Decameron

Item author: Boccaccio
Item date: 1516
Grant Value: £6,950 from FNL's B. H. Breslauer Fund
Item cost: $17,100
Item date acquired: 2016
Item institution: Cambridge University Library
Town/City: Cambridge
County: Cambridgeshire

This is a beautiful humanist edition of Boccaccio’s most famous work and one of the earliest with illustrations; the 101 woodcuts are copies from the 1492 incunable edition. It has an early 19th-century straight-grained morocco binding with restrained gilt tooling.

This copy is important for its position within the history of publishing the text; academic research on the edition concludes that it is based on the previous Florentine edition, but corrected using earlier manuscripts including quite possibly one of Boccaccio’s own originals.This volume complements the Library’s excellent holdings of early Italian imprints; the depth of these holdings is testified by our recent project to catalogue the nearly 500 imprints from Venice alone for the period 1500–1525. The Library’s collections include another 1516 edition of the Decameron produced in Venice by Gregorio di Gregori and a Bologna imprint of 1476, both without illustrations. The Library does not hold any pre-18th-century illustrated printed editions of the Decameron.

As well as its importance as a text, this copy has remarkable annotations by the Elizabethan spy William Herle (d. 1588/9), who worked for William Cecil and Francis Walsingham in the Low Countries.   Some fifty pages have annotations of one kind or another, in both Italian and English, in two hands, many of which can be identified as Herle’s. He wrote on the title page ‘If honest & good thinges were as hard to be preised as don, I think it shold be as littill praised as now folowed’ with his signature, and the initials ‘WH’ and ‘H’ occur elsewhere in the volume. The ODNB notes that he was fluent in Latin, Flemish and Italian, and many of the notes in the volume relate to translating passages within the text. Many of the notes are, however, as yet undeciphered, and much remains to be studied in them.

The book later belonged to the Earl of Ashburnham (1797–1898), who had a great collection of  Decamerons, including the 1492 illustrated incunable upon which this edition bases its illustrations. Copies of the early editions of the text are very scarce at sales and only eight copies of this particular edition are noted in institutional collections.

This grant was awarded from FNL's B. H. Breslauer Fund, thanks to the generosity of the President and Officers of the B. H. Breslauer Foundation.