Ms Typ 329


Ms. Typ 329, f. 43r, Polistorio (Polyhistoria), Northern Italy, late fourteenth century

Written in 1383, the Polistorio is a world chronicle that focuses on the city of Rome. Sometimes, if erroneously, attributed to the Dominican, Bartolomeo da Ferrara, the work in fact was written by a Benedictine, Niccolò of Ferrara. Only five copies, none of them complete, are known. Of these, Harvard's is the earliest, perhaps even made during the lifetime of the dedicatee and original recipient, Niccolò Il Marchese d'Este (1338-1388). The Este arms, with a rampant lion, feature prominently in the headpiece atop the manuscript's first folio, where they are combined with the eagle of Francesco Gonzaga (1366-1407), as well as in the lower margin.

Given the early date of Harvard's copy, and the character of its decoration, which indicates an origin in northern Italy in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, one can speculate whether the manuscript represents a presentation copy, commissioned by the Marquis d'Este as a gift to the Gonzagas of nearby Mantua. The Polistorio is also notable for its extraordinarily elaborate apparatus, consisting of long alphabetical lists of names and chapters. Lists and indices of this sort, inventions of the thirteenth century, previously had largely been reserved for theological works in Latin, not for historical chronicles in the vernacular. Like many medieval historical chronicles, the full book opened with an account of the Creation of the world. Book II summarized biblical history. Book III, as presented in MS Typ 329 , opens with an account of the First Punic War and runs to the Principiate of Octavian. Book IV covers a longer period extending from the reign of Augustus until the war between the Conte di Romagna and Ricardo di Manfredi da Faenza (1324-1373), i.e., to the death of Pope Innocent and the election of Urban V (1310-1370), who restored the papal court to Rome. Of the extant copies, only one other (Glasgow, Ms. Hunter 41 [T.1.9], dated ca. 1450 and written for the Strozzi of Ferrara, is lavishly illuminated. It contains only Books III-IV. A copy in Venice (Biblioteca del Museo Correr, Ms. Correr 766), dated 1481, contains only Book I. Yet another late fifteenth-century copy (Beinecke Library, Yale University, Marston Ms. 31) also comes from northern Italy; written in Venice ca. 1470-80, it was illuminated there in the workshop of the Master of the Putti, most likely for presentation to Niccolò Marcello, elected Doge in 1473. The last known copy (Beinecke Library, Yale University, Ms .1142), contains only Books I-II and was made for Niccolò Rangoni of Bologna ca. 1479.

Like many world chronicles written in the later Middle Ages, the complete Polistorio traces modern events back to ancient origins, most often, to the creation of the world. Most often, the real focus remained modernity. To judge from the small number of manuscripts that have survived, most copyists simply passed over or omitted the scriptural preamble, thereby modernizing the work and making of it something closer to what we would expect from an historical work. Never printed and never edited, the Polistorio remains something of a mystery. Critical to any consideration of its origins would be a study of courtly and monastic contexts in which was written, for example, the relationship of the recipient to the Papacy at the time of the Schism.

The initial at the opening of Book III displays a copyist at work, with one copy placed above the other on his writing desk. This initial must be counted an idealized representation of copying in so far as the scribe copies into a bound book, rather than writing on loose bifolia that only later would have been gathered together (hence the term "gatherings," or quires), then bound.