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Erasmian wit and proverbial wisdom : an illustrated moral compendium for François I

An Illustrated Moral Compendium for Francois I - Facsimile of a Dismembered Manuscript with Introduction and Description
Jean Michel Massing
Studies of the Warburg Institute


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Warburg Institute


Erasmus of Rotterdam's "Adages" were first published in Venice in 1500. The Greek and Roman proverbs which he recorded and explained in this book met the Renaissance taste for ancient ethical precepts which could be used as a guide to living in the modern world. In many later editions, the maxims were vastly increased in number and Erasmus's commentaries often lengthened into moral essays. This manuscript provides an early example of the influence, direct and indirect, exerted by Erasmus. In this set of texts, word and image enhance each other in a way that prefigures the emblematic form which was to become so influential throughout Europe. The manuscript was intended for the character training of the future King Francois I. Its texts were chosen by the young prince's tutor, Francois Demoulins, who combined them with pictures some time between 1512 and Francois's accession to the throne in 1515. Demoulins drew heavily on the 1508 edition of Erasmus's "Adages", selecting those precepts which were most obviously applicable to court life and its pitfalls. He also included a number of sayings attributed to Pythagoras. For these Pythagorean precepts some explanation can be found, in Erasmus's commentaries on the "Adages". Massing's study places the manuscript in its historical, literary and artistic context, as well as emphasizing its significance for the development of the moral emblem. His commentary on each page further explores the sources and relationships of both texts and pictures. A selection of comparative illustrations are also added.