Nagonio’s bindings

(by Paul Gwynne)

“Then the King desired to see the book that I had brought for him, so he saw it in his chamber, for I had laid it there ready on his bed. When the King opened it, it pleased him well, for it was fair illumined and written, and covered with crimson velvet with ten buttons of silver and gilt and roses of gold in the midst with two great clasps gilt richly wrought.”

Thus Froissart describes how the exquisite binding of a volume of his work impressed King Richard II. One of the key elements in our definition of the ‘Economics of Poetry’ is not only swift composition but also the timely production of the presentation volume. This may involve mass production, as far as this term may be applied to deluxe goods in a pre-industrial age. It may be noted, for example, that in 1461 Biondo claimed that he had overseen a group of scribes producing copies of his Roman triumphans for international dissemination: England, France, Spain, and a range of cities in Italy already have highly embellished copies of the work he claimed.


This mass production may also have extended to the binding process. In 1496 the poet Johannes Michael Nagonius (Nagonio) was sent on a diplomatic mission to Westminster to present King Henry VII with a deluxe volume of his panegyric poetry. This was prefaced with an illuminated frontispiece depicting the English king riding in a triumphal chariot all’ antica and was expensively bound in crimson cloth of gold. This delicate binding miraculously still survives, although in a much ruined state, cut and pasted onto new boards in a nineteenth-century restoration (now York, Minster Library, MS XVI.N.2).

Unlike the manuscript previously presented to Maximilian Habsburg, which was taken without covers and decoration into the Low Countries and finished in situ, the manuscript for Henry VII was sent complete from Rome. This seems confirmed by the next manuscript of Nagonius’s poetry. For, within a year of returning from London to the papal court, the poet was required to produce a volume of panegyric verse for King Vladislav II of Bohemia and Hungary (now Prague, Národni a Universitni Knihova, MS VIII. H.76). This volume too was expensively bound in crimson cloth of gold. Although this binding is also now in a poor state of preservation, closer inspection reveals that the manuscripts presented to Henry VII and Vladislav II were originally covered in cut velvet damask embroidered on a cloth of gold thread. This costly fabric, dyed in the most expensive colour, crimson, was clearly of the highest quality. The elaborate ‘pomegranate’ design, typical of luxurious silk damasks of this period, can still be discerned on the back of the York manuscript, while a large bloom with the corolla swirling to a point, surrounded with buds and big, rag-edged leaves against a gold ground sewn in a diaper pattern is also clearly visible on the front cover of the Prague manuscript. The success of the presentation of the manuscript for Henry VII suggests that the same binding process was repeated for a second royal dedicatee.


Chance survivors such as these further enhance our understanding of the techniques a poet employed in getting his work recognized. In this context it is worth noting two bindings of two deluxe manuscripts of neo-Latin poetry presented to Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement VII) elegiac verse on a variety of themes by Guido Posthumo Silvestri (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS Vat. lat. 5810 ) and a silva on the building of the Villa Medici (later the Villa Madama; Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS Vat. lat. 5812). That both volumes have a similar binding suggests that either the poets were put to the expense of having the books bound in a style that they knew would be both acceptable and attractive to Giulio, or that all the books in the Cardinal’s library were all bound in a uniform manner. It should be noted, however, that Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. lat. 5811, Iohannis Argyropyli Byzantii brevis institutionis summis religionis nostrae magistratibus, a similarly deluxe octavo volume for Cardinal Guilio de’ Medici from Jacopus Argyropylus, still preserves its original binding of blue velvet damask.

As these examples show, the initial impact made by the visual appearance of a manuscript could influence an author’s reception. Consequently, a great deal of care was lavished on the binding as it seems that in the insecure world of poetic patronage, a potential benefactor did indeed judge a book by its cover.