Poggio and Other Book Hunters
From Firenze University Press Book: Poggio Bracciolini and the Re(dis)covery of Antiquity: Textual and Material Traditions
Julia Haig Gaisser, Bryn Mawr College, United States
Seeking out rare and precious texts, or book hunting, was a favorite pursuit of the Renaissance humanists, but the activity had been practiced with enthusiasm (and often guile) since antiquity.
This paper discusses the phenomenon over time, looking at representative book hunters from Aulus Gellius (second century CE) to Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), who was probably the most famous book hunter of them all. I will consider the discoveries of Catullus, Cicero’s Letters to Atticus, and Apuleius as well as several of the most famous finds of Poggio himself, emhasizing in each case the circumstances and method of discovery, the importance of the find, and the fate of the discovered book.
The paper will close with a brief epilogue on some modern book hunters.
Book hunting — by which I mean seeking out rare and precious texts, usually belonging to someone else — is an ancient if not always honorable activity; and it has been enthusiastically practiced since at least the time of the Alexandrian library.
Then, as the story goes, the Ptolemies stopped every arriving ship, confiscated its books and replaced them with copies. They borrowed the precious official texts of the tragedians from Athens, paying a huge deposit of fifteen talents. But instead of returning the books themselves, they gave back elegant and beautiful copies, forfeiting their deposit and thereby paying the largest library fine in history.
The Romans were equally unscrupulous, bringing home whole libraries as war booty from Greece. But book acquisition in antiquity was not always so reprehensible, and we have a few cases where it was carried out by individuals and on a more modest scale.
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