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Seminar on the History of the Book: Martin McLaughlin, “From Cosimo Bartoli to James Leoni: translating and illustrating Alberti”, 18 February 2011

by on February 21, 2011

Engraving of a design for a triumphal arch, from James Leoni's 1726 English translation of Alberti's De re aedificatoria. The inscription on the arch alludes to the 1725 Treaty of Hanover signed by George I. (The Warden and Fellows, All Souls College, Oxford)

The fifth in the 2011 series of the Oxford Seminar on the History of the Book marked the birthday of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), on 18 February, with a presentation by Professor Martin McLaughlin on the subject of “From Cosimo Bartoli to James Leoni: translating and illustrating Alberti”.

The humanist and polymath Leon Battista Alberti was a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from architecture to cryptography, as well as of literary works in both Latin and Italian. Significantly for those interested in the history of the book, he is also responsible for perhaps the first known reference to the emerging technology of printing, in his De cyfris of ca. 1466. The session focused specifically on his treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria, and particularly on subsequent translations of it into other languages, notably those by Cosimo Bartoli and James Leoni.

De re aedificatoria was written in Latin sometime around 1452, in imitation of Vitruvius, and published for the first time in Florence in 1486, with subsequent Latin editions published in Paris in 1512 and in Strasbourg in 1541. It was probably expected to be read by learned patrons and antiquaries rather than used by practising architects. Although manuscript translations of the work into Italian were probably available from a fairly early stage, the first printed Italian translation, by Pietro Lauro of Siena, did not appear until 1546. Lauro’s translation was, however, almost immediately eclipsed by a clearer and more accurate version by Cosimo Bartoli, printed in Florence in 1550. Bartoli’s translation remained the only Italian version of De re aedificatoria for over 400 years, and was almost certainly an influence on Palladio, who was a friend of Bartoli’s. Bartoli’s edition was the first to divide the work into clearly titled chapters, and also the first to include illustrations. Bartoli was at great pains to use the best available text for his translation, and indeed claims, in his dedicatory letter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, to have been almost driven to give up the enterprise altogether because of the difficulty of finding a reliable Latin text to work on, and because of the numerous errors in all the available versions. He used the 1541 Strasbourg edition, which was probably the best available text at the time.

The first English edition of De re aedificatoria was printed in London in 1726, and consists of Bartoli’s Italian translation printed in parallel with a translation of it into English by Giacomo, or James, Leoni. This is a significantly more lavish affair than the 1550 edition, and includes illustrations, some of them pull-outs, engraved by Bernard Picart, after Leoni’s own drawings. These are clearly inspired by the woodcut illustrations to Bartoli’s Italian translation, with each of the original woodcuts having a corresponding engraving. Although the translation is generally attributed to Leoni, it is in fact unlikely that he had sufficient English to have made the translation on his own, and it is more likely the work of an uncredited team of translators. That Leoni and his team were working from Bartoli’s Italian version rather than from the Latin original is evidenced by a number of places where errors or misreadings found in Bartoli are unquestioningly followed by Leoni, and specific examples of these were considered, as well as some instances of mistranslations that appear to be entirely Leoni’s own work.

Some further examples were considered where Leoni appears to have adapted his translation to the English audience for whom he was writing; for example, a passage concerning tarantulas includes, in Leoni’s translation, the explanatory phrase “a small earth spider, commonly called a tarantula”, which does not appear either in the Latin original or in Bartoli’s Italian translation, both of which were written for an audience who could be expected to know what a tarantula was. A visual equivalent of this ‘domesticating’ strategy is seen in Leoni’s illustration of a triumphal arch: where Bartoli had shown an arch dedicated to his patron archduke Cosimo, Leoni’s arch (pictured) is dedicated to ‘Great Britain, Who Holds the Fate of Europe in Equal Balance’, an allusion to the 1725 Treaty of Hanover signed by George I.

Although much of the session did focus on these errors and mistranslations, these are in fact comparatively rare examples, and both Bartoli and Leoni’s translations show a high degree of accuracy. The popularity of both is demonstrated by the frequency with which they were reprinted after their original publication, with Bartoli’s translation reprinted twice in 1565, and Leoni’s reprinted in 1739 and 1755. Bartoli and Leoni in their different ways were responsible for keeping Alberti’s name alive in the centuries before the great revival of the humanist’s fame which began with Burckhardt’s well-known verbal portrait of Alberti in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).

A final discussion considering issues such as the translation of Alberti into other languages was followed by an opportunity to look at examples – from the Codrington Library at All Souls College – of some of the editions considered.

from Martha Repp

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