Writers of Italic: Bartolomeo Sanvito: Roman scribe: 1435-post 1518?

By John Fricker
Date Added: 21/07/2009


Until the research conducted by the late James Wardrop of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Dr Augusto Campana, once of the Vatican Library, just after World War II, Bartolomeo Sanvito was virtually unknown in the wider palaeographical world, though some of his manuscripts were valued as the work of an unknown scribe. [1]

The story of his final identification is a complicated one and the discovery, when it occurred, relied upon a good deal of hard work, a certain amount of sheer luck and Wardrop's experienced and almost instinctive memory for the comparative points of scripts, aided by Campana's other researches.

One day in Rome in the Spring of 1947, Campana and Wardrop were examining Campana's collection of photographic facsimiles and Wardrop's attention was drawn to a batch all seemingly by the same scribe, but unsigned, whose script he recognised as one he had seen in England many times before.

The matter of the identity of this scribe, whose work was always accompanied by illumination of superior kind executed only for patrons of the highest rank, exercised him considerably and he began a systematic search of likely sources.

He found an important clue eventually in M. R. James's Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Library of Eton College. A reproduction of the first page of a little Cicero, showing capital letters only. He was only sure, however, when he was able to handle the actual volume and see the minuscule script. It was certainly the same but showed 'a distinct quaver, as if the scribe were old or ill', but on the last page it bore the initials: B.S., Rome, 1497.

Consultation of reference sources proved unavailing and no further progress was made until in the course of the investigation the Eusebius, Royal 14. C.3, British Museum (as it was then), written for Bernado Bembo, was examined and (being known to be in the hand of one scribe) the B.S. italic found and with it the B.S. roman.

By chance again, a little later, Wardrop read an article in Rivista d'arte (1930), [2]by Silvio De Kunert concerning the attribution to one Girolamo Campagnola of miniatures in two manuscripts at the Collegiate Church of Santa Giustina, Monselice, near Padua. From the facsimiles included Wardrop was able to identify the B.S. roman script (which but for Royal 14. C.3 he could not have known). The colophons to both manuscripts stated that they had been presented by a Bartolomeo Sanvito, canon of that church, in 1509. Still some doubt might have remained that B.S. and Bartolomeo Sanvito were necessarily one and the same, but, pursuing De Kunert further, Wardrop discovered that in the Bulletin of the Civic Museum of Padua (1907) [3], De Kunert had transcribed the greater part of a manuscript diary of 1505-1511 by an unknown Paduano. This mentioned the Monselice manuscripts with the diarist admitting to be both the scribe and the donor, but although the diary had helped De Kunert trace them, his interest was only in the miniatures, for he had virtually ignored the scribe and failed to identify the diarist.

Whether Sanvito kept a journal at any other time is not known. As Wardrop points out it would be unusual to begin the habit so late in life. The original manuscript of the printed diary is however no longer to be found and De Kunert took his own life at Venice in 1933. Unfortunately the printed diary is incomplete and omits much personal detail that it would be fascinating to know, which the editor unfortunately considered irrelevant.

Much however remains and certainly enough to discover something of the character of the man and a few facts about his life.

He was born in Padua in 1435, as we learn from his father's tax return, into a family of provincial gentry possessing some means and sophistication and, although he began work in his teens, was always an amateur rather than a professional scribe. From the style and content of the diary, he was obviously an educated scholar and no mere ignorant copyist and seems to have performed the great variety of scribal work attributed to his canon, solely because he enjoyed the work, rather than for gain and to have been engaged thus for the greater part of a long life, by the standards of that time. Sanvito, though of a social level below that of the nobility, seems to have had sufficient means to pursue, in the best non-pejorative sense, dilettante interests as a collector of manuscripts, artefacts, jewellery, coins, medallions and objets d'art. He was also upon a level of understanding equal to that of contemporary scholars and patrons of the arts, many of whom were his colleagues and friends.

