A Little-Known Manuscript Dated 1471, made for Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara

by Peter Kidd, Wood Institute travel grantee*

Baptista Massa de Argenta, De fructibus vescendis, 1471, Call number 10a 189


In early November 2014 I spent a stimulating morning looking at the medieval manuscripts belonging to the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. One that particularly caught my interest is a small volume of 80 leaves, each about 155×115mm (6”×4½”), whose main content is a treatise in 27 chapters on edible fruits, from figs and grapes to pumpkins and capers. It was an appropriate acquisition for the College because it discusses each fruit under various headings, giving their general medical and other properties, and their effect on various parts of the body.

The first page opens with a dedication to Ercole d’Este (1431–1505), Duke of Ferrara, by the author, Baptista Massa of Argenta (south-east of Ferrara), and in the lower margin one of Ercole’s emblems, a diamond ring with a carnation:


The same emblem appears on coins issued during Ercole’s reign:



Having a particular interest in provenance research, I naturally wondered if the book might have belonged to Ercole himself, and a second visit to Philadelphia in August 2015, with a Wood Institute Travel Grant, allowed me to investigate further.

I often try to trace a book’s early provenance by working backwards in time from the present. Inside the front cover of the binding the College of Physicians bookplate, stamped “JAN 15 1912”, records that is was “Presented by G. E. de Schweinitz, M.D.” (1858–1938): he was President of the College from 1910 to 1913.



Inside the back cover is inserted a typescript description of the manuscript from Maggs Bros., the (still active) London book-dealers, on the reverse of which is penciled the date “Nov. 29 1911”; this is therefore doubtless the source from which Schweinitz bought it.



Thanks to Google Books we can discover where Maggs obtained it: it was offered in 1911 by the Florentine book-dealer Tammaro de Marinis, in his Catalogue XI: Manuscrits, autographes, incunables, livres rares, no.62:



The ownership by Bernardino Baldi (presumably the famous mathematician, who lived 1553–1617), recorded by de Marinis, is revealed by his signature on what was probably originally the first page of the book, but is now bound near the end of the volume:



An early inscription appears to record the price that Baldi or a previous owner paid, in Genoese currency: “Costa L i – 8 – 0 / di moneta di Genova”:



So much for the later provenance; what about the manuscript’s origins?

Two main texts occupy all but a few pages of the volume. The first is the treatise on edible fruits, of which we have seen the first page above; it ends with a date: “.1471. DIE: Xa IVNII” (10 June, 1471):



The next text is much shorter: it is a short treatise on how to make barley water, in the form of a letter to Pietro da Trani, and ends with date “15 Junii 1471”: apparently the scribe finished writing it five days after finishing the treatise on edible fruits:



The only modern edition of the main text is “De fructibus vescendis” di Battista Massa da Argenta ([Ferrara], 1989), edited by Marcella Marighelli. She was unaware of the manuscript in Philadelphia, and knew of only one other, now in Ferrara (Biblioteca comunale Ariostea, MS Cl.I 340). The Ferrara manuscript contains the same two main works as the Philadelphia volume, but dated 1472, and one extra text, concerning poisonous fruits, also dedicated to Ercole d’Este, dated 1473. It therefore seems certain that the author wrote the Philadelphia manuscript first, in 1471, and then made the expanded Ferrara version in the following two years.

What is particularly interesting about this, is that there is a very rare printed edition of the work, and the dates in the two manuscripts seems to prove that the printed edition was based on the text of the Philadelphia manuscript, because it copies the passage above, with the date 15 June 1471:




“… Die xv. Iunii.

¶ M.cccc. Lxxi. ¶ Finis:”.



Confirming the dependence of the printed edition on the text of the Philadelphia manuscript, the printed edition omits the extra text on poisonous fruits that is present in the Ferrara manuscript.

The date of the printed edition is unknown; it is the work of an anonymous Venetian printer, known as the “Printer of Ausonius”, referring to an edition of the works of Decimus Magnus Ausonius, printed in 1472. The fact that the printer apparently used the text of the Philadelphia manuscript, written in 1471, rather than the text of the Ferrara manuscript, with its extra text on poisonous fruits, written in 1472–73, suggests that the printed edition can be dated to 1471–72.

