Among his many gifts to the Washington University Libraries, Philip Mills Arnold donated an impressive collection of early editions of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. This book, a mix of poetry and prose, was written in the early sixth century A.D. while Boethius awaited execution in a prison in Pavia. It enjoyed wide readership during the first centuries of printing, in both Latin and vernacular European languages. In addition to a number of Latin editions, the Libraries own an early Castilian translation as well as the first Italian translation from 1520, a late-16th century French translation, and later English translations.
Boethius left his mark on late-medieval authors. Dante borrowed the prose-and-poetry format for his own Vita nuova, written around 1294, and the Consolation echoes in the Divine Comedy as well. Geoffrey Chaucer, likewise a fan, executed his own English translation of the Consolation, and Boethius’s philosophy finds its way into such works as Troilus and Crysede and The Canterbury Tales.
The early published translations themselves disclose a great deal about the dissemination of Boethius in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The translators hail from a variety of Catholic orders, including Dominicans and Augustinians, a sign of the book’s wide-ranging appeal. In some cases the text alone appears, while in others there is introductory material as well as commentaries and marginal references to assist more motivated readers. Some translators insist on the contemporary relevance of Boethius. The Italian Anselmo Tanzo compares the political situation during Boethius’s time, when the Ostrogoths had conquered Italy, to the contemporary political situation which found the peninsula beset by French invasions.
The text comes in all manner of formats, from beautiful 15th-century folios to pocket-sized duodecimos. Some of the Latin editions contain the lengthy commentary penned by Thomas Aquinas, in a variety of formats: the traditional medieval style, with text at the center of the page surrounded by two-column commentary; Boethius’s text followed by the commentary; or, most strikingly, a few lines of Boethius interrupted by Aquinas’s commentary. These three approaches to formatting challenge us to think today about the approaches to reading the primary text that editors and publishers envisioned as they laid out their books. Typefaces vary too, from late-15th-century Gothic to early Roman types. In some later editions Boethius’s poems appear in italics, a typeface invented in the early 16th century, with the prose text in Roman.
The Libraries have recently expanded their Boethius collection with the acquisition of first editions of two mid-16th-century Italian translations. Together with a third executed by the famed Florentine linguist Benedetto Varchi, these three were submitted as part of a contest organized by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici of Florence, who wanted to give a copy of Boethius, rendered in modern Florentine, to the Emperor Charles V. Varchi’s translation won, but all three found their way into print with the ducal press of Lorenzo Torrentino.
The publication history of the Consolation of Philosophy raises inevitable questions about the nature of its appeal. Certainly the book addresses a number of universal questions, such as God’s role in the universe, the nature of evil, the function of fortune. The book might not have found such a dedicated readership, however, were it not for the way that Boethius addresses these questions, in the form of a lively conversation between him and Lady Philosophy. She proves to be an entertaining and challenging interlocutor who brings the dialogue to life. Beyond that, however, in offering consolatio to Boethius she fulfills a dream that we all perhaps share, that in moments of great despair a companion will appear who can help us better to face daunting challenges, erasing our loneliness with comfort.
Guest post by Michael Sherberg, Associate Professor of Italian, Romance Languages & Literatures. This essay is included the exhibition catalog Language, Signs, Meaning, Application: the Philip Mills Arnold Semeiology Collection.