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Frontispiece to volume 2 of the Opera of Aristotle (1483) printed on vellum and illuminated by Girolamo da Cremona.

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A: Venezia, Veneto, Italy

Aristotle's Opera, Printed on Vellum and Illuminated by Girolamo da Cremona, and Others

2/1/1483 to 10/25/1483
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Frontispiece of Volume 1 of the Opera of Aristotle (1483) printed on vellum and illuminated by Girolamo da Cremona.

In the last three decades of the fifteenth century the exponential increase in the number of books being printed created an important and lucrative new market for miniaturists, since many printed books contained areas left blank for the addition of illuminated initials and rubrications. The quality of illumination or rubrication that might have been added to printed books depended, of course, on the taste and budget of their purchasers. In Italy where antique monuments were most often seen and appreciated during the Renaissance, patrons generally favored the concentration of decoration at the beginning of volumes. This preference culminated in what has been called the "architectural frontispiece", in which lines of text, title and author of the book, or combinations of these were incorporated by the miniaturist into an imaginary antique monument resembling a triumphal arch or an epitaph. In the sixteenth century, when printed title pages and printed frontispieces for printed books became the convention, architectural borders and architectural designs, either engraved in wood or on copperplates, became a widely-used format for frontispieces and engraved title pages.
Between February 1 and October 25, 1483 printers Andreas Torresanus, de Asula (Andrea Torresani di Asolo) and Bartholomaeus de Blavis, de Alexandria of Venice issued in eight parts an edition of the Opera (Collected Works) of Aristotle, together with the Liber quinque praedicabilium (also known as the Isagoge) of the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyri. It was edited by the Paduan scholar Nicoletus Vernia (Nicoleta Vernia) with commentary by the Moroccan Andalusian Muslim polymath, and master of Aristotelian philosophy Averroes, (ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad bin ʾAḥmad bin Rušd, commonly known as Ibn Rushd). It was largely through the commentaries of Averroes that the writings of Aristotle were re-introduced to European culture after the Middle Ages. The printer, Torresani, who undertook this huge edition with partners, had acquired the fonts and punches of Nicolas Jenson, from whom he learned the printing trade.

A copy of this work printed on vellum, and preserved in the Morgan Library & Museum, contains a particularly spectacular tromp l'oeil frontispiece in volume one by Girolamo da Cremona and his assistants. Girolamo was a manuscript illuminator who worked first in the North Italian courts of Ferrara and Mantua, then in Siena and Florence. By the 1470s he worked in Venice, primarily illuminating frontispieces for deluxe copies of printed books. These miniatures are known for their playful and extravagant trompe-l'oeil conceits. In Girolamo's frontispiece for volume one the vellum of the page appears to have been torn away to reveal Aristotle conversing with a turbaned figure, possibly the commentator Averroes. A Latin inscription beneath the text on this opening page states "Ulmer Aristotilem Petrus produxeat orbi" (Petrus Ulmer brought this Aristotle to the world.)  Some scholars have identified Ulmer as Peter Ugelheimer, a Frankfurt merchant resident in Venice who owned some shares in Nicolas Jenson's printing shop, and sold Jenson's fonts to Torresani. Other magnificent vellum copies of books printed by Jenson and illustrated for Ugelheimer are preserved in Gotha.

"It is unsurprising that one of the most illusionistically complex images of the late fifteenth century, the frontispiece for an edition of Aristotle’s Works probably owned by Peter Ugelheimer and painted by Girolamo da Cremona, should accompany a written discussion of cognition.  Framing the beginning of the first chapter of Aristotle’s Physics, the miniaturist has constructed a remarkably multilayered image, incorporating the text block itself into an elaborate illusionistic game. Similar to Aristotle’s text, the image invokes several orders of observation interacting within a cohesive whole. On a primary level, the surface of the folio acts as an unframed two-dimensional support, explicitly emphasizing the terms of the illusion while challenging the notion, first codified by Leon Battista Alberti about half a century earlier, of the pictorial field as a finite, unified space within a framed window. Inside the three-dimensional world of the painted page, mounted clusters of jewels, pearls, and antique cameos hanging by red strings before the surface of the parchment, casting an ethereal blue shadow upon it. These objects are nearest to the viewer, their weight and precarious placement made apparent by the tears in the parchment they seem to have produced. Receding further back, the parchment itself constitutes a second visual layer. Girolamo’s skillful shading has given it the appearance of an extensively torn sheet of vellum that curls toward the viewer. Significantly, the physical corners of the page, too, are integrated into the illusion; the central text block does not simply float in three-dimensional space but is connected to the seemingly dog-eared edges of the page. This aspect further problematizes the convention of the pictureplane as an unruptured space and is perhaps the most original device employed by the illuminator. Visible through the lacerations in the vellum, an entirely separate scene takes place; in an antiquizing border-like space, the confines of which are hard to judge, playful satyrs and fawns jostle in front of what appears to be an ornately sculpted antique monument. Finally, in the upper area of the page yet another seemingly unconnected andspatially ambiguous event is depicted — Aristotle’s disputation with Averroës. 

"These pictorial layers, their distance relative to the viewer, and their progression from literal presence (the clusters of jewels) to imaginary presence (the temporally impossible encounter between Aristotle and Averroës) parallel themes present in the introductory chapter of the Physics. According to Aristotle’s text, the study of nature must proceed along a path that moves from ‘concrete and particular’ things immediately cognizable to more ‘abstract and general’ ideas that can be derived from analysis of the former. Likewise, the beholder of this particular frontispiece must move from the immediate sensory tactility of precious stones and metalwork, through the semantic understanding of the text itself, toward a visualization of the text’s argumentative content, in this case represented by a conversation between its author and chief commentator. The frontispiece thus provides a visually appealing, accessible, and conceptually apt ‘concrete whole,’ a prolegomenon for a dense and difficult Aristotelian text that proceeds by the very method the philosopher recommends. Although the variety of visual and epistemological themes that condense in this frontispiece is unprecedented, its imagery does not simply constitute a unique pictorial gloss of Aristotle’s text by means of a particularly erudite miniature painter. Girolamo, who at this point had already been active for three decades, was making use of a visual device that had been employed by other book illuminators numerous times before and in a variety of circumstances. Namely, he undertook to reconcile the visual role of the patently two-dimensional text block (which in practice was nearly always written or printed before any illustration occurred) with a lavishly painted, illusionistically convincing scene. Responding to the inquisitive nature of the text he was asked to illustrate, Girolamo pushed several of the solutions derived by his predecessors to the point of rupture, where the illusionism of the composition collapses in on itself and raises more questions about the nature of representation than it answers" (Herman, "Excavating the page: virtuosity and illusionism in Italian book illumination, 1460-1520", Word & Image, 27:2, 190-211, quoting from p. 190).

The frontispiece for volume two of the Morgan Library copy of the Torresani Aristotle was also illuminated by Girolamo da Cremona together with Antonio Maria da Villafora, and Benedetto Bardon. An excellent reproduction of this and the frontispiece for volume one appear in Walther & Wolf, Codices illustres. The world's most famous illuminated manuscripts (2005) 386-7. 

This splendid set was formerly in the library of Bertram Ashburnham, 4th Earl of Ashburnham, after which it was acquired by Henry Yates Thompson, who sold it in 1919 to J. P. "Jack" Morgan, Jr.

The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue reference for this edition is ISTC No. ia00962000.  The only copies printed on vellum mentioned in the census published there seem to be those at the Morgan and at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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