BOETHIUS. De consolatione philosophiae.

Nuremberg, Anton Koberger, 12 Nov. 1476


Royal folio. 2 parts in 1, 137 of 140 unnumbered and unsigned ll., lacking 3 blanks. Gothic letter, second part double column. First 6-line initial with naturalistic illumination of Boethius in prison in green, grey, blue and red, bordered with red penflourishes, others decorated with penflourishing, 3- and 2-line initials rubricated in alternating red and blue, start of paragraph and sentences highlighted in red. Recto of first leaf and verso of last a little dust-soiled, oil stain to upper margin of first few and final gatherings, light water stain to outer blank margin of d5-6, couple of tiny marginal worm holes at beginning and end. A very good, fresh, very tall copy, on thick paper, in C18 English crimson morocco, marbled eps, bordered with gilt roll of fleurons, acorns and rounded dentelles, large gilt lozenge-shaped centrepiece with gouges, floral decorations and small fleurs-de-lis to corners, raised bands, each of seven compartments gilt with acorn and spiral stamps, spine gilt-lettered, outer and inner edges gilt, joints and corners repaired, spine restored at head and foot, edges a little rubbed, few blemishes to covers. Contemporary interlinear annotations to first two ll., occasionally elsewhere.

The illuminated C follows a frequent ms. tradition portraying Boethius in prison. Unlike most, however, Boethius is shown half-figure, alone, behind bars. The rubrication and overall style are reminiscent of German-speaking Central Europe. Boethius’s hat, remote from usual representations, looks vaguely Slavonic. Whilst the smaller initials and decorative layout of the C were produced by a professional, the portrait may be by the rubricator himself. Boethius’s unusual blue hair and beard suggest the artist did not have lead white, useless for rubrication.

An excellent, fresh, very tall copy, in a handsome Sunderland binding, of this milestone of Western philosophy—the second Koberger edition, including both the Latin text and the long commentary attributed to Thomas Aquinas, but probably written by the Oxford Dominican Thomas Waleys (1287?-1350?). One of the most influential early Christian philosophers, Boethius (477-524AD) was a Roman politician at service of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths. He probably studied in Athens where he became fluent in Greek and acquainted with important Hellenic philosophers. Imprisoned by Theodoric upon charges of high treason, he famously wrote ‘De Consolatione philosophiae’ in 523-24 during a one-year imprisonment, eventually leading to his execution. The work reflects on the negative turn of events in Boethius’s hitherto very successful career. In this fictional dialogue, Lady Philosophy consoles him, as they discuss the evanescent nature of worldly fame and riches, virtue, the ills of fortune, human folly, passion, hatred, free will, justice and predestination, with Boethius’s Christianity heavily tempered by Hellenism. Waleys’s commentary was one of the most successful and most reprinted. Boethius’s work was taught at grammar schools for its elegant Latin and educational content, and lectured on at universities for its philosophical value. The contemporary annotator provided interlinear paraphrases of the first four pages, with Boethius’s verse complaint, the apparition of Lady Philosophy, and her initial arguments. In addition to turning everything to the third person, glossing ‘ego’ with ‘Boethius’, the annotator provided synonyms of most words or phrases, seeking to follow the original meaning whilst slightly altering the lines.

The binding is typical of Charles (1674-1722), third Earl of Sunderland’s collection (e.g., BL IB30218). His collection comprised ‘some 20,000 printed books: it was particularly strong in incunabula […], in Bibles, in first editions of the classics and Continental literature of the C15 and C16. A small portion of the volumes were bound in morocco, the bulk in calf’ (de Ricci, 38). The description of this copy is remarkably similar to that of the copy sold as lot 1694 at the ‘Bibliotheca Sunderlandiana’ sale in 1881.

Harvard, Chicago, Folger, NYPL Pierpont Morgan, Princeton, Huntington (imperfect), Smithsonian, UCLA, Illinois, WU and Yale copies recorded in the US.Goff B771; HC 3370*; BMC XV II, 413; GW 4526.

In stock