On the trail of a mysterious Renaissance manuscript

Dr Gabor Gelleri is a Visiting Research Fellow at Marsh’s Library. Here, he tells us about the hunt for a lost Hungarian manuscript, and a connection with Marsh’s Library.

Marsh’s Library holds a copy of a rare printed catalogue of the library of a famous French collector of books and manuscripts, Paul Petau (1568-1614). The catalogue belonged to Elias Bouhéreau, the first Keeper of Marsh’s, and on the first of its 16 pages, he left a lengthy note concerning the circumstances in which he obtained it.

The note explains that the catalogue is a list of those manuscripts remaining in 1650 after Paul’s son Alexandre sold most of his collection to Christina, Queen of Sweden. Bouhéreau records that he was given this catalogue in 1683 by André, a grandson of Paul Petau.

Paul Petau was recognized as one of the main book and manuscript collectors of his time. He had over 2000 rare items, from a wide variety of sources: many of these are now prime items in collections across the world. Oddly, there is no surviving full catalogue of this extremely famous collection.

The Petau catalogue in Marsh’s Library was published by the family around 1672, when they hoped to sell the remaining 277 items in the collection. The fate of some of the items is known, but twenty-odd pieces are at the BNF in Paris, and about eighty in the library of Geneva. Unfortunately, scholars have lost track of a number of important items.

Among these “lost” items is one that is lesser known, but is important in terms of Renaissance scholarship.

Item no. 274 is listed as Ianus Pannonicus de expugnata Parthenope. The author was Janus Pannonius (1434-1472), who is widely recognized as the first Hungarian poet of importance. This item in the Petau catalogue must be an until now unknown version of his early laudatory poem, De laudibus Renati Siciliae regis libri duo (Ferrara, 1452).

The importance of this manuscript in the Petau catalogue is two-fold. This poem had previously been attributed to Janus Pannonius solely on circumstantial evidence and stylistic features. This is the very first time that his name and the item are mentioned together. Also, the catalogue gives a different title: a title that might very well have been the original of the poem, while the version De laudibus… could have been a subtitle or a short description of the item.

Unfortunately, Elie Bouhéreau did not elaborate, in this note or in his diary, on his meeting with André Petau. He did not mention a possible visit to the Petau collection, and as far as we know, he did not purchase any of these rare manuscripts. The “hunt” for this important manuscript is still ongoing. Thus far we have only been able to uncover where it is not…




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