2015 February: Ranuccio Farnese’s Aldine.

Caesar’s Commentaries in Sixteenth-Century Italy.


Among the many Aldines at the Worth Library is a 1519 edition of the Commentaries of Julius Caesar, first published by Aldus Manutius in 1513 and re-issued by Andrea Torresani in 1519. Unlike many of Edward Worth’s Aldines, this is bound in a contemporary sixteenth-century binding, in this case gold-tooled brown goat.


Farnese front cover

Image: front cover.


As can be seen here, stylistically it has much in common with the bindings emanating from Venice and Bologna in the early to mid sixteenth century. What makes this particular volume unique is the inscription on the back which gives us the information that this edition of Caesar’s Commentaries was the property of Ranuccio Farnese. Farnese was a name with which to conjure in sixteenth-century Italy. The rise of Alessandro Farnese (1468-1549) to the papacy as Pope Paul III (elected 1534), ensured that his family became a significant faction in early modern Italian politics. As Pope, Paul III sought to stem the rise of the protestant reformation and, at the same time, reform the Roman Catholic Church by calling a Council at Trent. His family’s rise to power is nowhere more apparent than in the magnificent Palazzo Farnese, built by Paul III in Rome, which now houses the French embassy there.


Farnese back cover

Farnese back cover.


But who was Ranuccio Farnese? The influential Italian family included several family members by that name but it was unlikely to be the property of the Pope’s great-great-grandson, Ranuccio I, Duke of Parma, Piacenza and Castro (1569-1622) as the style of the binding is too early. There are, in fact, only two possible contenders in the far flung Farnese family tree: a) Ranuccio (1509-1529), the son of Alessandro Farnese and Silvia Ruffini, born before his father became pope; or b) Paul III’s grandson, Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese (1530-1565). The fact that the elder Ranuccio would have been ten years old when the text was printed does not exclude him from ownership because Caesar’s Commentaries was regarded as useful reading matter for children. Equally, his nephew Cardinal Ranuccio could have been given it as a child. From the point of view of subject matter, it could have belonged to either of them.


The style of the binding gives us some clues. The arabesque decoration on the covers is very reminiscent of Bolognese/Venetian binding in the period 1520s to 1540s. Mirjam Foot draws attention to a similar binding, tooled in either Venice or Bologna c 1520-1530 in volume III of The Henry Davis Gift: this binding, on a copy of Cicero’s Orationum volumen primum, like Worth’s binding, is in dark brown goatskin over paste boards, was sewn on three alum-tawed supports and has dark stained edges. It too has the exact same arabesque panel, though with one difference: the panel on the Worth copy of Caesar’s commentaries is a filled-in version of the arabesque Cicero panel which is tooled in outline only. There are other differences: the Cicero covers have added arabesques and on the lower cover a bust portrait of a poet, crowned with a laurel. Despite this the similarities are striking. Another link between the two bindings is the fact that both texts, Worth’s Aldine edition of Caesar’s Commentaries and the edition of Cicero’s Orations were both published by the Aldine press in 1519.


Can we then conclude that Worth’s Aldine edition of Caesar’s Commentaries was tooled in the 1520s, thus making it likely that its initial owner was the elder Ranuccio? The existence of another version of the arabesque panel complicates matters: Mirjam Foot (2010) draws attention to a binding from Bologna in the period c. 1540: it too has the familiar arabesque panel (this time filled in like the Worth copy), and the text, Sophocles’ Tragoediae septem cum commentaries was also printed by the Aldine press – in this case in August 1502. There are, however, differences here too: the arabesque rolls continue beyond the oval form on both the Caesar and Cicero volumes and the colour of the cover is red, rather than brown goatskin. In addition, the use of an epigraphic ivy leaf tool at the head and tail of the spine of the Worth binding suggests a Venetian link, where, as Nuvoloni (2000) notes, the tool may be found on the official bindings of the ‘Commisioni Dogali’.


