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Links in a Golden Chain

Links in a Golden Chain

What makes these two volumes of works by Thomas Aquinas (c1225-1274) so special? Substantial and beautifully printed books are always a joy and there are three reasons for bringing these ones to your attention this month. Firstly the contents: Aquinas’s Catena aurea or ‘golden chain’ is a commentary on the four evangelists. The work was compiled by Aquinas using only quotations from Latin and Greek authorities on each verse with slight alterations so that they formed a running chain of exposition. Aquinas’s Catena aurea remains an immensely valuable aid to studying the Gospels as it includes a wealth of named sources of early Church teachings.  Secondly, the production values: the books are considerable tomes measuring around fifteen inches high and twelve inches wide (375mm x 270mm) and each volume has over 300 pages. In addition, the typeface is clear, well printed, and easy to read; the handmade paper is thick and expensive; and the layout has lavish margins. There is a fine decorated initial on the first page of the first volume and a roundel with laurel leaves for a crest lies at the foot of the page, both added by hand. The final reason is not their comparative rarity – although only 300 copies were produced – but the place and early date of their printing.

These Latin books were the gift of Dean Lyall, who died in 1857, and were a very generous donation – he even had them rebound in gilded white leather and marbled endpapers by Dean & Co of Canterbury. However, they are not nineteenth-century books, although they look as if they could be. These volumes are far older; they were produced by the first printers to set up in Rome. Konrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz were originally from Mainz and Cologne respectively and they began printing just outside Rome in Subiaco in 1465. They then moved to the Massimo palace in Rome and these handsome volumes were produced in 1470 – only fifteen years after Gutenberg’s Bible. However, these German priests did not use the black letter typefaces of German printers. Instead, to suit their readers in Rome, Sweynheym and Pannartz cut a beautiful Humanist Roman font, only bettered by their contemporary Nicholas Jenson in Venice. These typefaces are similar to fonts still used today such as Plantin and Garamond. This is why these books look so modern to our eyes.

Closer examination reveals evidence of the books’ age: the typeface uses the long ‘s’ and abbreviations which follow manuscript traditions (such as missing ‘m’s’ replaced by lines over the previous letter) and the books are not paginated, making them difficult to navigate. The occasional marginal notes with manicules (pointing hands) and nota marks look medieval, because they are. Apart from the first page, the initial letters for each chapter are missing – they were never added by hand. However, the lovely initial S for Sanctissimo (most holy), almost full-length on the first page with its white foliate plaitwork on a pale blue, sage green and magenta background, has been hand-drawn, decorated and gilded. This initial is much more beautiful than the plain red version in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek’s volumes in Munich which you can compare online ( ).

An early owner, Mariani Rondinellii, whose name appears on the first page of both volumes, may have been a late sixteenth-century Italian priest from Siena, a discovery which David Shaw has put forward. It may have been Rondinellii who roughly drew his crest inside the decorated circle at the foot of the page. This filling in of what was an empty space may be an indication that the original book, despite its lovely hand-drawn initial, did not sell. For Sweynheym and Pannartz over-estimated the amount of copies of their books Rome’s elite would buy – in other words they flooded the market – and although they obtained papal help for their printing business, ultimately their enterprise failed.

How do we know these volumes were produced in 1470? It hardly needs stating that the evidence about the typeface I have presented is not conclusive. The answer is that the printers composed a colophon at the end of the first volume:

Printer’s excipit:

Aspicis illustris lector quicunq libellos.
Si cupis artificum nomina nosse: lege.
Aspera videbis cognomina Teutona: forsan
Mitiget ars musis inscia uerba uirum.
Conradus suueynheym: Arnoldus pa[]artzq. Magistri.
Rome impresserunt talia multa simul.
Petrus cum fratre Fransisco Maximus ambo
Huic operi aptatam contribuere domum.

You are looking, illustrious reader, at [these] little books
If you want to know the names of the makers, read [on].
You will see coarse German names: perhaps
Through the Muse, craftmanship might soften the unskilled words of men.
Conradus Suuenheym and Arnoldus Panartz, masters,
Printed together many such [books] in Rome.
Petrus Maximus with [his?] brother Francis, both
Contributed an adapted house for this work.

These beautiful books are evidence for an early and fascinating chapter of printing history. The 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle (discussed in a previous ‘Picture this . . .’ article) lies on the cusp of the medieval and early modern world. These volumes of Aquinas’s Gospel commentaries, printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz twenty-three years before the Chronicle, are similarly of their medieval time and also preserve information from Late Antiquity. Moreover, their technological advancements resulted in an easily legible format that makes them an adornment to the Renaissance and still readily accessible today.


Dr Diane Heath: MEMS and Canterbury Christ Church University

Editor: Dr Jayne Wackett

Further Reading:

Thomas Aquinas, Catena aurea super quattuor evangelistas, ed: Johannes Andreas, Bishop of Aleria (Canterbury Cathedral Library Shelfmark: W/S-12-4/5) The photograph is of the first page of volume 1.

Lotte Hellinga, ‘The introduction of printing in Italy’, First Impressions website, John Rylands University Library, Manchester (n.d.)–Rome,-Naples-and-Venice.pdf

  1. Scholderer, ‘The Petition of Sweynheym and Pannartz to Sixtus IV’, Library, s3-VI (22), (1915), 186-190.

David J. Shaw, Italian incunables in Canterbury Cathedral Library

Note also that a nineteenth-century English translation of the Catena aurea is available on-line at:

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