Missing Pieces

An engraving of "Les Argonautes," featuring people in Ancient Greek clothing. Under the engraving, it says "Les Argonautes, selon Pindare Orphee Et Apollonius de Rhodes."
Submitted by Neil Weijer, Curator of the Harold and Mary Jean Hanson Rare Book Collection

A fragment of an early printed book tells the story of how we think about texts and titles

During our catalog migrations, one of my predecessors set aside a small stack of books that had no known bibliographical record in union catalogs.  One of the books in that stack was a thin gathering of leaves in a green paper wrapper, with no date or place of publication. The most prominent clues were the words “Orphei argonautica Latina” [The Orphic Argonautica in Latin] printed on the front of the first page, but this didn’t correspond to any known edition when the book arrived. I could see from the paper that is was old, but how old, and what, exactly was it? A little digging showed it to be part of a 2000 year old game of fill in the blank around a classical epic: the story of Jason and Argonauts.

Photo of an open copy of "Orphei argonautica Latina" against a black background. The title page is visible.
The early title page lacks many of the features we now take for granted in books

About the Argonautica

Around 70 AD, the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus adapted the Argonautica into Latin from the Greek written by Apollonius of Rhodes (ca. 200 BCE). Rather than translating directly, Valerius Flaccus adapted the story for his own time, re-casting Jason as a central hero along the lines of other contemporary works like the Aeneid.  Copies of any version of the poem were incredibly scarce during the Middle Ages (you can see the oldest one here[1]), but references to the story could be found in the works of other writers, most notably Ovid. In the early 15th century, the famous Italian book hunter Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy that was missing its final books. Nevertheless, the discovery of a “lost text” from the heyday of Roman epic set off a hunt for more. In the meantime, scribes began to produce copies, and printers soon followed.  

In 1519, the Italian humanist Giovanni Battista Pio produced an edition and commentary on the Latin Argonautica, but like Valerius Flaccus before him, Pio was a creative editor. Pio “recovered” the missing books of the poem by writing his own ending in the spirit of the earlier Greek epic. For the sake of completeness, he added the Orphei argonautica Latina, his translation of another recently rediscovered text, which told the story of Jason from the perspective of the mythical hero Orpheus. This last text must have been a very late edition, as it has its own title page and the very brief mention “et Orpheo Latino” at the end of the actual title page of the 1519 edition, printed in Bologna by Girolamo Benedetti.

Close up of what is left of bookbinding on our copy of the Argonautica.
A fragment of the Argonautica’s former binding gives a hint of where it came from and how it got lost

About a third of the known surviving copies of Pio’s edition are missing this final piece, and it’s very easy to see why. When this booklet was printed title pages were just as much a protective item (like the paper wrappers now on the book) as they were a tool for readers. This short title told a printer what he had stacked up in the back of the shop, or a bookbinder what to put where. When the larger book was rebound or repaired, a binder or bookseller saw the title page and pulled out the last section as an “old book” to be sold in its own. Those missing pieces live on: reminding us that books are known for what they aren’t as much as what they are, and to use caution when judging them by their covers.

A close-up photo of the colophon and the register of the work. The text is printed in Latin.
The colophon of the work and the register (which lists the number of printed leaves that make up the text) mark it as complete, but the printer didn’t intend for it to be independent.

You can find the book in our newly updated catalog

[1] https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.lat.3277

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