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In the Margins: Humanist Scholars on Pliny in Print

Clare Woods

Duke University

As one of the first "scientific" texts to receive a print edition (Sarton, 1938), Pliny the Elder's Natural History looms large not only literally - most incunabula editions are weighty folio volumes - but as monuments in the history of print. More pertinently for this paper, Pliny's text loomed large as a proving ground for humanists to showcase their philological expertise (Davies, 1995; Fera, 1995; Monfasani, 1988; Nauert, 1980). The numerous early editions name for the most part the humanist scholars who contributed to the text they present. But to focus on Plinian scholarship as a print phenomenon captures only part of the work being done on Pliny's text in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. An awful lot of thinking about Pliny's text happened quietly, perhaps privately, in notes and comments jotted in the margins of the early printed editions. This paper draws on the evidence of several annotated Pliny volumes in the British Library and at Duke University to highlight the variety of ways in which humanists interacted with Pliny's text, and to reveal the intellectual circles of one such annotator.

Pliny's Natural History, in Pliny's own presentation, is an assemblage of facts - 20,000 according to Pliny (but see Kroll, 1951). The "table of contents" that Pliny himself provided as the first book in the work, breaks his material down into broad themes. As any user of the text can confirm, however, discovering exactly and completely what Pliny has to say about any given thing (be it cabbages, mollusks, or antidotes to snakebite) is a time-consuming project, even with the help of a full modern index. For humanists eager to glean from Pliny information about ancient geography, art history, zoology and so forth, the challenge arguably lay as much in navigating the text as in correcting and understanding it. One need only survey examples from the first decades of Pliny in print to see how successive printed editions offered increasingly more user-friendly reading experiences (Doody, 2010). Landmarks to note in this regard include the publication of an index to Pliny by Joannes Camers in 1514, and the decision taken by some printers to offer the work in smaller volumes.

But in addition to the run of incunabula and early printed editions containing Pliny's text - 15 separate editions before 1500 (Sabbadini, 1900), twice as many again before 1550 - a variety of printed prefaces, letters, and commentaries were published, often as standalone pamphlets or treatises (Nauert, 1980). Their narratives of scholarly claims and counterclaims attest to bitter rivalries between humanists who staked their reputations and careers on giving the world the most accurate Natural History possible.

An even more intimate view of humanists’ engagement with Pliny’s text, however, can be gained by sampling glosses and marginal notes that demonstrate a high level of scholarly engagement with the Natural History. These show that printed volumes of Pliny were an important venue for many humanists to gather evidence and develop ideas as they vied with each other to produce ever better versions of the text. Despite the scholarship on display in these marginalia, annotated copies of the Natural History have received very little attention, and few if any of the annotators have ever been identified (for an exception see Davies, 1995; Fera, 1995). Working from the marginal notes in an incunable volume of the Natural History now owned by Duke University - a copy of the edition prepared by Filippo Beroaldo and printed in Parma by Stephanus Corallus in 1476 (for preliminary description see Meyvaert, 1971) - this paper reconstructs the Duke annotator's intellectual context to argue that he was active within the circle of the Roman humanist, teacher, and classical scholar Domizio Calderini. Further work on humanist annotations in the many printed editions where we find them promises to bring our understanding of Renaissance scholarly circles into clearer focus.

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