Renaissance Best Sellers

Leonardo’s taste in reading material was not confined to his cerebral interests; it also reflected general reading habits in the Renaissance. He liked to tell jokes and bawdy tales, so of course he read them. Love sonnets, epic poems, romances, and popular histories also were of interest. Some portion of Leonardo’s library contained the books that everyone was reading in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Bartolomeo Platina’s popular Renaissance cookbook, the first book on this subject to be printed, is a good example of this kind of best seller. Leonardo was interested in the effects of diet and food on the human body; his criticisms of the needless slaughter of animals for human consumption have inspired speculation about whether he was a vegetarian. He acquired Platina’s De honesta voluptate, the first printed cookbook, in Milan and brought it to Florence.

Leonardo probably did not care much about world history, even though he possessed a copy of Giacomo Filippo Foresti’s Supplementum chronicarum (1483), which he may have acquired from one of the Augustianian monasteries in Milan that served as Foresti’s book distribution network. It was a highly informative book, yet one wonders if Leonardo preferred looking at the images to reading the text. Visual appeal and humor likely inspired Leonardo’s acquisition of Sebastian Brandt’s wildly popular Ship of Fools. Brandt mercilessly lampooned the folly of humanity, starting with the bibliomaniac who possessed books he neither read nor understood, and ending with a dark warning to printers who published without anticipating the consequence that hell awaited them. This book was a perfect synthesis of words and images.

[Paula Findlen]

Sebastian Brandt, 1458–1521

Navis stultifere

Paris: Josse Badius for Enguilbert & Geoffroy de Marnef, 1513

Rare Book Collection PA8462 .B15 N3 1513

One of the best-known satires of the views and abuses of the church is Sebastian Brandt’s Das Narrenschiff (here in Latin translation), which first appeared in Basel in 1494 and was almost immediately reprinted and translated into Latin, French, and English, expanding its sphere of influence. Since there was no Italian edition of the Ship of Fools then available, Leonardo would have owned either a Latin or a French version.

The Narrenschiff was recognized for its stunning woodcut illustrations, some of them by the Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer, whose technique improved later, when he became a master printmaker and a skilled engraver. Brandt’s book is an allegory about a ship controlled by fools sailing toward Narragonia, the fabled country of fools. The most famous leaf contains two woodcuts, “The Teaching of Wisdom” and “Stroking a Fallow Stallion.” “The Teaching of Wisdom” shows fools and wise men reacting to a sermon, while “Stroking a Fallow Stallion” illustrates a horse trampling a fool who feigned respect, suggesting the fate of those who contrive flattery.

While Leonardo created primarily religious works of art, since the Roman Catholic Church was the greatest institutional patron of his era and a source of many artistic and architectural commissions, his personal views about the institutional church remain hard to discern. He did occasionally voice his criticisms, suggesting that he would have been a sympathetic reader of Brandt’s work. Did Navis stultifere make its way into Leonardo’s library because of his love of jokes and satire as well as a humanistic view of faith?

[Meagan Wu]

Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as “Platina,” 1421–1481

De honesta voluptate ac valetudine

Venice: Joannes Tacuinis de Tridino, 1517

Rare Book Collection TX711 .P55 1517

Platina’s De honesta voluptate ac valetudine (On Right Pleasure and Good Health), composed during the 1460s and published in Rome in the early 1470s, was among the books in Leonardo’s library. While Leonardo’s edition predates the displayed volume by some thirty years, numerous reprints of Platina’s work, the first printed Renaissance cookbook, testify to its immense popularity.

Platina’s nomadic tendencies and his aptitude for befriending the powerful and erudite echo Leonardo’s own career. Born to an impoverished family near Cremona, Platina began as a mercenary under the duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. In 1457, Platina arrived in Florence to further his humanist education, setting in motion his future career as a scholar and humanist. Five years later, his friend and former pupil, Francesco Gonzaga, became a cardinal, and Platina followed him to Rome, where he rose to become Vatican librarian under Sixtus IV. At this time he began writing De honesta voluptate, inspired by Martino da Como’s Libro de arte coquinaria, which he possessed in manuscript. Platina’s volume deals with gastronomy, providing information on specific foodstuffs, guidelines for preparation and consumption, and notes for healthful living more generally. This copy of the 1517 Venetian edition of Platina is enriched with bountiful marginalia. On one page, a Renaissance reader has annotated a page dedicated to sausage with a large and inky “subressate”—a Latin version of the word soppressata—and notes on its preparation. It is a delicacy that many contemporary readers surely enjoyed—though perhaps not Leonardo, if there is any truth to his alleged vegetarianism.

[Graylin Harrison]

Giacomo Filippo Foresti da Bergamo, 1434–1520

Supplementum chronicarum

Venice: Bernardino Rizzo, 1493

Rare Book Collection KA1492 .J25 F BB

Born to a noble family in Bergamo (northern Italy), Giacomo Foresti entered the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine around 1451 and remained in their convent most of his life, devoted to writing, scholarship, and faith. The Supplementum chronicarum was his most ambitious and impactful work—a kind of universal history attempting to bring together knowledge from disparate sources, times, and traditions. Proceeding year by year rather than providing a narrative account of history, the Supplementum continues the medieval tradition of the world chronicle with updated contemporary humanist touches, such as the use of ancient sources and the inclusion of viri illustres, the biographies of illustrious men.

First printed in 1483 in Venice, the Supplementum went through various editions and expansions. A 1493 edition was printed in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger—the same year and printer as Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, which draws extensively on Foresti’s work. Illustrated with woodcuts of biblical scenes and European cities, the Supplementum nonetheless aspired to be global in scope. It was the first chronicle to give biographies of Arabic scholars—establishing a trend for later sources—and in particular emphasizes Arabic achievements in medical science. On leaf 189r, for example, the philosopher Averroes (1126–1198) is praised for his “beautiful book” (liber pulcher) on medicine, the Colliget. Leonardo may have found this book an interesting work of reference, despite his limited Latin, but also would have looked closely at the evolution of cityscapes, given his work as a cartographer depicting Milan and possibly considering the idea of mapping Rome like Alberti.

[Nicholas Fenech]