Provenance Mysteries: Dialogo en que particularmente se tratan: las cosas acaecidas en Roma: el ano de M.D.XXVII and Dialogo de Mercurio y Caron.

This week’s provenance mystery features two works which are bound together into one volume: Dialogo en que particularmente se tratan: las cosas acaecidas en Roma: el ano de M.D.XXVII and Dialogo de Mercurio y Caron. Both were written by Alfonso de Valdes, and printed circa 1530. According to EDIT 16, the former was printed in Venice by Nicolini da Sabbio e Giovanni Antonio & fratelli; it seems likely that this would be the same printer and place for the latter title as well.

Valdes was a Spanish Humanist and promoter of the views of Erasmus of Rotterdam; he corresponded regularly with Erasmus in the 1520’s. He was, on his mother’s side, descended from a family of converted Jews. The Spanish Jews (and their descendants) who were forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 14th century were referred to as conversos and were not allowed to practise their Jewish faith. According to an article written by Inmaculada Rodríguez-Moranta in 2012, the Dialogo de Mercurio y Caron is a work “in the tradition of the didactic genre and Menippean satire, and evidences a deep influence of the thinking of Erasmus of Rotterdam.”

1.     Dialogo de Mercurio title page

The inscriptions are very difficult to read, but according to Isaac Levy (who transcribed the inscriptions described herein) seem to consist of two ownership inscriptions. In the first illustration (Dialogo de Mercurio title page), the upper inscription appears to be that of a “Shelomo …. Halevy”, but the middle letters cannot be distinguished.

The second set of inscriptions in this illustration appear to be that of a student practising their handwriting. The inscriber has used Hebrew characters to write out something in Spanish.  The surname may be Asenyes / Asenyos /  Esenyos, or a variant thereof. The name appears again as Senor…. just below the Middle Temple stamp.

The inscription at the bottom of the title page is slightly easier to read: “Este libro es de [?] … abra…” but the remaining text cannot be made out.

2. Valdes 2

In the second illustration (Valdes 2), the inscription to the left of the doodle possibly reads: “Yud Tasdi Vav” with the potential inscription of “Yishmerehu Tsuru Vegoalo” preceding that. According to Isaac Levy this acronym often accompanies the signatures of Spanish Jews and is a short prayer that they should be guarded by the Almighty. These inscriptions are found on the leaf preceding the title page of Dialogo en que particularmente se tratan… and are written upside down on that leaf.

3. Valdes 3

Thanks to the assistance of an anonymous source, the third illustration (Valdes 3) looks likely to be the handwriting of a Jewish annotator who used the book and the paper to practice writing Hebrew letters, including the beginning of the Hebrew alphabet. It would seem that the scribbler was called David but otherwise the writing was written in the script known as Rashi script, the cursive Hebrew script of Spanish Jewry, and which had nothing to do with Rashi. Although the letters are in Hebrew, the actual language may be either Spanish (Ladino) or perhaps Italian. There is no spacing between the words.

The presence of Hebrew writing in a book by a conversos is probably not surprising. It is possible that the unknown inscriber was learning how to write Hebrew, and/or was also of Jewish descent, and interested in retaining and practising their heritage. 

If you recognise the handwriting on show here, or have further comments about the annotations found within this copy, please do get in touch: library@middletemple.org.uk.

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