BALBI, GIOVANNI. ?-c.1298.
Latin manuscript on paper, Catholicon. [Northeast Italy, c.1400.]
247 leaves recto and verso (lacking text at end, else complete), 60 lines, double column, dark brown ink in small gothic bookhands (several scribes), written space 270 x 178 mm, ruled in plummet and in blind, DECORATED INITIALS THROUGHOUT in alternating red and blue with penwork in dark brown and red, many leaves with dozens of initials (as many as 50); plus two LARGE ILLUMINATED INITIALS on f.1r (defective) and f.84r, a 17-line polychrome and gold initial, foliate extension with burnished gold bezants. Period plain wooden boards (clasps lacking) rebacked in 19th century quarter calf preserving original vellum pastedowns and flyleaves. First leaf defective with loss of most of initial and associated text (repaired with old paper), some slight worming at ends, occasional dampstain, some minor fingering and marginal tears (including to f.84), overall in extremely good condition and with four wide margins preserving catchwords and marginalia.
Provenance: Baron Horace de Landau [1824-1903] (bookplate and labels with acquisition no. 1934), Landau was the Italian agent of the Rothschilds' bank in Paris; by descent to Madame Hugo Finaly and Horace Finaly [d.1945] (this manuscript was not in the Landau sales at Sotheby's, 1948-49, though that auction did include a vellum copy of the 1460 printed Catholicon); anonymous owner, Sotheby's, June 18, 1991, lot 105, to Rosenthal.
SUBSTANTIAL MANUSCRIPT OF THE MOST CELEBRATED MEDIEVAL LEXICOGRAPHY, and, after the Bible, one of the first works of its scale to be printed (in 1460, see lot 1020). The first part of the present manuscript (ff.1r-83v) comprises a grammar in four books. The alphabetical dictionary begins on f.84v and ends on f.247 with the definition of "Humilis." The Summa grammaticalis quae vocatur Catholiconknown more simply as the Catholiconwas completed by the Dominican friar Giovanni Balbi (Johannes Balbus) in 1286. Its most immediate source was the Magnae derivations of Hugutio of Pisa (1201), a widely circulated lexicography with an un-alphabetical arrangement that necessitated the creation of alphabetical finding lists that were often copied with the manuscript. In giving the dictionary section of his Catholicon a strict alphabetical order, Balbi became "the first lexicographer to achieve complete alphabetization (from the first to the last letter of each word)" (The Oxford History of English Lexicography p 30). Equally important were the first four sections dealing with orthography, prosody, word derivations and syntax, and figures of speech. Throughout the work, Balbi quotes not only from the Bible and the writings of the saints, but makes abundant use of the Latin classics, making the Catholicon an important early secular work as well. "This work was the main lexical resource during the fourteenth century and for the greater part of the fifteenth. It served Petrarch and the other early Italian humanists, and from the time of its first printing, at Mainz in 1460, until the first years of the sixteenth century, it really had no serious rival. What its users read in it was a universe of thought constructed from words and the boundaries of their use" (Moss Rennaissance Truth and the Latin Language p 16).