MACROBIUS. In Somnium Scipionis expositio.

Venice, Philippus Pincius, 29 Oct. 1500.


Folio. 2 parts in one, separate registers, ff. XXXVI; LXXXVI. Roman letter, occasional Greek, double column. Decorated initials in different series. 7 ½-page or smaller woodcut diagrams, ½-page woodcut map of the climatic zones. Title and next a bit finger-soiled to outer margin, small clean tear to fore-edge repaired to fols II-IV, intermittent small light water stain to upper blank margin, ink stain to gutter on final ll., outer blank margin spotted, few ll. just toned, occasional slight marginal foxing, light ink splash to K5-6. A very good, well-margined copy in contemporary vellum over boards, lacking ties, early title inked to spine and fore-edge, ms ‘Emptus est Macrobius compluti arge[n]teis nummis quattuor et dimidio anno a virgineo partu M D XVI. Quo Car[dina]lis Do[minicus] Fran[cis]cus Simo[ni?]des collegioru[m] complutensiu[m], fundator, in coelu[m] scindens terras deseruit: cuius anima coelitibus associate deo eternu[m] fruetur. Petrus Vasquus’ to blank verso of last leaf.

A very good copy, with contemporary Spanish provenance, of this attractive incunabular edition of two of the most influential works of late antiquity – the first being ‘the most satisfactory and widely read Latin compendium on Neoplatonism that existed during the Middle Ages’ (DSB).

Macrobius (fl. early 5thC) was a poet probably born in Greek-speaking areas of the Roman Empire. ‘Somnium Scipionis’, part of Book VI of Cicero’s ‘De Republica’, recounts the dream vision of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, two years before the fall of Carthage in 146BC. Visited in his sleep by his late grandfather Scipio Africanus, he is foretold his future and given a ‘mystical’ overview of the Earth from the heavens, its climatic zones, and the workings of the celestial spheres and planets, with Stoic discussions of the nature of the soul, the gods and virtue. Macrobius’s Neoplatonic commentary to Cicero’s text contributed to its enormous success through the middle ages down to the Renaissance, with hundreds of extant mss. Of particular interest, to the likes of Dante and Chaucer, were his theories of music, astronomy and the interpretation of dreams, i.e., how to determine which were predictive of events, and which were not, as well as the cosmographical information he provided, with ‘lengthy excursuses on Pythagorean number lore, cosmography, world geography and the harmony of the spheres’ (DSB). Ms and printed copies quickly absorbed the visual aids of medieval cartography, with the presence of diagrams and, as here, a woodcut map illustrating the climatic zones Scipio Aemilianus sees in his dream. The map in this edition shows the Red Sea, Ethiopia, Europe, India, the Ocean and, in the south, ‘Temperata Antipodum nobis incognita’, i.e., today’s Australia and Antarctica. Organized in the guise of a conversation during the holiday of the Saturnalia, Macrobius’s  ‘Saturnalia’ is a treasure trove of information on antiquity, based on a variety of ancient sources and authorities. Among the hundreds of topics discussed are the Roman calendar and its festivities, religion, rhetoric, luxury, sumptuary laws and ancient authors, such as Vergil, whose Homeric influence is also analysed.

These were eminent university textbooks for centuries. ‘Among the roughly 150 manuscripts recorded by Destombes dating from 1200 to 1500 AD nearly 100 contain a simple map illustrating Macrobius’s theories’ (Shirley 13) .The early owner, Pedro Vasquez, purchased it in Alcalà de Henares (‘Compluti’) in 1516. A similar inscription – where he signed himself ‘Hispaniensis Catholicus’ – is also present in a student edition of Apuleius and Statius, printed by Pincius, now at the Univ. of Seville Library. Vasquez was most likely a student in Alcalà. In our inscription, he records the death, in the year he bought this book, of the benefactor Cardinal Domingos Francisco Simodes or Simonides [i.e., Simoes or Simois] of the ‘collegia complutensia’, i.e., the conglomeration of colleges which formed the kernel of the University of Alcalà from 1512. He also records the price of the book, most probably unbound – 4 ½ silver coins (i.e., pesos). Among the professors at the time was the mathematician Pedro Ciruelo.

ISTC im00013000; Goff M13; HC 10430*; Sander 4075; Essling 1232; BMC V 499; BSB-Ink M-5; GW M19705. R. Proctor, The Printing of Greek in the C15 (1900); Shirley 13.