Amongst these contemporaries was Bernado Bembo, one of the most famous architects and antiquaries of his age, a scholar and a proconsul, with whom Sanvito enjoyed a life-long friendship. Bernado was the father of the presently possibly more famous Pietro (cardinal and Greek and classical scholar, who edited Petrarch's Italian poems, published in 1501 and the Terzerime in 1502, both published by Aldus Manutius). Some of the evidence of the Bembo/Sanvito friendship comes from the Zibaldone (or Commonplace book) of Bembo, which is now British Library Additional Ms. 41068, and fills out the picture of Sanvito as a cultivated scholar, perhaps less than unworldly priest and good friend of Bembo. In the Zibaldone, under the inscription: 'Victoria Venetianorum semper constet foeliciter', a translation reads: 'from the book of inscriptions of the Reverend Dominus Bartolomeo Sanvito, my honoured compatriot, on the occasion of the birth of my son, Bartolomeo, who was born at Padua ...' This shows both the regard in which Sanvito was held as a transcriptor of epigraphic inscriptions and that his friendship was dear enough to Bembo for a son, albeit a by-blow, to be named after him.

At least four of the texts transcribed by Sanvito, so far discovered, were made for the elder Bembo and bear his annotations. The Eusebius Royal 14.C3 and the Eton Cicero (both ut supra), a Horace MS 34, at King's College, Cambridge, and a seemingly unnumbered Sallust at Harvard (having previously been in other collections).

Yet to be certainly established is whether Sanvito personally knew Pomponio Leto, an illegitimate son of a great house - the Sanseverino - who was born in 1428 and devoted his whole life passionately to learning, though Sanvito could hardly have been unaware of such a prominent savant. Most eminent in the history of classical scholarship, Leto is understood to have had a profound effect upon the handwriting and book scripts of humanism and his contribution has only comparatively recently begun to be appreciated fully even in Italy.

He founded the Roman Academy about 1460 and bore the odd title – Professor of Humanity - at the Sapienza in 1465 and again in 1473. His influence was powerfully felt in Rome during this period, which is sometimes called 'twilight of humanism', until his death in 1497.

Leto suffered in the attack by Pope Paul II on the Roman humanists in 1467, when he dissolved the Roman Academy and arrested its chief members on a trumped up charge of conspiring against his life. They were held in the Castel Sant' Angelo and all save Leto (we are told by Wardrop) broke down and confessed under torture. They were later released. It would seem to be their paganism to which he principally objected, so perhaps they had to give some assurance of their piety.

It is believed that Sanvito escaped the Sant’ Angelo experience, although he refers in the diary to an arthritis which may have caused the tremolo observed in the Eton Cicero, but it is probably fanciful to suggest a connexion. Even so this disability was initially responsible for doubts as to whether some of his manuscripts were indeed written by the same person, which doubts were only dispelled by discovering the diary entry. In the diary the name which seems most frequently to occur is that of Fra

Giovanni Giocondo, the Veronese architect and epigrapher, and nearly always in respect of inscriptions. His silloge, one of the most important of epigraphic sources, apparently exists in three recensions (or revisions) and in many more manuscript copies. The third recension, subject to constant amendment by the compiler and his associates, belongs to the last decade of the 15th and the first of the 16th centuries and two of the better copies are in England - one at Chatsworth and the other in British Library. These have tacitly been assumed by experts to be in the hand of Giocondo, but, when compared with a proved example of his script in the Vatican Library this is plainly not so. Of the dozen or so copies of Giocondo's siloge examined by Wardrop and Campana it is asserted that every one is wholly or partly the work of Sanvito.

The great Theodor Mommson, historian of Rome, [4]in examining copies of the third recension came near the truth when he observed the presence of another hand, not of a copyist (as he said) but of a scholar and one moreover whose treatment of the Paduan inscriptions showed familiarity with the current state of that city.

It is understood and unsurprising that Sanvito had imitators of whom Wardrop believed that he had identified one for certain. This was Jacopo Aurelia Questenberg cubicularius apostolic and solicitor of briefs, as Wardrop terms him. In the illustration Wardrop provides of an example of Questenberg's hand it is not unlike Sanvito's, but the letters are more widely spaced and the ligatures between c t absurdly exaggerated in several instances, which Sanvito could never have done, although he always used this ligature. It is also more monoline, thicks and thins not being manifest. The exaggerated ligatures are also a feature of Bemado. These are flourishes which are best executed with a certain restraint.

