Introducing the Douce Pliny

One of the last incunables to be digitized for the Polonsky Project is one of the very finest. The first translation of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History into Italian was published by the Strozzi family of Florence in 1476. The edition of 1,025 copies was printed in Venice by Nicolaus Jenson, mostly on paper. Our copy, Arch. G b.6, is one of a few printed on parchment, and was made especially for the edition’s financial underwriter, Filippo Strozzi. It is truly magnificent. 

 

Strozzi commissioned a miniaturist, either Gherardo di Giovanni di Miniato or his brother Monte, to adorn the type with exquisite historiated initials and borders at the start of each of the thirty-seven books, and hundreds of decorated initials within the text. The work, which took four years to complete, is not only beautiful – it had a political purpose. In 1434 Filippo’s father, Matteo Strozzi, had unsuccessfully opposed Cosimo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, and as a result he and his family had been exiled from the city. In their exile they were welcomed by King Ferdinand of Naples, who supported Filippo and his brother Lorenzo until the exile was lifted by Piero de’ Medici in 1466. Filippo’s copy of the Natural History celebrates the return of the Strozzi family to their native city and the restoration of their fortunes; expresses his gratitude to Ferdinand, to whom the edition was dedicated; and affirms the new political accord between the King of Naples and the Medici of Florence which Filippo had brokered. 

 

All this is articulated by the artist on the opening page of the first book. 

 

Arch. G c.6, fol. 5r

 

Within the initial is a traditional author-portrait of Pliny, at his lectern and pointing to an armillary sphere. Halfway down the page, in the left and right borders, are copies of two jewels that were among the prizes of the Medici art collection. In the lower left corner is a portrait of Ferdinand. Facing the king, in the lower right corner, is a portrait of Filippo Strozzi himself, based on a marble bust he had commissioned from Benedetto da Maiano in 1475. Behind Filippo is his young son Alfonso, who had been named after Ferdinand’s father, Alfonso the Magnanimous, and his brother, the Duke of Calabria (who was also the boy’s godfather). The roundel between the two portraits shows the Strozzi coat of arms: three silver crescents on a red band in a gold field. The bird perched on the shield, a falcon, is a play on the family name – strozziere is Italian for falcon. The flowers and the cherubs, and the fact that the falcon is shedding its old feathers, all signify renewal. On either side of the roundel are images of the Strozzi emblem, a lamb lying in a field with the motto ‘Mitis Esto’ (‘Be gentle’). 

 

The Italian translation was commissioned for fifty large gold coins from another prominent Florentine, Cristoforo Landino, and on the first page of the book we see Landino in front of the Duomo of Florence, holding his great work. 

 

Arch. G b.6, fol. 1r

 

Bodleian Digital Library Systems and Services has published a Twitter tour of the Douce Pliny's historiated initials, or you can explore the initials yourself by clicking on the links below:

 

fol. 5r fol. 233v
fol. 21r fol. 246v
fol. 41r fol. 257v
fol. 49v fol. 267r
fol. 57v fol. 275v
fol. 67r fol. 285v
fol. 79v fol. 295r
fol. 93v fol. 303v
fol. 108r fol. 311r
fol. 119v fol. 326r
fol. 132v fol. 334r
fol. 148v fol. 342v
fol. 156r fol. 350v
fol. 163r fol. 358v
fol. 170r fol. 368v
fol. 177v fol. 378r
fol. 190v fol. 390v
fol. 205r fol. 402v
fol. 224r