A conundrum is that although the Philadelphia manuscript is dedicated to Ercole as Duke, the manuscript is dated June 1471, yet Ercole did not become Duke until the death of his brother Borso in August 1471. Perhaps Baptista Massa composed the text in June 1471, and then made a fair copy of it a few months later, with an added dedication to Ercole, as a way of trying to gain favor with the new ruler?

If this is correct, then it would be tempting to assume that the printed edition was based on June 1471 copy, rather than the slightly later copy made for Ercole. But the printed edition has exactly the same dedication to Ercole as the Philadelphia manuscript:


Apart from the Philadelphia and Ferrara copies, no other manuscript of the text is known to exist. Presumably there was no need to make further manuscripts, once a printed edition was available. If these are the only two copies that were ever made (apart from the June 1471 original, which must have lacked the dedication to Ercole as Duke), then the Philadelphia manuscript must be the one on which the printed edition is based. But it is unclear how a manuscript owned by Ercole d’Este in Ferrara would have been available to a printer in Venice, unless Ercole himself was so pleased with the book that he wanted it printed.

Clearly there are many interesting avenues of research still to explore, and I hope that my catalogue description of this and the nine other medieval manuscripts at the College of Physicians, and their imminent digitisation, will motivate readers to explore the collection more closely.


*Peter Kidd is a Freelance Researcher.  He does research, mainly on medieval manuscripts, for auction-houses and dealers, private collectors, and non-profit organisations such as the National Trust and Bodleian Library.  He received an F.C. Wood Institute Travel Grant from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in August 2015.

2 thoughts on “A Little-Known Manuscript Dated 1471, made for Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara

  • August 8, 2016 at 04:24

    Dear Peter,
    Thank you very much for this interesting post. As an incunabulist, I am particularly intrigued by the question of the relationship of the mss. and the printed edition (which is catalogued in the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke as GW M21516, , cf. http://gesamtkatalogderwiegendrucke.de/docs/M21516.htm). One question you haven’t addressed in the text but which I’m wondering about: Is it possible that the Philadelphia ms. is perhaps not the model for the printed edition (which I think is quite unlikely), but rather a ms copy of it? A copy of the printed book can easily have traveled from Venice to Ferrara very quickly. The subject of “manuscripts copied from printed books” in the 15th and later centuries is fairly well-known, but still quite understudied; perhaps this is another – and very interesting – example.
    Thanks again! Best wishes, Falk

    Dr. Falk Eisermann
    Referatsleiter / Director
    Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
    Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke / Union Catalogue of Incunabula
    Berlin, Germany

  • August 30, 2016 at 13:13

    Dear Falk,

    Thank you for this interesting suggestion. You may be correct, but I would suggest the following in favour of my proposal:

    — There must presumably have been a dedication manuscript of the text; the Philadelphia copy is far more luxurious than the one in Ferrara, and is the only one that includes the d’Este emblem.

    — Whatever the date of the edition, it must have been typeset from a manuscript exemplar: either the exemplar is lost, or it could be the Philadelphia manuscript.

    — But most compelling, there are a number of small differences between the MS and the incunable, which make me think that the latter was copied from the former, rather than vice versa. For example, the main treatise starts in the manuscript with 27 numbered chapters, ending with the 10 June 1471 date (fols.1r-70r), followed by the “Tracatus de modi confitiendi ordeaceam” (fols.70v-76r), which is unnumbered and treated as a separate work, with a heading referring to Pietro da Trani and Borso d’Este, and ending with the 15 June date. The printed edition, by contrast, omits the 10 June date and treats the last section as chapter 28 (even though it has the same Pietro-Borso heading). It seems to me more likely that the printer elided the two works and omitted the 10 June date, than that the scribe separated the two works and inserted the 10 June date.

    If you would like me to send you more pictures of the manuscript, so that you can make comparisons for yourself, I would be happy to.

    Best wishes,


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