marks in lower margins on each recto of first half of every gathering, in ink, or in ink and plummet and sometimes visible in plummet at lower edges, occasional guide letters in outer margins, 67-75 lines in two columns written in brown ink in a small neat round gothic bookhand between four verticals and two horizontals ruled in plummet, justification: 305 x 215mm, prickings visible at upper and lower edges of some leaves, scribal corrections in margins and text, rubrics in red, one-line initials alternately of red or purple/blue, three- to ten-line initials in red flourished mauve, or purple/blue flourished red, two large opening initials with divided staves of red and blue with elaborate flourishing, the first, on f.1, with flourishing in mauve and red incorporating a hooded face, occasional faces and a fish in flourished extensions or infills (f.1 with light crease and surface wear affecting some text, small hole in upper margin to first few folios, occasional slight marginal cockling or surface soiling). Contemporary Italian white goatskin over thick, unbevelled wooden boards, stamped and engraved shaped centre- and cornerpieces, the stamps comprising the monogram of Christ with sunburst surrounds, Lamb and Flag, flowerheads and 'Maria' within floral surrounds, evidence of two fore-edge clasps, one strap remaining (worn, with losses to two cornerpieces and textblock detached at upper hinge).
The script and style of the penwork decoration suggest that the manuscript was produced in Italy.
Inscriptions noting the opening and conclusion of the work have been added to the upper margins of ff. 1 and 329 in an 18th-century hand. A bookstamp, 'A' within a square, appears twice in the lower margin of f.1
From the collection of comte Paul Durrieu, by descent to the present owner.
A HANDSOME, COMPLETE COPY OF BALBI'S CELEBRATED CATHOLICON, regarded as the first alphabetically-arranged Latin dictionary.
'Prosodia Queda[m] p[ar]s gramatice...', preface and treatises in four parts on orthography, prosody, etymology, derivatio and rhetoric, ending 'in suo loco de periodus' ff.1-52v; etymological dictionary, opening 'Iam divina potencia auxiliante...' ff.52v-328; scribal colophon, the scribe asking for a drink on the completion of the work ('Explicit hoc totu[m] pro xpo da m[ihi] potu[m] Ffinito libro sit laus et gloria xpo') f.328; alphabetical table ('Ista est libra istius libri catholicon...') f.328-9. The final colophon comprises the usual conclusion in which the author defines the date of writing ('nonis martii', 1286).
A blank verso and recto (and cancelled blank) divides sections 'L' and 'M'. Although this might suggest the scribe's intention to add further text, none appears to be lacking: the 'L' section ends with 'Luxus', as compared with other copies. When considering methods of production it is also interesting to note that the style of penwork flourishing contained within the fifth, unlettered, gathering differs significantly from the rest of the volume.
The Dominican friar and grammarian, Giovanni Balbi da Genova, or Johannes Balbus or de Janua, completed his celebrated Latin dictionary on 7 March 1286. He prefaced his work with the claim 'Liber iste vocetur Catholicon, eo q[uo]d sit co[mmun]is et uni[ver]salis. Valet siq[ui]dem ad o[mne]s fere sci[enti]as' [line 21, 'Let this book be called the Catholicon, in that it is common and universal, because it covers almost all knowledge'], following with observations on grammar in four parts leading to the alphabetically-arranged encylopaedic dictionary, comprising over 14,000 entries (see F. Wallis, Communis et universalis: the Catholicon, unpublished Licentiate thesis, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, 1981). Frequent cross-referencing between the grammar and lexicon illustrate Balbi's desire to show close links between the two: comments on pronounciation, for example, appear within the dictionary, and definitions of words appear within the grammar.
The importance and success of Balbi's work, as a turning point in medieval lexicography, lay in its new arrangement of material. The content of the Catholicon is carefully drawn from other sources, both ancient and contemporary, including Isidore of Seville, Priscian, Donatus, Alexander of Villa Dei, Eberhard of Bethune, and the canon lawyer and decretist, Hugutio of Pisa (d.1210). Whilst Hugutio's Magnae derivationes, for example, had become a 'fundamental work of medieval grammar' and authority for such figures as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio (see T. Hunt, Teaching and Learning Latin in 13th century England, 1991, pp.383-4), its ambitious scope and ill-disciplined arrangement made it unwieldy for practical use. In contrast, the Catholicon provided a new, rigorous and structured arrangement of material, with an alphabetically-ordered etymological dictionary. Balbi prefaces this, the fifth part of his work, with the statement that he will 'proceed everywhere according to alphabetical order and so from the order should easily be had the spelling of any word placed here' ['In hac autem quinta parte procedam ubique secundum ordinem alphabeti. ita que ex tali ordine de de facili haberi poterit ortographia cuius libet hic posite dictionis']. He then demonstrates the principles behind alphabetisation by giving examples. Balbi seems to have been the first author to grapple with an absolutely fundamental problem, whose solution we today take for granted. He realised the vast potential for large bodies of written knowledge that would become possible through the adoption of a proper alphabetical arrangement, but he was faced with the fact that medieval spelling of a word could vary, often based on pronunciation. Rather than be deterred by the fact that some readers would have trouble finding words, he imposed his arrangement on them, and encouraged his readers to learn their 'correct' spelling from the Catholicon (see Karin Miethaner-Vent, 'Das Alphabet in der mittelalterlischen Lexicographie', in La lexicographie au moyen age, 1986, pp.82-112). With its ease of use, 'grammatical digressions and observations on etymology and syntax', the Catholicon 'remained an essential work of reference well into the sixteenth century' (N. Thorp, The Glory of the Page, 1987, p175). Its popularity as a standard work is seen in the large number of manuscript copies which circulated in the late Middle Ages and the more than two dozen printed editions which appeared during the incunable period, having first been printed at Mainz in 1460, most probably by Johann Gutenberg. Manuscript copies are rare at auction, only one (incomplete) copy recorded in the last thirty years (sold Sotheby's, 18 June 1991, lot 105, lacking text after 'Humilis'). De Ricci lists only one leaf from a 15th-century German manuscript (Free Library, Philadelphia, no. 350).