HERBERSTEIN, Sigismund Von

HERBERSTEIN, Sigismund Von Comentari della Moscovia et parimenti della Russia

Venice, Nicolò Bascarini per Giovan Battista Pedrezzano, 1550


FIRST EDITION thus. 4to, (8), 90, (1), initial and final blanks; 3 pp. misnumbered. Italic letter, a little Roman, Herberstein’s woodcut coat of arms on title page, small decorated and historiated initials, large folding map of Russia, 6 fine full-page woodcut illustrations representing the Russian army with weapons and horses, a charming scene of sleighing and skiing on ice and a portrait of the Grand Duke of Muscovy. Last few leaves slightly spotted, map with a few spots and minor repairs. A fine, very clean copy in olive morocco by Francis Bedford (1799-1883), covers bordered with a double blind and single gilt rule with fleurons, spine gilt ruled raised bands, fleurons gilt in each, a. e. g. Armorial bookplate of Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), Prime Minister of England from 1894 to 1895.

A handsome copy of this first Italian edition, and the earliest issue obtainable, including a new map of Muscovy by Giacomo Gastaldi, of Baron Sigismund von Herberstein’s “Rerum Moscovitorum Commentarii” (1549), the first Western account of Russia, which formed European impressions of the Muscovite Empire for several centuries. Herbesteins’s work is remarkable as being a rare first-hand account of early C16 Muscovy and as containing considerable information not available elsewhere.

Herberstein (1486-1566) was born in the Slovenian town of Vipava, in the Hapsburg Empire. Knighted by Emperor Maximilian I in 1514, he served as a diplomat of the Holy Roman Empire undertaking numerous missions in the following thirty years. Herberstein visited Russia as ambassador in 1517-18 and in 1526-27, to negotiate a peace treaty between King Sigismund I of Poland and the Russian Tsar Vasily III (1479-1533), eldest son of Ivan III. Thanks to his knowledge of Slovenian, Herberstein had access to documents such as chronicles, religious texts, legal codes and geographical notes, and succeeded in producing the first detailed eyewitness ethnography of Muscovy. He carefully reviewed the existing literature on Russia, including works by Paolo Giovio, Olaus Magnus and Sebastian Münster, but his account was far more trustworthy and complete than those of his predecessors. Herberstein described Russian territory from the Carpathian mountains and the Dniester River, down to the Black Sea, and drew an overview of trade, religion, customs, history and a theory of Russian politics. At the centre of his perception were particularly the tyranny of the Grand Prince of Moscow and the prominence of religion in Russian life.

After a short introduction concerning the geographical borders of Russia and considerations on the Slovenian language (such as the spelling of the word “tsar”, which means “emperor”), the work deals with a wide range of topics: history, politics and religion of Muscovy in the first part of the work; natural history and customs of Moscow and other settlements (military art, architecture, food habits and clothing, techniques of navigation, etc.) in the second. The first chapters are dedicated to the history of Russia, the government of principalities (Muscovy, Lithuania and Poland) and the civil wars which lead to the dominant power of the Prince of Moscow. Other chapters concern his coronation ceremony in presence of the Metropolitan bishop, the hierarchy of Orthodox clergy and the strict organization within the monasteries, where hobbies and meat were forbidden and interesting pages regarding the Sacraments, especially baptism and marriage, arranged by the bride’s father. Herberstein expresses his opinion on the servile condition of women, considered inferior and dishonest. There follows a section on Moscow, described as a commercial city entirely built in wood, exporting precious metals, silk and gems, as well as leather made from different animals. Moscow is said to be protected against the Tatars by a force of 20000 soldiers used to eating dry pork during battles and wearing long, tight coats, buttoned and with narrow sleeves, suitable for the cold. The last part comprises a detailed account of Herberstein’s own missions and his arrival and welcome at the court of Moscow. The book ends with a letter by an anonymous translator describing the illustrations and advertising Gastaldi’s map as “more accurate” than the earliest, with the indication of cities, peoples and geographical features.

BM STC It., 325; Graesse, III, p. 245. Adams and Brunet list other editions.
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