Venice: Lazzaro Soardi, 14 August, 1511.
Folio: 31 x 21 cm. 228, 89 lvs. Collation: a10, A-Z8, a-d10; AA10, BB-LL8 (-blank leaf LL8)
THE FIRST FULLY-ILLUSTRATED EDITION OF PLAUTUS.
Bound in contemporary calf over wooden boards with ornate, ruled and tooled in blind (leather worn and restored and rebacked, lacking clasps.) Contents overall very good. First few leaves dusty and with discreet repairs to leading margin, with some very slight loss to border, light damp-staining to lower margin of some signatures, a few small ink spots, oil stain in outer margins from gatherings O to V, sometimes entering the text, and again to the final leaves, scattered contemporary notes and numerous short passages highlighted with ink wash by a 16th c. reader. Leaf K7 with burn mark in margin, not affecting text, old repair to tear in text on Y8 with no loss of text. Three tiny wormholes in blank upper margin of final three leaves. 16th c inscription “Petrus Marquis(?)” dated 1556.
This edition is furnished with an extraordinary set of Renaissance illustrations: There are 317 small woodcut scenes showing actors on the Renaissance stage acting in Plautus’ comedies, including a North African character in the play “Poenulus” (see below), a rare and striking example of a person of color depicted on stage in the early 16th c.
With the celebrated architectural woodcut title page border first used for the Malermi Bible of 1493 (with ornamental bucrania, acanthus leaves, grotesques, and tritons and nereids cavorting in its lower register) and the famous, full-page depiction of the Renaissance theater, with audience members seated on curved, tiered seating (and two children climbing up the rear pillars to get a view). Our view is from the rear of the stage, behind the actor, whose back is towards us. A second actor steps into view from behind a curtain. This illustration, first used in the 1497 Soardi edition of Terence, was considered by Essling one of the most beautiful of the period, on par with those of the “Hypnerotomachia”, “parmi les plus belles illustrations de cette époque, sans excepter même celles du Songe de Poliphile”. The image ultimately derives from the Grüninger Terence of 1496.
The edition is of prime importance for the 317 woodcut theatrical scenes that illustrate the plays. These woodcuts, in which the actors, show in costume, inhabit a variety of settings, provide us with a remarkable visual record of the Renaissance stage. The figures are identified by name in woodcut scrolling banners at the head of the images.
“The comic playwright Plautus authored his fabulae palliatae for the stage between c.205 and 184 B.C. His works have the distinction of being the earliest Latin works to have survived complete. Varro drew up a list of 21 plays which were generally agreed to be by Plautus, and doubtless they are the 21 transmitted in our manuscripts.
“The plays are nearly all either known or assumed to be adaptations of (Greek) New Comedy, with plots portraying love affairs, confusion of identity and misunderstandings. Plautus adapted his models with considerable freedom and wrote plays that are in several respects different from anything we know of New Comedy. The musical element is much increased. The roles of stock characters such as the parasite seem to have been much expanded. Consistency of characterization and plot development are sacrificed for the sake of an immediate effect. The humor resides less in the irony of the situation than in jokes and puns. There are ‘metatheatrical’ references to the audience and to the progress of the play, or explicit reminders that the play is set in Greece. Above all, there is a constant display of verbal fireworks, with alliteration, wordplays, unexpected personifications, and riddling expressions (e.g. Mercator (‘The Businessman’) 361, ‘My father's a fly: you can't keep anything secret from him, he's always buzzing around’). Both the style of humor and the presentation of stock characters may well have been influenced by the Atellana, but the verbal brilliance is Plautus' own…
“Plautus' plays continued to be performed with success at Rome at least until the time of Horace, and they were read by later generations. The earliest surviving manuscript is the 6th-cent. ‘Ambrosian palimpsest’. Plautus was well known in Renaissance Italy, particularly after the rediscovery of twelve plays in a manuscript found in Germany in 1429, and his plays were performed and imitated all over Europe until the seventeenth century, and more sporadically thereafter. Terence was more widely read in schools, but both contributed to the development of the European comic tradition.”(Brown, Plautus, Oxford Classical Dictionary).
Sander 5748 . Mortimer 387. Essling 1724.