The First Edition of one of the Greatest Collections of Letters of the Italian Renaissance

GIOVIO, Paolo (1483-1552).

Lettere volgari… raccolte per Messer Lodovico Domenichi.

Venice: Giovanni Battista & Melchiorre Sessa, 1560


Octavo: 122, (2) leaves. With the printer’s device and a typographical ornament on the title-page.

FIRST EDITION, published by Lodovico Domenichi. His dedication to the Genoese nobleman Matteo Montenegro is dated April 1, 1560. Supposed editions of 1548 and 1555 are ghosts.

Modern calf with elaborate blind stamped ornaments, marbled endpapers, upper part of the spine and hinges repaired, title-page lightly soiled, but a very fine copy annotated by two old hands, from the library of William Wickham with his printed book-plate.

First edition of this important collection of letters by one of the most important Italian writers of the 16th century. Giovio’s letters are full of vivid descriptions, many of them those of an eye-witness, e.g. the horrors of the sack of Rome, the passionate scenes on the election of Hadrian VI, the plundering of his native Como by the troops of Pescara. But more than just preserving information, Giovio’s letters are important from a literary perspective. Letter-writing had achieved a new importance in Italian literary life and Giovio developed the form in novel ways.

“After the death of Pope Clement VII, Giovio entered a new phase of his career. Although he eventually attached himself to the new pope’s grandson, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, he began using his reputation as a historian to develop a galaxy of patrons who collectively did much better by him than the single patron of times past. The field of force that held this galaxy in place was his correspondence. To maintain relations with his patrons Giovio developed into one of the great letter writers of the age, the creator of a new genre of lively political commentary…. To the Duke of Milan, Giovio confessed that he did not have the same familiarity with Pope paul III’s secretaries as with Clement VII’s and that henceforth his news would have to come from Campo de’ Fiori – that is, from the gossip of Rome… To compete with the detailed reports flowing to the courts of his patrons from merchants, ambassadors, and other agents, Giovio had to offer something more than mere information, and so he started incorporating the perspective he had gained from his vast knowledge of 15th and 16th c. history. Giovio’s commentaries on events, Cosimo I de’ Medici once declared, said ‘all that can, in my opinion, be said,’ and what was more, said it pungently and with vivacity.”(Zimmerman)

Paolo Giovio was born in Como. Because of his father's early death Paolo was brought up by his brother, Benedetto, himself a writer of distinction, of whom he speaks with admiration and affectionate gratitude. He took his degree in medicine at Pavia and at first yielded to his brother's kindly insistence that he should justify the expense of his training by practicing that profession, although he was already secretly bent on a literary career. Benedetto's historical works on Como and the Swiss had excited Paolo’s rivalry, and such scholars as Pomponazzi, whom he heard at Padua, and Lodovico Celio and Giasone Maino at Pavia and Milan had increased his enthusiasm for letters. When, therefore, an outbreak of the plague drove him to Rome (probably about 1516) and he found himself free to follow his inclination, he devoted himself to the writing of history.

His ready tongue and pen quickly won the favor of Leo X, who thought (or at least said) that his History of His Own Times was second only to Livy. Leo gave him the rank of cavaliere with a pension. Hadrian VI made him canon of the cathedral of Como, remarking that it was a point in his favor that he was no poet. All the Medici were his friends, “by far the surest and strongest safeguards of my life and studies”. He was the constant companion of Clement VII with rooms in the Vatican and when that unhappy pontiff fled for his life during the sack of Rome, it was Giovio who flung his own purple cloak over the Pope's too conspicuous white robes. His devotion was rewarded the next year by the bishopric of Nocera. Later, in 1530, we find him accompanying Cardinal Ippolito to Bologna for the coronation of Charles V and in 1533 to Marseilles for the marriage of Catherine dei Medici.

The Roman Academy had welcomed him with enthusiasm and scholars had honored him with the dedications of their works. Until the fall of Rome his fortunes had prospered. In that catastrophe he lost many of his possessions including some of his manuscripts and retired for a time to the island of Ischia to bewail his calamities. His reputation, too, had begun to wane. The acclaim with which his writings had been received was gradually tempered by the suspicion that his talents were at the service of the highest bidder. Some of the talk was probably, as he would have us believe, the result of ignorance and envy, but his extravagant eulogy of the infamous Alessandro dei Medici and his careless frankness as to his own attitude toward the subjects of his biographies certainly support the charges. Still he continued to find supporters. For twenty years he enjoyed the favor of Pompeo Colonna and among others to whom he owed benefits and encouragement were the Marquis of Pescara and his wife, Vittoria Colonna, Ippolito d'Este, Isabella d'Este, the Marquis del Vasto, Giberti, and Ottavio Farnese. With the accession of Paul III, however, he fell out of favor at the Vatican. Unsuccessful in his efforts to induce the Pope to make him Bishop of Como and disappointed in his hopes of a cardinal's hat, he finally retired to Como and then to Florence, where he died December 11, 1552. He was buried in San Lorenzo and his statue still guards the stairs that lead to the Laurentian library.

Probably the occupation that gave Giovio most pleasure in his later years was the building and furnishing of the villa on Lake Como, where he collected the portraits of famous men, princes, soldiers, prelates, and scholars. Some of the portraits were originals, some were copied from statues, busts, or paintings. They are now scattered and only a few remain in the possession of his family. The copies made by order of Cosimo I may be seen in the Uffizi. Though Giovio left instructions in his will that not so much as a nail should be removed, Boldoni in his Larius (1617) laments the almost complete ruin of the villa. Whatever may be thought of his sincerity, as a writer Giovio commands our interest. If he is far from being Livy's equal, he shares with his greater countryman the ‘pictured page’. (cf. T.C. Price Zimmermann, Paolo Giovio, Princeton, 1995, passim; B. Agosti, Paolo Giovio. Uno storico lombardo nella cultura artistica del Cinquecento, Firenze, 2008, passim).

Edit 16, CNCE21232; Adams, G-697; B. Gamba, Serie dei testi di lingua, (Venezia, 1839), no. 1431; P. Giovio, Lettere, G.G. Ferrero, ed., (Roma, 1956-58); A. Quondam, Le «carte messaggiere». Retorica e modelli di comunicazione epistolare: per un indice dei libri di lettere del Cinquecento, (Roma, 1981), p. 298; J. Basso, Le genre épistolaire en langue italienne (1538-1662). Répertoire chronologique et analytique, (Roma & Nancy, 1990), I, pp. 199-200.