Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca

Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca – Hoepli – S.P. 10/27 – Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Milan, Italy)

Italy β€” Ca. 1300–1325

Petrarch's personal copy of Virgil from his private library: stolen shortly after its completion, rediscovered in 1338, and finally provided with the famous allegorical frontispiece by Simone Martini

  1. This is the most famous manuscript from the enormous private library of Petrarch (1304–74)

  2. Created in Avignon ca. 1300–25, it also contains works by Publius Papinius Statius and Horace

  3. Simone Martini (ca. 1284–1344) added a famous allegorical frontispiece to the work ca. 1340

Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca

Facsimile Copy Available!
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  1. Description
  2. Detail Picture
  3. Single Page
  4. Facsimile Editions (1)
Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca

Aside from being a prolific author, Petrarch was also a bibliophile who amassed one of the finest private libraries of his day, which included many works from classical antiquity. The most famous manuscript in his library was the so-called Ambrosian Virgil, which contains the most important works by the famous Roman author as well as works by Publius Papinius Statius, Horace, and various grammatical works. Petrarch commissioned the work for his own use, and it was made in Avignon ca. 1300–25. However, the manuscript was soon stolen and Petrarch could not recover it until 1338. The manuscript is also famous for its allegorical frontispiece representing the Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues, which was created by his friend Simone Martini ca. 1340.

Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca

This famous manuscript containing the principle works of the influential Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC) was commissioned and owned by the humanist scholar Petrarch (1304–74) and furnished with a gorgeous frontispiece by the master painter Simone Martini. Additional texts include the commentaries of Servius as well as texts from Horace, Statius, and Donatus. As such, the specimen is a physical manifestation of the early Renaissance and the rediscovery of works from antiquity as well as an artifact from the lavish court of the Avignon Papacy. It is a coveted manuscript with a turbulent history that also gives insights into Petrarch’s personal life because he noted various events in the codex including the deaths of his son Giovanni and his beloved Laura.

Origins in Avignon

The text of the manuscript was written in Avignon during the first quarter of the 14th century and is adorned by blue and red initials as well as a large gold initial at the beginning of each work. Almost every page of the codex has a wide inner column and a narrow outer column: the wide one consists of Virgil's original text, the narrow Servius' commentary. However, the codex was stolen ca. 1325 before being recovered by Petrarch in 1338. During the meantime, the artist Simone Martini (c. 1284–1344) came to Avignon and found employment at the court of Pope Benedict XII (r. 1334–42), where he befriended Petrarch. Martini created a full-page miniature for the manuscript between 1338 and 1340, presumably as a gift for his friend. This manuscript also reflects the generous patronage of the arts at the decadent and worldly papal court in Avignon, which Petrarch referred to as the β€œBabylon of the West”.

Martini’s Magnificent Miniature

This fine full-page miniature is a testament both to Martini’s skills as an artist as well as his friendship with Petrarch. It is distinguished by a refined style with soft coloring, a wealth of naturalistic details, and is pregnant with symbolism. Servius, the Late Antique Roman grammarian and author of a series of commentaries on the works of Virgil, figuratively reveals the meaning of these works when he literally unveils the author by pulling back a curtain. A soldier, farmer, and shepherd serve as allegorical figures representing the respective themes of the Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues. All of the figures have unique and tremendously expressive faces while Servius gestures in an exaggerated manner.

A Turbulent History

After Petrarch’s death, the manuscript was bequeathed to Francesco da Carrara in Padua. When the city was conquered by Gian Galeazzo in 1388, it passed along with the rest of the Carraresi’s collections into the great Visconti-Sforza Library in Pavia. The manuscript was lent to Alessandro Sforza for twenty days in 1471 so that he could have it copied. After the defeat and capture of Ludovico Sforza, Pavia was occupied along with the rest of the Duchy of Milan by French forces in 1499 and the codex was supposed to be among 900 manuscripts that were brought back to France as plunder but was stolen once again by a certain patriotic Pavian named Antonio di Pirro. The manuscript found itself in Rome at the end of the 16th century until it was sold in the year 1600 by Cardinal Agostino Cusani to the Archbishop of Milan, Federico Borromeo, who purchased it on behalf of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.


Alternative Titles
Petrarca: Vergilianus-Codex
Francisci Petrarcae Vergilianus Codex
Virgilio ambrosiano
Size / Format
538 pages / 41.0 Γ— 26.5 cm
Ca. 1300–1325
A masterful allegorical frontispiece as well as golden initials with fleuronnΓ©e ornamentation and countless blue and red initial majuscules
Vergil's Bucolics, Georgics and Aeneid; Servius' exegesis; Statius' Achilleid including accessus and commentary; 4 odes by Horace (II 3, II 10, II 16, and IV 7) with the commentary of Pseudo-Acron and some medieval glosses; two exegeses of the third book
Artist / School
Previous Owners
Francesco da Carrara
Visconti Library at Pavia
Cardinal Federico Borromeo

Available facsimile editions:
Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca – Hoepli – S.P. 10/27 – Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Milan, Italy)
Hoepli – Milan, 1930
Limited Edition: 350 copies
Detail Picture

Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca

Introduction, the Achilleid

This unfinished epic poem by the Greco-Roman poet Statius presents the life of Achilles and is appended in the back of this manuscript with other Virgil-adjacent works including four odes by Horace. A burnished gold letter β€œM” with flourishes in red and blue ink introduces the opening lines of the poem, which constitute an invocation from the poet to the Muses and Apollo for inspiration. While the gods may have given Statius the inspiration to start the work, they did not bless him with the longevity to finish it and only one and a half books were completed by the time of his death ca. AD 96.

Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca – Hoepli – S.P. 10/27 – Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Milan, Italy)
Single Page

Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca

Allegorical Frontispiece

This famous frontispiece was created by the Sienese master Simone Martini in 1340 and allegorically represents Virgil’s three major works. The ancient Roman poet leans up against a tree with a quill in his right hand while holding a book on his knees with his left as he gazes up into the sky as though searching for the right words. He is concealed behind a curtain that is both literally and metaphorically pulled back by the Late Antique Roman grammarian Servius, author of a series of commentaries on the works of Virgil.

Aeneas is depicted next to Servius leaning against a long spear and resting his hand on the hilt of a longsword, his blue cloak revealing a green lining and a red belt with a dagger. The farmer trimming vines with a billhook in the lower-left corner represents the Georgics while the shepherd milking a sheep next to him represents the Eclogues. In the center of the page, the two banderoles contain dedications to Virgil and Servius respectively.

Ambrosian Virgil of Francesco Petrarca – Hoepli – S.P. 10/27 – Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Milan, Italy)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Francisci Petrarcae Vergilianvs codex

Hoepli – Milan, 1930

Publisher: Hoepli – Milan, 1930
Limited Edition: 350 copies
Binding: Leather over wooden boards
Commentary: 1 volume by Achille Ratti and Giovanni Galbiati
Language: Italian
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €€
(1,000€ - 3,000€)
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