Among the library's most treasured holdings are the books dating from the second half of the fifteenth century, when printing with moveable type was in its infancy. A particularly fine representative of the books from this period is a copy of the 1476 edition of Pliny's Historia Naturalis. The longevity and splendid condition of this work reflects the fine craftsmanship of its creators and the great value placed upon it by those who have owned and cared for it over the course of its 526-year lifetime.
Pliny the Elder (ca. 23-79) was an adviser to Roman emperors, a naturalist, and a prolific author, best known for his encyclopedia of natural science. In this work, he explored such topics as astronomy, geography, anthropology, human physiology, and animal and plant biology. Although many of his conclusions were later discredited, this monumental text still offers scholars important insight into the history and culture of ancient Rome.
Following the first printing of Pliny's Natural History in Venice in 1469, there was a renewed interest in his writings across Italy. At least four more editions were printed before 1475, when Filippo Beroaldo prepared a revised text. This edition, and Duke's copy, was published in Parma one year later by Stephanus Corallus. It is folio-sized with 358 unnumbered leaves.
The illustrations and marginalia of the Duke Pliny are of particular interest. The third leaf, which begins his preface, is a spectacular example of Renaissance artistry. Four rectangular panels, each with its own design, encircle the text. In the right border is a miniature portrait of a hooded scholar dressed in red. This image probably represents Petrarch or Dante, though it might also be a tribute to Pliny himself, dressed as a Renaissance scholar.
A total of thirty-seven illuminated letters introduce "books" of the text, with smaller red or blue letters marking the beginning of each chapter. Because two distinct styles of illumination exist within this volume, it is believed that two artists completed the work together. Neither their names nor their workshops are known.
One of the early owners of this copy added a detailed handwritten index with more than 30,000 entries to the end of the volume. The index's author worked from October 1479 to March 1480, according to his own inscribed dates. Along the margins of the text itself are copious notes written in two separate hands. One hand can be identified as that of Palladius, an early owner; the other appears to be the same hand that created the index. The marginalia include quotes from other classical authors as well as a few biblical notations. Some citations are given in Greek, followed by Latin translations. There are also a few personal references to the scholar's family and home city.
Thomas L. Perkins acquired Duke's copy in 1969 and gave it to the William R. Perkins Library, which bears his father's name, as its two-millionth volume. Before finding its way to the university, this particular copy passed through many hands. Thomas Perkins purchased it from an antiquarian book dealer in New York, who had in turn acquired it from a dealer in Milan, Italy. Before this more recent sojourn in Italy, Duke's copy spent the late seventeenth and/or early eighteenth century in a private collection in England. Its present--though not original--binding of red morocco with intricate gold tooling points to English craftsmanship of this period.
Earlier, the volume belonged to an Italian family by the name of "Palladio degli Olivi." Two signatures dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attest to this provenance. The earlier signature, which reads "Ioannis Franciscus Palladii de Olivis i.v.d.," can be seen in the center of the top rectangular panel on leaf three.
The Palladio family probably acquired the volume from the original owner, whose identity is not currently known. The coat of arms in the bottom panel on leaf three is likely that of the first owner. Unfortunately, a later owner painted over this emblem with his own arms. Subsequent recovery efforts have left the original shield indistinct.
November 30, 2002