Aristotle Rediscovered: Renaissance First Edition at Bonhams NY

image012.pngNEW YORK— Bonhams will sell one of the most beautiful and rare books in the world - a first edition of Aristotle’s De animalibus (On Animals) printed on vellum in Venice in 1476. Only one other copy on vellum of this masterwork of Renaissance printing is known to survive. The whereabouts of this copy were unknown for almost 100 years until it was rediscovered in eastern Tennessee in late 2015. Estimated at U.S. $300,000-500,000 it will be offered in the Fine Books and Manuscripts auction at Bonhams New York on June 8.

“Books like this come up for auction once in a generation; not only is this first edition exceedingly important in the history of thought, but it is also exceedingly beautiful. Few books so perfectly epitomize the Renaissance,” said Director of Books and Manuscripts Christina Geiger.

Milestone in natural history
Aristotle’s De animalibus is the earliest known work of empirical natural history and as such it was a milestone in the development of western thought. Consisting of three texts - De historia animalium; De partibus animalium; De generatione animalium - it contains details of more than 500 species. It was considered the single most important source of zoological information for 2,000 years and is the foundation of our understanding of comparative anatomy and embryology.  Aristotle’s descriptions of the anatomy of sea animals is so accurate that some scholars believe that he had first-hand experience of dissection. 

Commissioned by Pope
De animalibus was the first comprehensive biological text to be printed. This Latin translation by Theodore Gaza, the pre-eminent translator of Aristotle in the Renaissance, was commissioned by Pope Nicholas V, founder of the Vatican Library where an original manuscript is lodged. Nicholas, a leading supporter of humanist thought who provided shelter for many Greek intellectuals such as Gaza fleeing from the Turkish invasion of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), died before the work was completed and the dedicatee of De animalibus is his successor Pope Sixtus IV. 

Originally written in Greek, the text had, over the centuries, been available in translation in mediaeval Latin and Arabic but all copies had to be made painstakingly by hand. The invention of the printing press in Germany, however, made knowledge more widely and easily available and was a major factor in sustaining and promoting the rediscovery of ancient texts. De animalibus was printed in Venice in 1476 by John of Cologne and John of Manthen, part of the German influx of entrepreneurs introducing printing to Italy. The first Venetian press was established in 1469.

Only a handful of deluxe copies of De animalibus were printed on vellum (parchment made from calf skin) and illuminated, of which only one other, held in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, is known still to survive. The current copy has a provenance stretching back to the collection of the 4th Duke of Cassano in the late 18th century before entering distinguished collections in the United Kingdom and subsequently the United States of America.  After it last appeared at auction in 1891, however, its whereabouts have been untraced. It has been in the hands of the current private owners for more than 60 years.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) is regarded as the first true scientist in history. He studied under Plato but later embraced empiricism, believing knowledge to be based on perception. A prolific writer, his influence on Judeo-Christian thought and philosophy was profound and his observations on natural science shaped scholarship until the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment.

De animalibus
An original manuscript translated from Greek to Latin by Theodore Gaza is lodged in the Vatican Library. The text, edited by Ludovico Prodocator, was printed on paper and on vellum in Venice in 1476 by John of Cologne and his business partner John Manthen. Since 1978, only three copies on paper of this edition have appeared at auction. Only two copies on vellum are known: one on the current sale and the one in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

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