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Renaissance and Revelation

Renaissance literally means rebirth. Sixteenth-century figures such as the painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari employed the term rinascita to characterize the recovery of classical arts and letters between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the period also evinced concern for rebirth of a spiritual and moral nature.

Leonardo’s library held several works of Christian theology and devotion, not to mention the vernacular Italian Bible translated by Niccolò Malermi and printed in Venice in 1490. It is difficult to say how Leonardo used these books, but we know that he enjoyed illustrated works. For example, the Latin Bible selected for this exhibition was identically illustrated with the hundreds of woodcuts used for the Malermi bible. The printing presses of Italy produced vast amounts of devotional literature: sermons, biblical commentaries, and guidebooks to the Christian life like the fourteenth-century Fiore di virtù, whose allegories delighted many Renaissance readers, including Leonardo. Neoplatonist philosophers, astrologers, and preachers of a prophetic bent were all keen to read the book of scripture and the book of nature for providential insight regarding politics, the local economy, and personal matters.

As the Renaissance progressed into the sixteenth century, the perception of a decadent and immoral church and the sense of a need for reform continued to trouble many in Italy. While his own views remain enigmatic, Leonardo was fascinated with the organic nature of the soul, leaving the explanation of its spiritual qualities to the friars. Leonardo’s library serves as a window on this Renaissance dialogue of Christianity and culture, responding in respective ways to the enduring question, “But where shall wisdom be found?”

[J. G. Amato]

Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo, 354–430

De civitate Dei

Venice: Nicolas Jenson, 1475

Rare Book Collection KA1475 .A94 F CB

Gift of Albert M. Bender

This artfully printed book is a copy of the famous work De civitate Dei, written by one of the most influential philosophers and theologians of Western Christian thought: Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo. It was printed with gothic type in 1475 in Venice by the well-known French printer Nicolas Jenson. Its text survives in hundreds of manuscript copies and in more than twenty printed editions in the fifteenth century alone.

“In the earthly city, then, we find two features, one pointing to its own presence, the other serving by its presence to signify the heavenly city” (Augustine, City of God). These words probably stood out for Leonardo. Augustine encourages the “earthly city” to become a reflection of a heavenly one.

The concept of a “godly city” comes from the “New Jerusalem” mentioned in the book of Ezekiel but appearing in Revelation as the “Heavenly Jerusalem.” Revelation describes an idealized city with pure waters: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1). Leonardo, too, emphasizes the role of water in providing a healthy city—he writes: “One needs a fast flowing river to avoid the corrupt air produced by stagnation, and this will also be useful for regularly cleansing the city” (Manuscript B, 38r). It is possible that reading Augustine with his imperfect Latin provided philosophical stimulation for Leonardo’s urban planning designs compiled in Manuscript B.

[Maria Terss]

Biblia cum tabula nuper impressa [et] cum summariis noviter editis

Venice: Simon Bevilaqua, 1498

Rare Book Collection KA1498 .B5 CB

The Latin Vulgate bible (although not a part of Leonardo’s personal library) was a pervasive component of Renaissance culture. This copy of the Vulgate was printed by Simon Bevilaqua (active 1485–1518) in Venice in 1498. It features a double-column format and is notable for its illustrations printed from woodblocks: the same blocks that were used to illustrate the Italian Malermi Bible (a translation that was a component of Leonardo’s library). The woodcuts used to illustrate both of these books were designed by artists known as the Rimini Ovid Master and the Pico Master. Included among these illustrations are detailed depictions of the day of creation, as well as Solomon’s Dream, depicting King David’s son in a deep sleep.

While many Protestant editions of the Bible omit the apocryphal books, the Vulgate includes them. The Bible served as much more than a book of faith for Renaissance scholars; it was also favored as an object of study for humanists of the period. Even more so for artists, the Bible was the book that informed much of their artistic work. Paintings were often commissioned for churches or otherwise dealt with religious themes, and Leonardo himself was notable for his ability to bring biblical scenes to life, allowing textual scenes to be visualized in full color. The Bible is deeply ingrained in the Renaissance, from architecture to art, theology, and philosophy. Leonardo expressed a great deal of biblical imagery in his work.

[Akim Richards]

Antonio Brucioli, 1495–1566, translator

La Biblia

Venice: Lucantonio Giunta, 1532

Rare Book Collection BS254 1532 F

Born in Florence, Antonio Brucioli received a thorough humanist education. He was a notable scholar, theologian, and publisher. After a failed conspiracy against the Medici, Brucioli fled to Venice and France. Perhaps inspired by the Lutheran thinkers he met on his travels, Brucioli dedicated his life to translating classical and Christian texts into the common vernacular of the Italian language. Beginning with the New Testament and following with this complete Bible, he later tackled works by Pliny and Cicero; his translations circulated throughout Italy.

The vernacular Bible allowed individuals without a high level of formal education, like Leonardo, to read, examine, and meditate on the word of God on their own. The stunning woodcut illustrations throughout the book of Revelation suggest that the text is directly addressed to the imaginative and the visually inclined.

While Leonardo could not have owned this particular edition of the vernacular Bible, which was published after his death, it is likely that he had a similar text in his library since he includes a bibia on his list of books around 1495–1497. Leonardo probably owned a Malermi Bible—an Italian translation published by Niccolò Malermi in 1471. Given Leonardo’s lifelong struggle to read and understand Latin, we can see the appeal of the Malermi Bible for his library. Having access to the sacred texts in his native Italian would have helped Leonardo read the Bible with ease. Leonardo’s own apocalyptic drawings late in life may have been inspired in part by access to an illustrated Bible.

[Polly Capps]