Some reflections on the illustrated editions of the Italian translation of Celestina

Some weeks ago, after deciding that the banner image of PATRIMONiT looked similar to the woodcuts of the Venice, Cesare Arrivabene, 1519 edition of the Italian translation of Celestina, I entered a frenzy and decided to look for woodcuts that could be attributed to the same artist in sixteenth-century Italian non-Celestina editions. This proved to be a bad take, since the woodcuts of the Venice 1519 edition belong to the kind of scenes that were mass-produced, without particular traits. The artist could have been anyone. The only characteristic that kept catching my attention was that women used to wear a gown with a square cut neckline and the very same hairstyle.

Look at both young women and tell me they do not look similar: Title pages of Celestina. Tragicomedia de Calisto e Melibea (Venice, Cesare Arrivabene, 1519) and Stramboti composti novamente da diversi auctori che sono in preposito a ciaschuno che e ferito damore (Venice, s.i., ca. 1525).

Checking the hairstyles and necklines of some hundreds of woodcuts led me to a particularly interesting one: the Venice, Marchiò Sessa and Pietro Ravanis, 1518 edition of Plautus’ Comoediae in Latin. But I lost my interest in the female character to the left very quickly. The archs in the background became much more relevant. The archs in the background are characteristic of the inner illustrations of Arrivabene’s edition of the Italian translation of Celestina.

Fol. CXXXVv, Comoediae (Venice, Marchiò Sessa and Pietro Ravanis, 1518) and fol. XXXII, Tragicomedia de Calisto e Melibea (Venice, Cesare Arribavene, 1519). For this last woodcut, I recommend checking a former post on how this edition exists in two states, one with this woodcut and one without it.

Even more interesting was that the archs were not exclusive of the above woodcut, but a common feature to most woodcuts of the Venice, Marchiò Sessa and Pietro Ravanis, 1518 edition of Plautus’ Comoediae in Latin.

Look at all these archs in the background!

Provided that Sessa’s edition precedes Arrivabene’s edition by one year, could it have been a model for the woodcuts? At first glance, this seemed a quite logical conclusion. Not for nothing, Marchiò Sessa printed the Italian translation of Celestina in 1531, with Arrevabene’s woodblocks. There could have been some kind of relationship before that. However, I was to discover that Terence’s Comoediae in Latin were also printed with a very similar set of illustrations. In it, archs are replaced by curtains and columns, but the effect and the composition are quite similar.

Comoediae (Milano, Augustinum de Vicomercat, 1521). But the curtain thing goes back to the Venice, Lazarum Soardum, 1504 edition.

Although I still believe that there is a strong point in favour of Sessa’s influence over Arrivabene’s woodcuts, what I find more interesting is that the Italian translation of Celestina is being illustrated according to a characteristically Italian way of illustrating Terence’s and Plautus’ Comoediae. From this point of view, Celestina is being equaled to Roman comedy.

This is not something new to Celestina. I do not need to remember how Griffin found a model for the woodcuts of the Burgos Comedia in the German illustrated editions of Terence. But it is interesting from the point of view of how Italian printers moved from the factotum figures model of Terence’s German editions to something very much of their own. Not that the factotum figures were unknown in Italy. In fact, they were used in the Venice, Lazarum Soardum, 1511 edition of Plautus’ Comoediae.

Comoediae (Venice, Lazarum Soardum, 1511)

This might explain why the printers of the Italian translation of Celestina had no trouble moving to the Spanish series of factotum figures and woodcuts in 1541.

In any case, what interests me most is that serendipity plays a big role in research. Were it not for a banner in an internet site, I could have missed these relationships completely. By mere chance, now I do have a great point of departure for further investigations.