The most likely answer to our problem is that the book was originally purchased and tooled for the elder Ranuccio. Following his untimely death in 1529, it seems more than likely that the work would have been given to his namesake nephew, Cardinal Ranuccio, who is perhaps best known today for his depiction, aged 12, by Titian, in his ceremonial robes as a Prior of the Knights of Malta. Three years later, at the tender age of fifteen, his grandfather created him Cardinal of Santa Lucia in Sicily and by 1546 he had become titular Latin Patriarch of Constantinople.


Though perhaps not a patron of the arts on the same scale as his elder brother, ‘Il Gran Cardinale’, Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, Cardinal Ranuccio also provided support for scholars. A dedication to him by Federico Commandino of the latter’s edition of the works of Archimedes, published by the Aldine press in 1558, is also present in the Worth Library. How Ranuccio Farnese’s copy of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries reached Dublin is unknown. Certainly it was not listed in the inventory of Farnese printed books under-taken in 1653 as listed by François Fossier.[1]


Farnese map of Gaul

Map of Gaul.


The Farnese copy of Caesar’s Commentaries and the works of Archimedes dedicated to Cardinal Ranuccio Farnese, share something else: unusually for Aldines, particularly early Aldines, they are both illustrated. Ranuccio’s copy of the Commentaries includes woodcut maps of both Gaul and Spain and also woodcuts of military fortifications at various cities. Aldus deliberately draws attention to these in the title of the work which not only notes their presence but also the addition of a useful listing of place names.


Farnese Massilia

Fortifications of Massilia.


In this image we see the fortifications of Massilia (modern day Marseille). Massilia had played an important role in Caesar’s civil wars: in April 49 BC Caesar’s legatus, Gaius Trebonius, had laid siege to it while Caesar was en route to subdue the Roman province of Hispania. Having won the naval battle at Massilia, Trebonius and Caesar were eventually victorious and the city fell on 6 September 49 BC. The text doesn’t just cover Caesar’s Gallic wars but also his campaigns en route to power.


Farnese Aldine device no 6

Aldine Device no. 6.


The production of the 1519 Aldine edition of Caesar’s Commentaries took some time. Present in the text are two colophons: the first is dated to the month of January 1518 and the second to November 1519. It is not clear why there was such a delay, for beyond the addition of a map of Spain, there was little difference between Aldus’ 1513 edition and this edition. However, while both bore the Aldine printer’s device Ahmanson-Murphy A2, the device had changed between 1513 and 1519, and thus Worth’s copy has a combination of Aldine device no 2 and Aldine device no 6, compared to the 1513 use of Aldine device no 2 and no 5. For more information about Aldine printing devices please see the online exhibition Aldines at the Worth Library.


Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.




The Aldine Press. Catalogue of the Ahmanson-Murphy Collection of Books by or relating to the press in the Library of the University of California, Los Angeles incorporating works recorded elsewhere (University of California Press, 2001).

Le Palais Farnèse (Rome: 1981), vol 1,2 texte.

Foot, Mirjam (2010), The Henry Davis Gift: A Collection of Bindings Vol III (New Castle, Delaware and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library).

Hobson, Anthony and Culot, Paul (1991), Italian and French 16th-Century Book bindings. La Reliure en Italie et en France au XVIe Siecle (Bibliotheca Wittockiana).

Hobson, Anthony (1992), Humanists and Book binders. The Origins and Diffusion of the Humanistic Book binding 1459-1559 with a Census of Historiated Plaquette and Medallion Bindings of the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press).

Nuvoloni, Laura (2000), ‘Commissioni Dogali: Venetian bookbindings in the British Library’, in Pearson, David (ed.) ‘For the Love of the Binding’. Studies in bookbinding history presented to Mirjam Foot’ (The British Library and Oak Knoll Press), pp 81-110.

Quondam, Amadeo (1978), Le Corti Farnesiane di Parma e Piacenza 1545-1622. II. Forme e Istituzioni della produzione culturale (Roma : Bulzoni).

[1] Le Palais Farnèse (Rome: 1981), vol 1,2 texte, pp. 414-424.

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