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Christian Works : De dominica Passione

Mombrizio, Bonino, 1424?-1482?

Christian Works

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This Latin poem on the Passion of Christ is modelled on Virgilian epic poetry and one of the most interesting examples of humanistic religious poetry. It was dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484) by the Milanese humanist Bonino Mombrizio (1424-after 1478). In his literary works Mombrizio depicted himself as a poor and lonely scholar who dedicated his life to poetry. In truth, documentary evidence shows that he was also a lawyer and a bureaucrat with a well-paid position in the public administration, and the father of four daughters. He was also a respected intellectual who counted the renown Milanese humanist Pier Candido Decembrio (d. 1477) among his personal friends and enjoyed close contacts with the cultural and social élite of Milan. Most of his works were dedicated to members of the Sforza family, rulers of Milan, or members of their court, including the powerful ducal secretary Cicco Simonetta (1410-1480), to whom he dedicated his major work, the <i>Sanctuarium seu Vitae sanctorum</i>, a large collection of lives of 326 saints drawn from earlier manuscript sources. The dedication of the <i>De dominica passione</i> to Pope Sixtus IV suggests an attempt on the part of Mombrizio to establish close ties with Rome as well. The manuscript of the dedication copy sent by him to the Pope is still conserved in the Vatican Library (MS. Ottob. lat. 826).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Documents in Milano archives also prove that Mombrizio had an interest in, and was actively involved in, the printing industry. He was the editor and corrector of a number of classical Latin and Greek texts, including the famous edition of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s <i>Chronicon</i> by Philippus de Lavagna. This work has traditionally been dated to around 1474-1475, but may possibly be the first book printed in Milan, if the earlier dating to around 1468-1469 proposed by some scholars could be proved correct. From 1476, Mombrizio was also the financial partner of the printer Domenico Giliberti da Vespolate. It is not surprising, therefore, that around 1474 he wanted <i>De dominica passione</i> published by Antonio Zarotto (fl. 1471-1507), one of the earliest and most accomplished printers operating in Milan in the incunable period. With a catalogue of 204 editions of works spanning from literature, to religion and music printed between 1471 and 1500, he was also the most prolific. Zarotto’s editions are renowned for their typographical quality and elegance. Probably in homage to its classical sources, the typeface chosen for the printing of Mombrizio’s poem was the Roman font based on the script used by the Italian humanists for the transcription of the Latin classics, rather than the Gothic typeface that was traditionally employed for religious texts both in manuscripts and in print.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>According to the tradition of epic poetry, the passion is divided in six parts, or books. As was common practise among the Italian printers in the 1470s, Zarotto left blank spaces at the beginning of each book for the insertion of hand-decorated initials. In the present copy, the initial on the first page (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>leaf [a2] recto, i.e. fol. 2 recto</a>) is executed in gold leaf against a four-square ground of blue, green and red, with delicate white tracery. The decoration extends into the margin with graceful foliate and floral sprays of green, red and pink, interspersed with golden bezants for added preciousness. The decoration of the page is completed by paragraph marks in alternating red and blue at the beginning of the distiches of the poem dedicated to the Pope. The initials of the subsequent five books are also coloured in red or blue, as was fashionable in both manuscripts and printed books at the time (see <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(12);return false;'>leaves [a3] verso, i.e. fol. 3 verso</a>, and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(55);return false;'>[d1] recto, i.e. fol. 25 recto</a>). The artist responsible for the decoration of the first page is unknown, but his style is in line with that of illuminators operating in Milan, which suggests a Milanese provenance for the first owner of the book.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The Cambridge University Library copy is one of twenty-nine extant copies of the edition, as listed in the <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Incunabula Short Title Catalogue</a>, the international database of 15th-century European printing created by the British Library with contributions from institutions worldwide.</p>

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