Opusculum de mirabilibus novae & veteris urbis Romae

Autore: ALBERTINI, Francesco (ca. 1469-1510/1520)

Tipografo: Giacomo Mazzocchi

Dati tipografici: Roma, 1510


4to (202x136 mm). Collation: A-Z4, &4, [cum]4, [rum]4. [103] of [104] leaves. Lacking the last blank leaf. Title-page within woodcut architectural border. Blank spaces for capitals, with printed guide letters. Eighteenth-century limp vellum, inked title on smooth spine. A good copy, repair to the lower margin of the title-page, a small wormhole to the outer blank margin of the title- page; some leaves uniformly browned, some light foxing. Provenance: early ownership inscription on the lower margin of the title- page, faded (‘[?] Franc[?] possidet').

Rare first edition of the first modern guide to the Eternal City, as well as the first topography of both ancient and new Rome, a division that characterized depictions of Rome in books and maps thenceforth. Little is known about the author, the Florentine priest and antiquarian Francesco Albertini, pupil of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. Around 1505, Albertini left his post as canon of the Basilica of San Lorenzo to move to Rome and join the circle of Pope Julius II Della Rovere, to whom the present work is addressed. His reverence for the Pope is, however, not limited to the dedication: the work itself is a celebration of the Della Rovere dynasty and the significance of Julius II as a patron of the arts. The work was commissioned by the pope's nephew, Cardinal Galeotto Franciotti Della Rovere, with the aim of breaking from the tradition of Mirabilia urbis Romae – anecdotal guides that blurred history with legend. “Reordering Rome on the model of scientifically based surveys surely placed the Opusculum apart from Mirabilia urbis guides, making it the first, and perhaps only, true Renaissance guidebook realized on principles that also governed the renewal of art and architecture around 1500” (V. Plahte Tschudi, Two Sixteenth-Century Guidebooks and the Bibliotopography of Rome, p. 98). It follows that Albertini's great editorial project received special support from Julius II, who granted the privilegio.

The Opusculum is divided into three books: the first and the second consist of an account of ancient Rome and its monuments, which was already considered canonical by that time. Here Roma vetus is presented as a separate, immutable and venerable witness of the past: this presentation aligned with the need for a methodical approach to the registration of historical monuments espoused in the famous letter Raphael would send to Pope Leo X some years later, thus laying the foundation for the protection and conservation of Italy's historic and artistic heritage. Evidence of the connection between the two projects is found in the common presence of Preneste antiquarian Andrea Fulvio (ca. 1470-1527) in each: Fulvio, who wrote the epigram on the title-page of the Opusculum, was also one of the illustrious humanists assisting Castiglione and Raphael in the search for ancient ruins in need of cataloguing and safeguarding. It is highly interesting to note that Fulvio was also responsible for the short epigram appended to Thomas Ochsenbrunner's Priscorum heroum stemmata.

The third section of the work is dedicated to contemporary Rome – the Rome formed by the Della Rovere family – and is entirely devoted to the buildings and artistic programs promoted by Pope Julius II. About this section, three points are of the greatest importance. For one, it makes impressive use of the author's status as a privileged witness to the latest archaeological sites and discoveries, and to the building of Renaissance monuments, with remarkable observations including not only the first printed reference to Michelangelo Buonarroti's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, but also the earliest printed notice of that artist tout court.

Also in the third section is a chapter devoted to the bibliothecae novae, which Albertini was able to visit thanks to the introduction of his patron, Cardinal Franciotti Della Rovere, and represents the foundation for an autonomous field of research: the history of libraries. This chapter includes one of the earliest descriptions of the Vatican Library, confirming the dating and extension of the previous location of the Papal Library, along with a portrayal of the Laurentian Library in its original wholeness, a fitting inclusion given the fact that the Opusculum was completed in 1508, the year the prestigious Medici book collection was purchased in Florence.

Finally, the end of the book also includes the famous reference to Amerigo Vespucci and his exploration of the New World: “Albericus Vespulcius of Florence, sent by the most Christian King of Portugal, but lastly by the Catholic King of Spain, first discovered new islands and unknown countries, as is plainly set forth in his book, where he describes the stars, and the new islands, as is also seen in his Letter upon the New World, addressed to Lorenzo de Medici the Younger” (our transl.).

Adams A-502; STC Italian 15; Sander 162; R. Weiss, “Andrea Fulvio antiquario romano (c. 1470-1527)”, Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Lettere, Storia e Filosofia, s. ii, 28 (1959), pp. 1-44; D. Baldi, “Biblioteche antiche e nuove nel De mirabilibus urbis di Francesco Albertini”, Roma nel Rinascimento, 2010, pp. 199-240; C. Bianca, “Da Firenze a Roma: Francesco Albertini”, Letteratura & Arte, 2011 (9), pp. 59–70; V. Plahte Tschudi, “Two Sixteenth-Century Guidebooks and the Bibliotopography of Rome”, A. Blennow - S. Fogelberg Rota (eds.), Rome and The Guidebook Tradition. From the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, Berlin-New York 2019, pp. 89-114.