One of the most beautiful Renaissance manuscripts of John Rynalds Library in Manchester is a copy of Christianus Prolianus’ scientific treatise, Astronomia, produced in Naples around 1478. Although the title is strictly concerned with the subject of Astronomy, the author focused on the elements and geometry as well. Many of its pages are decorated with exquisite white-vine borders, featuring putti, birds and butterflies.
Origin and features of MS 53
Very little is known of Prolianus, except that he came from the little town of Balbano in Tuscany and he was associated with the Neapolitan court of Ferdinand II. The manuscript was produced between 1478 and 1480 (the Rynalds Library also holds a copy of the first edition, printed in Naples by Henricus Alding in 1477, pressmark 18518).
It is written on vellum in a beautiful humanist script, or Roman hand. The text is illustrated with a series of dazzling astronomical diagrams – images of the Sun, Moon and planets are decorated with gold leaf – and there are also ornate astronomical tables.
The work is divided into 5 main parts, for a total of thirteen chapters: the first part describes the four elements that make up the celestial sphere, according to the Aristotelian teachings; then the solar system and various elements of astronomical geography (meridians, parallels, tropics ...) are illustrated.
The descriptions of eclipses of the Moon and the Sun are very interesting, with the vain attempt to explain how the Sun can be hidden from view by a much smaller planet...
Finally, Prolianus displayed the tables with the conjunction and the oppositions of the celestial bodies. The illustrations of the eclipses recorded from 1478, with start and duration time, are expressly referred to the "Meridian of Naples".
Elaborate white-vine borders herald the start of each chapter, embellished with parrots and other birds, animals and putti. The illumination has previously been attributed to Gioacchino di Giovanni de Gigantibus. However, Andrew Phillips, a student on the MA in Medieval Studies course who has made a detailed study of the manuscript, has pointed out several stylistic differences between this manuscript and Gigantibus’s corpus.
The manuscript is dominated by bianchi girari, or ‘white vine-stem border’ a style typical of fifteenth-century Italian Humanist manuscripts. Phillips also noted that adorning the border is a selection of creatures, including the parakeets typically associated with Naples, and butterflies which represent Florence. The proximity of these devices is particularly significant, as the two Italian cities were at war for much of the 1470s, and the manuscript’s one-time owner and patron, Cardinal Giovanni of Aragon, played a pivotal role in peace-talks between the two cities.
The Patron: a father or his son?
One of the most prominent and interesting illuminations in MS 53 is the coat of arms on the first page. M. R. James speculated that this may have belonged to Ferdinand II of Aragon. Ferdinand’s arms, however, are a mirror image of this found in MS 53, which instead belong to Ferdinand’s son, Cardinal of Aragon. James was, perhaps, misled by the golden crown which tops the Aragonese heraldry.
This would usually denote a royal patron and owner. In fact, the arms were probably originally topped by a cardinal’s hat, but it is likely that this was painted over when Giovanni predeceased his father, and his library was merged with that of the Aragonese royal household.
The manuscript has an interesting provenance. Many recent research has revealed the previously unknown whereabouts of the manuscript between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The manuscript’s path can be traced from its Neapolitan origin to England, through the libraries of the French household, the Duchy of La Vallière and the ‘Napoleon of booksellers’, Bernard Quaritch, after whom the manuscript was owned by William Morris, an avid bibliophile, who had an obvious professional interest in the aesthetics of illumination. It was sold to Morris with a suggestion that it might be the work of renowned German/Italian illuminator Gioacchino de Gigantibus. However, further stylistic investigation may question this attribution. William Morris then sold the manuscript (he bitterly regretted parting with it) and it was purchased by the 26th Earl of Crawford for £42.
Modern binding in blue Moroccan (goatskin).
The text is partly extracted from John Hodgson's article "Christianus Prolianus’s Astronomia manuscript now digitised".