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Learning Latin

In Leonardo’s day, the last of Latin’s native speakers had long disappeared. Yet the Latin language still flourished—serving as the official tongue of the Catholic Church, the lingua franca of international scholarship, and the marker of cultural accomplishment that discriminated between the unwashed masses and the educated elite. Learning Latin was therefore a huge industry in Italy, as elsewhere in Europe—and one that Leonardo, much to his chagrin, failed to profit from in his youth.

The typical Latin learner usually began young in school, following a formal curriculum that started with Donatus’s grammar and ended in the original texts of Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, and Sallust. But fortunately for those who, like Leonardo, had missed the opportunity, there was an ever-expanding market in printed language-learning resources to help the autodidact. Leonardo amassed an impressive collection of these books. Along with several editions of Donatus’s grammar (or the Donato, as it was simply called), he owned newer, cutting-edge textbooks by humanist scholars such as Niccolò Perotti (1429–1480) and Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457), as well as a number of vocaboliste, Latin-Italian dictionaries. One, a vocabolista in carta pechora (dictionary in vellum), remains mysterious to us and may have been an unpublished resource. But another, the Vocabulista ecclesiastico latino e vulgare (“Latin-Italian church dictionary”), was hardly unique to his shelf: as advertised by its plucky subtitle, utile e necessario a molti, “useful and essential to many,” it helped not only Leonardo but many another struggling Latin learner to decipher the diction of a language at once immediate and remote.

[Veronica S.-R. Shi]

Aelius Donatus, fl. 320–380

Ars minor

Germany, ca. 1490–1510

Manuscript Collection CODEX M0500 CB

This manuscript of the Ars minor by Aelius Donatus, a fourth-century Roman grammarian, was one of many copies that circulated throughout Europe. Originally composed ca. 350 CE, the Ars minor is a text about the fundamentals of Latin grammar and expression, with a specific focus on the various parts of speech. This Latin grammar was the main primer used by beginning Latin students throughout Europe, making Donatus one of the most important authorities on this subject.

Written in Germany between 1490 and 1510, this specific copy is supplemented with extensive annotations written by its student owner. As can be seen from the page displayed here, the Ars minor is structured in question and answer format between an imaginary teacher and student. However, this manuscript is far from uniform, as the variety in margin size, notes and stray lines makes each page unique.

[Sloane Wilson]

Alexander of Villedieu, 1175–1240

Doctrinale cum commento

Venice: Piero Quarengi, 1504

Rare Book Collection PA2082 .A44 1504

This printed book is based on a Latin grammar, the Doctrinale, originally written by Alexander of Villedieu (1175–1240) in 1199. It consists of twelve chapters, each corresponding to a specific grammatical concept. Alexander also wrote the Alphabetum maius, an encyclopedic work on grammar, the church calendar, and canonical law intended for church functionaries. The Doctrinale appears to be based on this longer work.

This 1504 edition, entitled Doctrinale cum Commento, was printed by Pietro Quarengi (1492–1514) and consists of Villedieu’s original text accompanied by a commentary. Most pages are composed of a smaller section of the main text surrounded by commentary. Leonardo did not learn Latin in his youth and struggled later in life to acquire the language. Such a book, with its in-depth discussion of Latin grammatical concepts, would not only have helped him with the basics of Latin grammar, but also with reading Latin texts.

[Maria Terss]

Priscian, fl. ca. 500.

[Fragment from Institutiones grammaticae].

[13th c.]

Manuscripts Collection M0299

Born in Caesaria Mauretania (now in modern Algeria), Priscian taught in Constantinople. An author of several works, he is best known for his Institutiones grammaticae, a work of eighteen books on the foundations of Latin grammar. Institutiones was cited extensively in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries; it later became the standard work for the teaching of grammar in medieval schools. Some one thousand manuscripts survive, testimony to Priscian’s importance. The oldest of these manuscripts dates from the ninth century; there are fragments of the work older yet. The majority of the manuscripts contain only the first sixteen books of the Institutiones (referred to as Priscianus major). Others are comprised of the seventeenth and eighteenth books only, which cover syntax, while some others include all eighteen. The first printed edition was issued in Venice in 1470; Priscian’s works appeared in more than a dozen editions in the fifteenth century, emblematic of his influence.

In his desire to learn Latin, Leonardo would naturally have turned to Priscian and could have examined Priscian’s text in either manuscript or print—or both. In Manuscript B, Leonardo specifically mentions looking up words in Priscian in the midst of extracting references from or about Quintilian, Pliny, and Varro. The fragment seen here, on vellum, dates to the mid-thirteenth century and was part of a manuscript produced in northern France.

[John Mustain]

Giovanni Bernardo of Savona, ca. 1420–1504

Vocabulista ecclesiastico latino e vulgare: Utile e necessario a molti

Venice: Giovanni Andrea Valvassori, 1539

Rare Book Collection BR96.5 .G56 1539

A self-professed “man lacking letters” (uomo sanza lettere), Leonardo retained only a basic knowledge of Latin. While he is known to have recruited learned friends to help with translations, he also possessed several grammars and dictionaries, including a 1480 edition of the Uocabulista ecclesiastico, (Ecclesiastical Vocabulary). Written by Giovanni Bernardo of Savona (1420–1504), the Uocabulista lists select terms from the Latin New Testament, their Italian definitions, and the relevant Biblical passage. The volume’s organizational clarity and concision make it an excellent didactic tool, and because it is not comprehensive, it is likely the Uocabulista was used as a dictionary for reading more than for translating. One can imagine Leonardo curled over the Uocabulista at his desk – perhaps holding it in one hand while leaning back in his chair or even taking it with him, as its compact size would allow – in a characteristic act of auto-didacticism.

A particularly amusing entry is to be found on page forty-five, where the Latin term rhinoceros is defined as a "very ferocious" horn-nosed animal. The entry then directs the reader to Job 39, where some translations favor "wild ox" and even "unicorn" over a literal translation of the Latin. What would Leonardo have made of this (mis)translation?

[Graylin Harrison]