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les Enluminures

AESOP, Vita Aesopi [Life of Aesop in the Latin translation of Rinuccio Aretino from the Greek]

In Latin, illuminated manuscript on parchment
[Italy, likely Ferrara, c. 1465-75]

TM 75

39 folios plus 2 paper flyleaves, complete (i-iv8, v8-1 [last leaf canceled]), horizontal catchwords, written in a neat humanist script on 22 long lines, lightly ruled in pale brown ink (justification 117 x 75 mm.), in brown ink, many contemporary notes in the margin, some signaling passages, others picking out words in the text (esp. ff. 14v-15), some corrections (e.g., f. 18v), some words in Greek, on f. 1 an illuminated initial Q in goldleaf with intertwining white vine decoration on red, blue, and green grounds filled with white dots, extending into the upper and side margins, in the lower margin a shield enclosed in a laurel wreath and illuminated with gold besants, blue, and purple flowers finely inscribed in brown penwork, in excellent clean condition with wide margins. Bound in early nineteenth-century vellum over paste-board, ornamental gilt border on covers, marble pastedowns and endleaves, spine gilt in compartments “AESOP/ VITA” “XIII.S” [sic]. Dimensions 178 x 122 mm.

Rare unrecorded copy of the Latin prose translation of Aesop’s Vita by Rinuccio Aretino, an Italian humanist scholar. Rinuccio’s translation exists in only seven manuscripts, including the present copy, which is both one of the earliest and most deluxe, certainly predating the first printed edition of 1474. Finely written and carefully illuminated, it was made by artists working at the Ferrarese court for a humanist patron. Its scattered contemporary marginalia warrant further study.


1. Likely made in the region of Ferrara because of the ornamental decoration on the frontispiece, which closely compares with that of illuminators working in the entourage of Gugleilmo Giraldi, responsible for the Bible of the Certosa of san Cristoforo and active c. 1475. The manuscript was surely made on commission for the still-unidentified family whose coat-of-arms appears in the lower border.


ff. 1-39r, rubric, Incipit Vita Esopi; incipit, “Qui per omnem vitam vite studiosissimus fuit;” explicit, “... qui moris esopi auctores fuerunt. FINIS.”

This finely written life of Aesop is the Latin prose version by the Italian humanist Rinuccio Aretino (c. 1395-1450), translated from the Greek version of the Byzantine scholar Maximus Planudes (c. 1260-1330). In printed versions Rinuccio’s translation of the Vita is usually found with the Fabulae. It was first published by Antonius Zarotus in Milan in 1474 six years before the publication by Bonus Accursius, c. 1480, which included the Greek along with the Latin text. Concluding with a scribal flourish “Finis” on a recto, followed by a blank verso, the present copy is unusual in that it appears to be an integral, independent transcription of the Vita without the Fabulae.

The Vita of Aesop, the legendary slave born about 620 B.C., is preserved in manuscript versions from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. Professor Perry discovered that the earliest complete extant manuscript, a tenth-century Greek codex (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS 397), correlates with a papyrus fragment of the second century A.D. now in Berlin. Although the Vita was believed to be a creation of Maximus Planudes, it is now thought by scholars such as Perry that the Vita existed essentially in its current form as early as the second century A.D. and that it was probably compiled using anecdotes dating as far back as the fifth century B.C., possibly by a Greek-speaking Egyptian. This early dating gives the work an immense significance in the history of literature as the author has not only compiled fictional anecdotes, which include a number of fables, but has brought to the Vita a distinct literary style through his descriptive touches and dialogue. The translator of the Morgan Library Vita, L. W. Daly, concludes that the extant versions of the text are “of unique importance in the history of prose fiction. Greek literature, which is so rich in myth and other forms of the storyteller’s art, knows nothing comparable to them.”

Rinuccio’s account narrates Aesop’s life, literary activity, and death as follows. Born a slave in ancient Greece, Aesop served successively two masters in Samos, Xanthus and Jadmon. As a reward for his learning, Jadmon made him a freeman. Subsequently Aesop traveled widely, and he eventually settled in Sardis, the capital of Lydia, at the court of King Croesus. He undertook at the command of Croesus various ambassadorial missions, during which he often narrated his fables to reconcile the citizens of different Greek cities. Sent to Delphi by Croesus to distribute a large sum of money to its inhabitants, Aesop became so incensed by their covetousness that he refused to hand out the money and instead returned it to his master. Enraged by this act, the Delphians had him executed as a public criminal. Until they made public retribution for the unjust execution, the Delphians met with a series of mysterious disasters. A statue by Lysippus, one of the famous Greek sculptors, was erected in Aesop’s memory in Athens.

Manuscripts of Rinuccio’s translation of the Vita are exceedingly rare. De Ricci records two in North American collections: University of Illinois, manuscript on paper (see Census, p. 699, no. 5) and one in the Robert Garrett Collection, now Princeton University Library, also on paper (see Census,, p. 884, no. 101). To these should be added a manuscript in Yale University Beinecke Library, MS 611, also on paper, acquired from Laurence Witten, his Catalogue no. 8, 1978, item 1. In Principio records only three additional copies in European libraries: Escorial, Real Bibl. De S. Lorenzo, MS O III 26; Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS R.I.39; and Vatican, MS Ottob. Lat. 1490. Transcribed on paper, most of these are modest exemplars; the present manuscript, finely written and illuminated, is one of the few deluxe copies to survive.


The initial Q is close in style to the production described as dating from the time of Ercole I, in particular to no. 42, a “Historia Imperiale, c. 1471-75, attributed to an anonymous Ferrarese miniaturist (see Mariani Canova, in Toniolo, 1998, pp. 229-31) and the slightly later no. 43, Vespasiano Strozzi’s Eroticon, c. 1487-1505 (ibid., pp. 231-32). At the bottom of the page the laurel enclosing the still-unidentified coat-of-arms compares with the work of Gugleilmo Giraldi, as in nos. 37 and 30, both from c. 1475 (pp. 214-16 and 218-20). Gugleilmo Giraldi is considered one of the protagonists of Ferrarese illumination, responsible for illuminating manuscripts for the Certosa di san Cristoforo of Ferrara, in particular a Bible dated c. 1469-71 (see ibid., no. 31).


Daly, L. W. Aesop without Morals, New York, 1961.

Mariani Canova, G. "La miniatura a Ferrara," in La miniatura a Ferrara dal tempo di Cosmè Tura all'eredità di Ercole de' Roberti, ed. F. Toniolo, Modena, Franco Cosimo Panini,1998.

Perry, Ben Edwin. Aesopica, vol. I, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1952.

Online resources

Life and Fables of Aesop

Online collection of Aesop’s Fables with many links

Description of the Pierpont Morgan Library Vita (MS M.397)