The Pope’s Romance

Even prior to the completion of Gutenberg’s landmark Bible in about 1454, the print-run of 180 copies was already sold out. We know this because it was recorded in letters between Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405–1464) and his friend, the Spanish cardinal Juan de Carvajal. In an often quoted passage, De Carvajal writes to Aeneas in a letter dated 12 March 1455:

“What was written to me about that marvelous man seen at Frankfurt is entirely true. I have not seen complete Bibles but only a number of quires of various books [of the Bible]. The script is extremely neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow. Your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses. Several people told me that 158 copies have been finished, though others say there are 180. I’m not certain of the exact number but I’m in no doubt that the volumes are finished, if my informants are to be trusted. Had I known your wishes I should certainly have bought you a copy – some quires were actually brought here to the emperor. I shall try and see if I can have a copy for sale brought here which I can purchase on your behalf. But I fear that won’t be possible, both because of the length of the journey and because buyers were said to be lined up even before the books were finished.”

Whether that marvelous man was Gutenberg himself or one of his associates, we may never know. And why Frankfurt? Because a host of important (and wealthy book-buying) dignitaries had gathered in the city for the Diet of Frankfurt held in October at the same time as the Frankfurt fair, some time before it became a dedicated book fair in the 1470s.

Portrait of Pope Pius II from a fresco in the Duomo in Siena.

Three years later, in 1458, Aeneas was elected pope. Prior to this ultimate job promotion, he himself had served three popes and an anti pope and acted as a diplomat and ambassador for both the Church and emperor Frederick III, who incidentally, in 1442 had crowned him poet laureate. Aeneas, in addition to composing poetry in the classical style, had written a bestselling novel just a decade before he penned that letter to cardinal Carvajal about the loose sheets from the Gutenberg Bible. Pius, an avid letter writer and poet had not written a hagiography, a biblical commentary in the style of Saint Jerome, an Augustine-like conversion story; but a somewhat raunchy epistolary novel, ‘The Tale of Two Lovers’ (Historia de duobus amantibus), set in Siena and completed in 1444, while in Vienna as the emperor’s imperial secretary.

This is a tale of illicit love and adulterous passions between Euryalus, a member of the Emperor’s entourage, and Lucretia, a young and unhappily married Italian noblewoman. Before they ever meet, there is a great deal of wooing via the exchange of eight letters delivered very discreetly by their respective confidants. Finally they meet in the flesh and the story gets – at least for the fifteenth century – pretty racy.

“Lucretia was dressed in a light robe that molded itself to her body and did not disguise either her breasts or her hips. Her body showed itself as it was: a bosom white as snow, eyes that sparkled like the sun, a joyous look, animated face, cheeks like bouquets of lilies and purple roses, a sweet and modest smile on her lips, and generous breasts with swollen nipples like two pomegranates whose palpitations awakened desire.”


“O white bosom, O sweet tongue, O languorous eyes, O quick wit, O body of marble full of sap, when will I see you again? When will I bite again those ruby lips? When will I feel again her agile tongue in my mouth? Will I hold her breasts again in my hands?”

The ‘marble full of sap’ is not among the most cryptic or disguised of metaphors.

This tale was an immediate success and circulated widely in manuscript, but did not appear in print until about 1467, several years after Pius’ death in the summer of 1464. The first edition came from the press of Ulrich Zel, Cologne’s first printer. It was the first of an impressive 40 editions published during the fifteenth century alone. Zel’s edition is entirely without illustrations, as are all fifteenth-century printed editions, except for one — an Italian translation (Storia di due amanti) published by Piero Pacini in Florence shortly before 1500. Pacini is best known for his liberal use of woodcut illustrations and as an editor and publisher of popular texts in the vernacular. In Aeneas’ original Latin version, the lovers’ tale ends tragically with their separation and the death of Lucretia from a broken heart.

Beyond letter-writing. A rather private liaison between our two protagonists, Lucretia and Euryalus. This a woodcut from the only illustrated printed edition of the fifteenth century. Printed by Pacini around 1500. Only four copies survive: three in Italy and one in the United States, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
* In the first medieval plague pandemic of the fourteenth century, the population of Florence was reduced by half in the space of a dozen years. The later sporadic outbreaks that Braccio references were blamed on Savonarola who was subsequently excommunicated, tortured and burned at the stake in 1498.

Owing to recent outbreaks of the plague,* the Florentine translator, Alessandro Braccio, added several new comic scenes and completely rewrote the ending. Thus, Italians reading in their mother tongue got to read not of lost love and death but of a happy marriage and a large family. Although the Pacini Italian edition is the only illustrated printed edition of the fifteenth century, many of the surviving manuscript versions are lavishly illustrated, like the beautiful French illuminated manuscript, probably produced some time in the 1460s, and now at The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

“Let them beware to drink the cup of love, that holds far more of bitter than of sweet.”

The translation of ‘The Tale of Two Lovers’ from Latin into French, German and Italian, make it by far one of the most popular works of literature of the fifteenth century. This hybrid genre, the epistolary novel, combined the familiar tropes of medieval courtly romances with the addition of love letters, thus are readers invited into the privacy of our lovers’ most intimate correspondence.

This article’s header image is a detail from this illumination in the Getty manuscript (France, c. 1460–70). It depicts multiple scenes from the story.

Aeneas addressed the preface to his friend Mariano Soccini (1401–67), promising the Sienese lawyer, ‘I’ll indulge your desire; I’ll make the grey hairs of your sickly lust to itch.’ For the fifteenth century, it was rather explicit, with its female protagonist described (with a nod to the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon) with, ‘generous breasts with swollen nipples like two pomegranates whose palpitations awakened desire.’ Three years later, in 1447, at the age of 42, Aeneas was ordained. Prior to his ordination and even by his own account, he had freely indulged his passions, fathering at least two illegitimate children: one while on a diplomatic mission to Scotland; another with a woman he had met in Strasbourg during the spring of 1442 — incidentally, at around the same time that Gutenberg had been in the city experimenting with an invention that would change the world forever.

And how fitting, then, that Aeneas should take the name Pius.

If you wish to read ‘The Tale of Two Lovers’ in English, then head over to CSL.

If you’d like to read more about typographic firsts, then you’ll enjoy, Typographic Firsts: Adventures in Early Printing, published by Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

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