Biblioteca Ambrosiana, E 24 inf.
(Historia naturalis)


Produced: Italy, ca. 1389
Current Location: Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy
Manuscript Type: Encyclopedia
Language: Latin
Folios: 361
Author: Pliny the Elder
Illustrated: Yes
Illustrator: Fra Pietro da Pavia
Scribe: Armandus de Alemannia
Media: Parchment
Dimensions: Height: 39 cm Width: 27 cm
Folio 22r


A copy of the Historia naturalis by Pliny the Elder. There are some animal illustrations in the decorated intials.

[From Armstrong, 1983]

...a sumptuously decorated Pliny illuminated by Fra Pietro da Pavia in 1389 for Pasquino Capelli, secretary to Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. To date this manuscript has been the single known late medieval copy of the Historia naturalis with a series of initials and marginal decorations related to the text. ... The Ambrosiana Pliny also holds an important position in the study of the iconographic cycle developed for the Historia naturalis. Some of its miniatures show the continuity of a visual tradition in Italy from the Bolognese Pliny of about 1300 [Madrid, Biblioteca Real de San Lorenzo del Escorial, MS R.I.5] to the Pliny illuminated by Cristoforo Cortese about 1425 [Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, MS Parm. 1278 (H. H. 1.62)]. Other innovative miniatures which subsequently become a regular part of the cycle reveal a shift from the depiction of a natural phenomenon itself to the activity associated with the plant or animal described by Pliny. Finally, several of its images provide evidence that the French Pliny of about 1410 now in Turin [Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, MSS 1.1.24-1.1.25] must have depended on an Italian prototype.

The closest analogies between the images in the Ambrosiana Pliny by Pietro da Pavia and those in the Bolognese Pliny in the Escorial occur in the botanical and medical books. The trees in the initials of Books XIII, XVI and XVII, and those in the margin at the beginning of Book XV resemble those of Books XIII to XVII and Book XXIII of the Escorial Pliny. The oak tree is among the first species discussed by Pliny in Book XVI on forest trees, and Pietro da Pavia emphasizes the distinctive shapes of oak leaves and acorns in the single spreading tree of his miniature for this book.

The herbalists and physicians of Books XXII, XXIII, XXIV and XXVI also resemble their counterparts in the Escorial Pliny. The herbalist of Book XXII in the Ambrosiana Pliny sits holding up a plant complete with roots in a pose reminiscent of the earlier Pliny. The similarities between these images suggest that for these books Pietro da Pavia had available as a model an earlier illustrated Pliny manuscript like the Bolognese one.

Nine of the books in the Ambrosiana Pliny have only decorative motifs in the initials, and four others have significant images primarily in the margins, such as the birds of Book X and the insects of Book XI. This absence of historiated initials and the heterogeneous placement of other motifs suggest that the model from which Pietro da Pavia was working was incomplete.

The initials in the Ambrosiana Pliny which show activities associated with subjects, rather than the plant or animal itself, are among the most powerful compositions in the manuscript, and may be considered innovations by Pietro da Pavia himself. Included in this group are a man fishing for Book IX on sea creatures; a wine steward for Book XIV on the vintage; a man sowing grain and a woman carding for the agricultural Books XVIII and a miner digging gold at the beginning of Book XXXIII on precious metals; the monk Pietro da Pavia illuminating a manuscript for Book XXXV on painting; and a stone worker attacking a slab of marble with mallet and chisel in the initial of Book XXXVI.

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Biblioteca Ambrosiana