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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

02/2012 manuscript  of the month

A critical edition preceding the first printed edition

Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,
Cod. Phil. gr. 64, Folio 85r

The Vienna Codex phil. gr. 64 represents an excellent witness of the textual transmission of Aristotle in the Renaissance era. Almost every page of this manuscript combining philosophical and scientific writings like Physics, Metaphysics, On The Heavens, On Generation and Corruption and Meteorologica reflects the extensive philological effort made to produce it. Numerous explanatory notes, diagrams and cross-referential characters, sometimes written or drawn in different colors of ink, cover the margins or have been inserted between the lines. Furthermore, a detailed analysis of the main texts reveals that for producing this new manuscript older codices have been compared and evaluated. This means that the erudite editors and scribes of this manuscript must have checked the text and amended it accordingly, as is common practice today with scholarly historical-critical editions. Thus the Vienna Aristotle Codex can be considered as a genuine critical manuscript edition, as may also be found in other manuscript cultures.

Folio 448r
Folio 447v

The Vienna Codex reached the Austrian National Library through the Hungarian physician and humanist Johannes Sambucus (1531-1584). It had been devised and produced for Hieromonachos Esaias of Cyprus by the scholarly network around cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472) in Rome in the middle of the 1450s. The different copyists entrusted with the task of writing it were guided by the well-known calligrapher Ioannes Rhosos of Crete. As Rhosos himself notes in red ink and spacious letters on fol. 447v-448r, the manuscript was completed on March 25th 1457.

The manuscript is clearly a product of the intellectual climate in the middle of the 15th century: the Controversia Aristotelica, a philosophical debate, had been triggered in Florence in 1439 by a text of the Byzantine philosopher Georgios Gemistos Plethon (1355/60-1452) entitled Περὶ ὧν Ἀριστοτέλης πρὸς Πλάτωνα διαφέρεται (On The Differences Between Aristotle and Plato), and Cardinal Bessarion vividly engaged himself in this debate, contributing his own letters and writings. In offering a selection of philosophic-scientific writings of Aristotle it provided the debating parties with a source which rarely existed in the original version in Italy at that time.

How were these works arranged and structured? Which means existed to facilitate their lecture? As structuring elements catchwords were added on the margins of the codex, so-called marginalia. The scribes also indicated important deviations from the commonly accepted version of the text. Furthermore, there are schematic representations (diagrams) illustrating the topics addressed in the main text. Noteworthy are also the notes and shorter texts providing general definitions of the Aristotelian philosophy, like Cause, Principle, Substance and Accident, on the first pages of the manuscript (3r-7r).

Folio 17r

The page that is presented here (17r) shows the beginning of the second book of Physics, in which a particularly large number of marginalia is used. After establishing the difference between naturally existing things and things that are manufactured in handicraft, Aristotle gives another more precise definition: in contrast to technically produced objects, natural things combine the principle of both movement and rest. The main text of this page, consisting of 23 lines, was written by Rhosos in an elegant minuscle in brown ink, whereas the initial T is larger and in red color. The two lines of the title, Ἀριστοτέλους φυσικῆς ἀκροάσεως βιβλία ὀκτώ· βυβλίον δεύτερον (Aristotle: Lecture On Nature. 8 books: Book 2), ornamented in red ink, were also written by Rhosos. A second scribe introduced glosses between the lines (interlinear glosses) and marginalia, whose reference to the text is indicated by special characters. The two diagrams that can be seen at the upper margin illustrate the differences between nature as an ability of objects to move or rest on their own in contrast to artificially produced things, whose movement depends on other causes. On the left and right margins textual variants, keywords and short citations from commentaries on Aristotle of the Late Antique period are noted (especially those of Simplikios [ca. 490-ca. 590] und Johannes Philoponos [ca. 490-ca. 575]). At the end of the page a comment cited from the teaching practice of the Greek scholar Theodoros Gazes (1410-1475) may be found – obviously one of his listeners had added an explanation here, that the humanist had given in his lessons. Since Gazes is referred to as “our Master Theodoros” at the beginning of this comment and had actually been the teacher of the monk Esaias, who had commissioned the manuscript and was the first to own it, it seems likely that he himself added this comment, as well as all the other marginalia on page 17r.

The ambitious task to produce a reliable and improved text and, furthermore, to provide important explanatory material, was achieved in an excellent way. This makes the Vienna Codex an exemplary witness of the methodology and aims of scholarly work in manuscript cultures. It proves that the concept of a historical-critical edition was not only developed when printing was invented, but had already before determined the practice of manuscript work. Regarding the Vienna manuscript of Aristotle’s work, it should be emphasized that contemporaries realized its fundamental importance. Therefore, in subsequent years numerous copies were made of his manuscript, until the first printed edition of Aristotle was published in Venice (1495-1498).

BERNARDINELLO, Silvio (1976): „Un autografo del Bessarione: Vindob. phil. gr. 64“, in: Miscellanea Marciana di Studi Bessarionei, Padua, pp. 1-19.
DIELS, Hermann (ed.) (1882): Simplicii In Aristotelis Physicorum libros quattuor priores Commentaria, Berlin.
HARLFINGER, Dieter (1978): „Zur Überlieferung der Metaphysik“, in: P. Aubenque (Hg.): Études sur la Métaphysique d’Aristote. Actes du VIe Symposium Aristotelicum, Paris, pp. 7-36: 25-26.
HUNGER, Herbert (1961): Katalog der griechischen Handschriften der österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Teil I: Codices historici. Codices philosophici et philologici, Wien, pp. 181-182.
MONFASANI, John (1976): George of Trebizond. A Biography and a Study of His Rhetoric and Logic, Leiden, pp. 201-229.
RASHED, Marwan (2001): Die Überlieferungsgeschichte der aristotelischen Schrift De generatione et corruptione, Wiesbaden, pp. 293-310.
ROSS, William D. (ed.) (1936): Aristotle’s Physics. A Revised Text with Introduction and Commentary, Oxford.
VITELLI, Girolamo (ed.) (1887): Ioannis Philoponi In Aristotelis Physicorum libros tres priores Commentaria, Berlin.

Collection of philosophical and scientific texts by Aristotle
Paper, 29,5 × 22 cm
Rome, 1457

Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. Phil. gr. 64

Publication only with permission by Österreichische Nationalbibliothek
Presented in cooperation with the Teuchos-Zentrum

Text by Vito Lorusso