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Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Letters of Angelo Poliziano
Printed on paper; brown blind-stamped calf binding with inlaid panels from earlier sixteenth-century armorial binding, with (on front board) Saints Claude, Barbara, Katherine and John the Evangelist in four compartments, and (on back board) the Tudor Royal Arms flanked by a dragon and a greyhound; bookplate of Queen Victoria inside front board.
Politian (Angelo Ambrogini, known as Politian or Poliziano) was one of the foremost Italian humanist scholars of the fifteenth century. Educated in both Latin and Greek from an early age, he was taken up by Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-92) and made tutor to his children. He was noted for his poetry in both Latin and Italian, and his classical scholarship was in the best humanist tradition of textual purity, which led him always to seek out the earliest manuscripts in the original language that were available to him. His letters frequently followed the classical model of such authors as Cicero; they were not only private correspondence, but letters intended to be read by a more public audience, and designed to demonstrate his erudition and eloquence. Politian was in the process of preparing the corpus of his letters for publication when he died in 1494; the first edition appeared posthumously, published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1498, followed by later editions, based on Aldus’s own, from other printing houses both inside and outside Italy as late as the mid-seventeenth century. Erasmus was one of Politian’s early non-Italian readers, and derived several of his 'adagia' (or adages) from the letters to add to his collection (at the time of his death he had accumulated over 4,000 of them).
Holbein’s design for the title page of Politian’s letters was first made for a 1520 edition of the 'New Testament', edited by Erasmus and published by Andreas Cratander (active 1518-36). Cratander was originally from Strasbourg, and started in Basel as a proofreader for the printer Adam Petri (1454-1527), but later set up as a printer of humanist and classical texts, and some of the early works of Martin Luther. The woodblock was probably cut by Hans Herman, a German block cutter active in Basel from about 1516. Holbein’s design features two children flanking an old man in the centre top, and two children and two dolphins flanking Cratander’s printer’s mark - a naked woman with streaming hair set on a shield, to represent 'Occasio' or Opportunity. The vertical frame was made out of architectural features, with further figures on the central brackets: an animal on the left and a satyr playing the bagpipes on the right.
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011.