The Theatre of a Renaissance Book


Why is Pietro Bongo so fat? (Part 1)

I am currently working on a translation of the Numerorum Mysteria by Petrus Bungus or Pietro Bongo.  If anyone knows of one already existing, please tell me and spare me the effort.  I am no expert on Bongo, or Renaissance literature in general, although Bongo seems so rarely visited now, that the act of opening the book makes you some sort of specialist.  I am working from the Georg Olms edition of the 1599 printing with introduction by Ulrich Ernst, 1983.  This contains a German biography and history of the text by Ernst.  Otherwise, to look up Pierto Bongo, I would start with the Italian Treccani entry here;

Numerorum Mysteria 1591

A Bergamasque scholar, Bongo’s Numerorum Mysteria is a synthetic work, bringing together Classical texts, Mediaeval Church writings and recent scholarship of his own time to provide an extended commentary, in Latin, on the mystical significance of numbers, especially the numbers one, two and three.  Neglected now, it was apparently very important in its day.  the first Bergamo printing of 1591 was followed by another in 1599, a posthumous reprinting in 1614, and Paris printings in 1617 and 1618, or so I understand.  To me, not a specialist in Renaissance publishing, the obvious question is WHY?  Or rather, not so much why was the treatise published, but why did anyone offer to compositors, given the cost and effort involved in setting up the pages, something so immense and overstuffed with almost unreadable apparatus.

In short, the 676 pages of the text are sandwiched between a hundred pages of introductory material, and two hundred of Appendix and Index, much of it in what appears excruciatingly small and dense print.  The Index at the end is usable although not at all economical, and for the reader with extremely high powered lenses, the Appendices presumably add to the general sum of knowledge.  I am more interested in the massive conglomeration of introductory material, which make it physically hard to find the start of the treatise.

So what does it contain?  First after the title page is the imprimatur – the authorisation by the Catholic Church.  This is clearly necessary, and the coat of arms of the Madruzzo family which follows is both decorative and practical; Cardinal Luigi Madruzzo was the dedicatee.  Then follow six pages of Latin verse by various scholars in praise of the author, a five page dedication to the Cardinal, then another 14 pages of Latin verse encomia.  Pagination is almost non-existent, making all of this more difficult to use.  Then we come to the author’s address ad benevolum lectorem (a moderate 4 pages), followed by a 12 page guide to Roman numeration.   After this, and still unaccompanied by pagination, begins the index of works cited (excluding the Bible).  This is merely a list of names and takes 6 pages, before we reach the list of Biblical citations, a mammoth 50 pages including its own appendix.    Only after this does the pagination of the book proper begin, with the Preface.

Even if authors today dared to begin their academic works with twenty pages of  poetry in praise of their own achievements, they would find themselves short of publishers and readers, even in the indulgent age of desk top publishing.  But in 1599, the preference for this grandiose scale of production impresses me with its opulence.  The time required, the difficulty of the type-setting, the sheer volume of valuable materials in use are magnified in a way which suggests a preference for increasing cost.  Does the sheer opulence of a volume guarantee its scholarship?  Does the lavish nature of the volume reflect directly on the ambitions of the patron?  Would it diminish the Cardinal to be associated with a work that was less than lavish?  Should the work look bigger, better, more expensive than its rivals to guarantee the status of author and patron alike?

These sound like rhetorical questions, but in fact they are actual questions which I am asking myself as I read.  I find it very pleasing to consider the possibility of graphing the relative wealth and ambition of Renaissance prelates by weighing the books dedicated to them.  I have no opportunity to weigh the 1599 printing, although I would love to try, but, for reference, the Georg Ulms edition weighs 1.2 kg or 2lb 10oz, which I take to be a creditable effort by Cardinal Madruzzo, weighing in for Bergamo.

But I don’t think this is entirely a joke.  In Part 2, I am going to look more seriously at the content of the ‘extra’ material and ask how its components function within the work.  I’m going to suggest that what we think of as academic utility is strongly balanced with a theatrical impulse to set the author’s main treatise in a frame which signifies its worth through means other than the merit of its contents.   I am going to look at the function of the frame as a guide to approaching the work, and consider how the elements of the frame combine to satisfy very familiar expectations on the part of the author and the reader in a very Renaissance way.

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