A serene incunabulum
Boetius [i.e. Boethius] varia opuscola is the only incunabulum held by the EPFL Library. Printed in Venice in 1497 and 1499 by Johannes de Gregoriis of Forlivio, it contains two texts by Boethius, better known in French as Boèce.
What is an incunabulum? It is a book printed in Europe before 1501. It was in the Middle Rhine Valley, mainly in Mainz and Strasbourg, that printing began to appear and gradually spread throughout Europe and the world. “It was practiced in Venice from 1469 (by Johann de Spire) and the Serenissima soon established itself as the main center of printed production at the end of the 15th century: of some 30,000 incunabula editions, about 4,500 were of Venetian origin.”
What is the state of this incunabulum?
The incunabulum is in excellent condition. Only the front side of each page is numbered. The binding is made of soft parchment. The address and date are mentioned at the end, in a printed note called the colophon. This type of inscription, which is specific to incunabula and manuscripts, would migrate to the front section of the works over the years and would eventually be replaced by the title page.
The book is published in Latin. “The growth of printing has given the phenomenon of linguistic diversification a new dimension. However, Latin production continues to dominate widely. This domination tends to weaken in the second half of the 15th century”, although there were still about 71% of titles in Latin in 1497.
Who is Boethius, the author of both texts?
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born in Rome around 480. He received a good education, and he is certainly the most distinguished writer, poet and philosopher of his time.
“His in-depth knowledge of Greek and Greek philosophers is unequalled in this era when Roman civilization is collapsing under the pressure of the Huns and Ostrogoths. Boethius is well aware of the decline in the intellectual vitality of his contemporaries[...]. He announced his intention to translate the works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin.”
The document is composed of two parts. The first one contains De arithmetica, de Musica, de Geometria. Some of the engravings in the document show Boethius' connection to mathematics and music.
De philosophie consolatione (524), one of his main works, constitutes the second part of this incunabulum. Written in prison, when Boethius fell into disgrace under Theodoric the Great after trying to restore good relations with the Orthodox emperor in Constantinople, this writing alternating prose and poetry would become one of the most influential works of its time. "It is the meditation on the human condition of a man who, after so much injustice and abuse, tries to understand the meaning of his suffering and the existence of good and evil in the world”. This book was the most widely read work in medieval times after the Bible.
Discover the document in its full version here.
 BARBIER Frédéric, Histoire du livre en occident, Armand Colin, 2012, p. 96-97.
 Ibid. p. 107.