The particularly pleasing characteristics of the Sanvito hand are more easily observed and recognised than defined. It is not a perfect hand - not a writing master's hand, not a professional scribe's. It might perhaps be considered as one in which disciplined control is joined by a relaxed and confident ease. There is no straining after elaboration, nor yet is there excessive plainness. Referring to his italic, some features of it are unusual such as the uncial capital T, with a leftward curling ascender and the inscriptional capital Q, with the long flourished tail. His minuscule q also usually has a curving tail and is like a smaller capital, except in some of the more formal humanistic/italic examples. Such characteristics cry out for imitation, yet Questenberg uses none of them in the example shown. One would like to see more of Questenberg's hand, but in that example the charge of plagiarism is hardly established. The Sanvito italic has, generally speaking, a greater leaning towards a humanistic book hand than what we think of as chancery script. The ascenders and descenders are usually straight and any slight forward inclination tends to be in the body of the letter.

His truly remarkable talent, however, was the skill with which he produced capital letters, rarely so simple to create as minuscules, and to string them together in even lines which one may only envy. This was of course an essential ingredient for inscriptional copying.  

Others have written about Sanvito since Wardrop and only a tragically early death prevented his continued research into the life and work of this fascinating scribe. Alfred Fairbank wrote at least three articles for the Journal on Sanvito [5] [6] [7] (or San Vito as he called him, possibly thinking of the small village near Udine in Italy) and has added a number more manuscripts to the Sanvito canon. The present authority is Albinia de la Mare, whom it may be remembered delivered the 1994 Annual SIH Lecture entitled 'Bartolomeo Sanvito and the Chronicle of Eusebius/Jerome' [8] According to Rachel Bowden writing in The Edge, Summer 1996, [9] Professor de la Mare has recently discovered at least three further manuscripts which can be attributed to this scribe and they continue to come to light. She also gives an earlier date for Sanvito's death, as between June 1511 and March 1512, which may derive from Professor de la Mare's researches. The latter's book on Sanvito, now believed to be nearing completion, will be awaited with some eagerness by at least one prospective reader and doubtless many more.

[1] James Wardrop. Humanistic cursive as a book-hand: Bartolomeo Sanvito. In: James Wardrop. The script of humanism: some aspects of humanistic script, 1460-1560. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963. Ch.2, pp. 19-35.

[2] Silvio De Kunert. Due codici da Girolamo Campagnola? In: Rivista d'arte. Firenza (1930), Torno XII, pp 51-80.

[3] Silvio De Kunert. Un padovano ignoto ed un suo memoriale de' prirni anni del cinquecento (1505-1511). In: Bolletino del Museo Civico di Padova, (1907), Torno X, pp. 1 et seq., 64 et seq.

[4] Theodor Mommsen. The history of Rome; translated by W. P. Dickson. 1920.4 vol.

[5] Alfred Fairbank. Bartolomeo San Vito [sic] . In: Bulletin of the S.I.H. (1961) no.28, pp. 12-13. Reprinted in: Calligraphy and palaeography: essays presented to Alfred Fairbank on his 70th birthday; edited by A. S. Osley. London, Faber, 1963. p.264.

[6] Alfred Fairbank. Bartolomeo San Vito [sic]. In: Journal of S.I.H. (1963), no.37, pp. 14-19. i

[7] Alfred Fairbank. More of San Vito [sic]. In: Journal of the S.I.H. (1965), j no. 42, pp. 6-14. i

[8] John Fricker. The 1994 Annual Society Lecture: 'Bartolomeo Sanvito and the Chronicle of Eusebius/Jerome'; by A. C. de la Mare. In, Journal of the S.I.H. (1995), no. 119, pp. 3-5.

[9] Rachel Bowden. 'Bartolomeo Sanvito': report on a lecture by Albinia de la Mare at CLAS AGM 95. In: The Edge. Journal of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society (1996), vol. 2, issue l, p.14.