AGRIPPA, Cornelius.


AGRIPPA, Cornelius. De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum.

[Cologne, Eucharius Cervicornus], 1539.


8vo. ff. [208]. Roman letter. Author’s woodcut portrait to title, decorated initials and ornaments. Light age browning, very slightly heavier in second half, near-invisible repair to blank foot of title. A very good, clean copy in contemporary dark stained calf, rebacked with original spine onlaid, double blind and single gilt ruled, single gilt ruled arabesque and strapwork painted red, yellow and green to boards, small gilt rosettes to corners and fleurons to border, gilt centrepiece with a ‘dextrocherium’ (hand holding a spray of flowers), raised bands, compartments double gilt ruled, gilt rosette to each, a.e.g., repairs to corners, paint occasionally a bit scratched. C18 ms bibliographical note to front pastedown, another, C17, on the Abbé de Pressy, évèque de Boulogne, to rear ep.. Small repair to joints at head.

Charmingly bound in a lovely painted entrelacs binding c.1550, in the Grolieresque style after Jean Picard (e.g., BnF RES 8-Z ADLER-26). This decoration, inspired by Islamic models, came to France via Italy, and adorned numerous mid-C16 bindings produced for the great Renaissance bibliophiles Jean Grolier and Thomas Wotton. It was very fashionable in Paris; in Lyon, it became most frequent in octavo. The present binding, influenced by the Lyonnais tradition, bears thinner strapwork and a gilt centrepiece with a ‘dextrocherium’, a hand holding a spray of flowers, probably based on a heraldic device, and symbolising wisdom and learning. The dextrocherium was frequently used in France and England in the mid-C16 (Hobson, p.74), though at least one instance is recorded in Spain (Penney, pl.XXII). It is found on bindings made for the C16 bibliophile Marcus Fugger (e.g., Amsterdam UL, Band 1 H 18) and on a group produced in Paris c.1550 (Laird, pp.308-11; Goldschmidt I, 220; Hobson, ‘Italian and French’, n.13).

An attractive copy of this extremely influential philosophical work, praised by Montaigne and Descartes. Due to the controversial reputation of its author, several early editions have few recorded copies and a complex bibliographical history, i.e., from the first of 1530 (probably a ‘ghost’) to 1550, most bearing neither imprint nor (frequently) date. According to D. Clément’s ‘Bibliothèque curieuse’ (1750), this is ‘the last complete edition of this work’, in 102 chapters, and is ‘very similar’ to the 1536. The portrait – one of the earliest and most reliable, absent in the first 6 editions, also reprises the 1536 edition, where it was first used (I, n.87). Agrippa (1486-1535) was a major German polymath, physician, soldier (who travelled extensively in Europe) and official historian to Charles V; he was especially renowned for his ‘occulta’ and ideas on the cabala (Bodin called him ‘the greatest magician of his age’), which led to clashes with the Inquisition. Agrippa’s ambivalence towards occultism, religion and epistemology caused a mixed reception of ‘De incertitudine’ – a harsh critique of all sciences and arts, and Renaissance epistemology in general – which Agrippa subsequently defended in print. Each of the 102 chapters summarises wittily, only to berate, a discipline or art, from the elements of the trivium and quadrivium to optics, acting, painting, architecture, politics, natural philosophy, commerce, agriculture, surgery, anatomy, prostitution, veterinary medicine, law and cooking. There are fascinating sections on judicial astrology (‘an art bringing no certainty, which can be turned into anything, according to opinion’), physiognomy (which ‘infers nonsense’ from horoscopes based on physical appearance), magic (including necromancy), heraldry (by which ‘heralds dressed in military uniform astrologise, philosophise and theologise with foolish knowledge’), the inquisition (with a violent attack against the Dominicans’ trials of heretics from his native Cologne), and alchemy (‘which can be defined as an art, or sham, or persecution of nature’). The conclusion is an ‘encomium of the ass’, i.e., ignorance, which is preferable to this useless knowledge. Despite the serious attacks of great minds like Bodin and Thevet, ‘De incertitudine’ is a deeply ironic work, an aspect of Agrippa’s work much praised, for instance, by Philip Sidney. ‘Like the works in similar vein of Erasmus, Rabelais and many others, [it] is a literary paradox and at the same time a work of polemic’ (Bowen, 259), spanning the abuses of the Church and ‘false’ science. 

VD16 A 1160; USTC 662011; Cantamessa 73 (mentioned); Caillet, Wellcome or Durling (earlier or later eds). Not in Ferguson. M. Laird, ‘Some 16th-Century Bindings in the New York Public Library’, Bulletin du bibliophile (1994), pp. 303-11; A. Hobson, Bindings in Cambridge Libraries (1929) and French and Italian Collectors (1953); P. Needham, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings (1979); C.L. Penney, An Album of Selected Bookbindings (1967).