PLAUTINE PLAYS FROM THE LIBRARY OF AN ENGLISH PLAYWRIGHT

Plautinae viginti comediae emendatissimae cum accuratissima ac luculentissima interpraetatione doctissimorum virorum Petri Vallae Placentini ac et Bernardi Saraceni Veneti.

Venice, Simone Bevilacqua for Marco Firmiano, 17 September 1499.

2 parts in 1, folio, ff. [92]; [256]; occasional lines of Greek text, capital spaces with guide letters, woodcut device of Bevilacqua to F3r; marginal adhesions to m2r, small loss to fore-edge of y1 and y2, not affecting text, two small holes to last leaf, some light marginal damp staining particularly to last few leaves, occasional marks; overall very good in seventeenth-century English calf with initials ‘H.G.’ in gilt to covers, rebacked in the nineteenth century and later rejointed, eighteenth-century gilt-lettered red morocco spine label, combed marbled paper endpapers; some losses and splitting to spine, wear to corners and edges, and abrasions to covers; inscriptions at head of title ‘Caroli Bernard’ and ‘Geo: Etherege 1658’ (crossed through), a very few early marginal notes, occasional early manicules, diacritical marks in red ink to the text of various plays, twentieth-century private collector bookplate to front pastedown.

£12500

Approximately:
US $15177€14787

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A most interesting copy of this incunable edition of the plays of Plautus, formerly in the library of the noted English playwright and diplomat Sir George Etherege (1636–1692) – being his earliest known acquisition – and later passing into the ownership of the surgeon Charles Bernard (1652–1710).

Published at Venice by Simone Bevilacqua (c. 1450–1518), a native of Pavia who later worked at Lyons, this is the seventh incunable edition of Plautus’s comedies recorded on ISTC, following the editio princeps of 1472, but the first with the commentaries of Giampietro Valla and Bernardo Saraceni.

The volume contains a couple of marginal notes in an elegant hand by a sixteenth-century reader, notably a remark to f6r dismissing a comment by Valla as ‘ridicula sane interpretatio et inepta’. The text of several of the comedies is curiously marked in red ink with short vertical and horizontal dashes, perhaps intended to assist with reading aloud, recital, or performance. The plays so marked are Amphitryon, Aulularia, Captivi, Curculio, Casina, Mostellaria, Menaechmi, Miles gloriosus, Pseudolus, and Truculentus.

The earliest identifiable owner is the boisterous Restoration playwright Sir George Etherege (1636–1692), whose distinctive signature (verified against his signed letters in BL Add MS 41837) appears, crossed through, at the head of the titlepage. Author of the plays The Comical Revenge (1664), She wou’d if she cou’d (1668), and The Man of Mode (1676, his most successful work), Etherege ‘set the pattern for the comedy of manners that was to reach such a high level in the work of Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar’ (Cambridge Guide to English Literature). He was a diplomat too, serving James II as British resident at Regensburg in Bavaria from 1685 to 1689, his letters thence to friends, written when very bored, being ‘among the best of the period’ (ibid.).

Nothing is known of Etherege’s book collecting before his time in Regensburg, for which a list of around 65 titles survives in the British Library (transcribed and edited by Peter Beal for The Library in 2002; see Book Owners Online). Bearing his ownership inscription dated 1658, this volume is hence the earliest book known to be in Etherege’s possession, inscribed by him at the age of twenty-two, six years before his first play, in the year of the death of his grandfather, a prosperous London vintner. It is extremely satisfying to find an incunable edition of Plautus’s comedies in the young hands of the future comic playwright.

The volume was subsequently owned by Charles Bernard (1652–1710), ‘the leading surgeon of his day with an enviable reputation for his skill when operating’ (ODNB), who served as surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, as sergeant-surgeon to Queen Anne, and as master of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, and who was elected to the Royal Society in 1696. Bernard assembled a substantial library, typically inscribing his books ‘Caroli Bernard’, as here. His books were sold in London in March 1711, this item appearing as lot 393 in the sale catalogue Bibliotheca Bernardiana (see Book Owners Online).

BMC V 523; Bod-inc P-356; Goff P784; ISTC ip00784000.

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