Venetian decoration

Opening leaf from Summa universae theologiae – Pars III (The sum of all theology - part 3) by Alexander de Ales, printed by Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen in Venice in 1475 (408 x 282 mm)

Venetian books were in general larger, better laid out, and better printed on better paper than those from elsewhere. Thanks to the city’s extensive trading links Venetian printers could offer their products more cheaply than others. So it’s no surprise that the city became a mecca both for printers and for booksellers.

The first Venetian press was set up by brothers Johannes and Vindelinus de Spira (‘from Speyer’ – a Rhineland city) in 1469. Johannes died early and his widow remarried, to another German, Johannes de Colonia (‘from Cologne’). He, with yet another Johannes as partner, Johannes Manthen, resuscitated the ailing press and published some 80 editions between 1474 and 1480. This leaf comes from one of them.

In common with most books of the 1470s, this one had no separate title-page, so my leaf is the first an owner would see on opening his new copy of Alexander de Ales’ Summa universae theologiae once it returned from whoever had been commissioned to draw decorative initials in the gaps left by the printers. The only indication of what the book is appears in the top three lines of the left-hand column, which translate (I think) as ‘The third part of Summa by the divine Alexander of Hales, irrefragable [irrefutible] Parisian Doctor and most observant Franciscan. Calling on the name of Christ, it begins.’

The splendid initial ‘T’ has been painted in red and blue and infilled with a scrolling design on a blue background. It is surrounded with the finest of ornamental penwork in purple ink, which extends right down the left-hand margin. Other initials have been inserted in red and blue, and the numerous red initial strokes and underlinings in the text are unusually neatly executed. Clearly this was not just anybody’s copy.

Alexander of Hales was an Englishman who took his name from his birthplace, Halesowen in Worcestershire. He spent most of his life in Paris where he held the chair of theology at the university until his death in 1245. His Summa, from which this leaf comes, was a wide-ranging commentary on another theological work, Peter Lombard’s Third Book of Sentences. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Hales' work is a ‘milestone of Latin theology’. But his near-contemporary and fellow Franciscan, Roger Bacon, was less impressed, writing of the Summa that ‘it weighs more than a horse and was made by other people’.

For this mediaeval work of theology Colonia and Manthen used a compact and tidy gothic font in two-column format. Classical texts, with authors from ancient Greece or Roman, required a different approach – as the next leaf shows.