On what would have been Sir Thomas Phillipps’ 229th birthday, Dr Federico Botana examines Italian manuscripts from the Phillipps library that were acquired by Italian collections in the twentieth century.

Since the early 1900s, Italian librarians, curators and scholars have lobbied their governments and their libraries to buy back Italian manuscripts from the remarkable collection created by Sir Thomas Phillipps, especially manuscripts associated with the history of their cities.

At least six manuscripts were bought by the Biblioteca Laurenziana of Florence (through the London dealer Bernard Quaritch Ltd.) at the Sotheby’s sale of 1910, including lot 328, the Cronica della Badia Fiorentina. This is the only extant manuscript copy of a chronicle narrating events taking place in the Benedictine abbey of Florence in 1416-1460. Having been taken to France during the Napoleonic invasion of 1797, the manuscript was acquired by Thomas Phillipps from the notorious Guillaume Libri (who as Inspector of Libraries in France stole books from French collections).

Phillipps MS 8526 was also stolen in 1797, in this case from the library of the Dominican convent of San Marco. It consists of a Latin translation from the Greek by Ambrogio Traversari of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, dedicated to Cosimo de’ Medici. It was sold to the Laurenziana in 1909 by the Italian dealer Tammaro De Marinis with a substantial discount.

Several Phillipps manuscripts returned to Italy in the 1970s, including MS 952, bought for the Laurenziana at auction in 1971 (now MS Acquisti e doni 686). Probably taken from Italy by another notorious dealer and collector, Abbot Luigi Celotti (1759-1843), it consists of a moral treatise copied by a prisoner in the Stinche, the old jail of Florence, in 1419. This manuscript is an important testimony: prisoners who could write earned their sustenance as scribes and not much of their output has survived.

The Statutes of Bergamo (Phillipps MS 5688) sold in 1913 and a cartoon of Giuseppe Martini, published in The New York Herald 14.1.1912.

The Braidense in Milan, the Vittorio Emmanuelle in Rome and other important libraries have received Phillipps manuscripts throughout the twentieth century. So have smaller libraries, like the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai of Bergamo. In 1930, the dealer Giuseppe Martini donated  Phillipps MS 5688, consisting of a copy of the medieval statutes of the city of Bergamo, dated 1430, to the Biblioteca Nazionale of Florence. Martini, who was born in Lucca and lived in New York for many years, established himself in Florence in 1924, so he probably made the gift to demonstrate his affection towards his adoptive city. The Nazionale, in turn, donated the manuscript to the Biblioteca Angelo Mai, where it joined other important documents relating to the civic history of Bergamo. By now, probably hundreds of Phillipps manuscripts have returned to their native Italy: we hope to have a more precise idea of the number soon. The adventures of these manuscripts and those who have traded them are endlessly fascinating.

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