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09 February 2023

A newly-acquired manuscript of the Knights Hospitaller

For two hundred years, the Knights Hospitaller ruled the Greek island of Rhodes, just off the coast of Turkey. From there, this Christian military-religious Order fought a naval war against the growing Ottoman Empire, slowly pushing back the edges of Catholic Christendom. As the Ottoman advances continued, the Hospitallers made repeated calls for reinforcements from Europe. A new acquisition by the British Library, Add MS 89542, is one of the Order’s last pleas for aid for Rhodes.

A decorated manuscript page, written in Humanistic script with the opening words in gold, with a decorated border and an initial containing a portrait of a Hospitaller
The opening page of Giovanni Battista Gargha’s Orationes: Add MS 89542, p. 1

The manuscript is a presentation copy of Giovanni Battista Gargha’s Orationes, copied from the printed edition and made for the Hospitaller grandmaster Fabrizio del Carretto (r. 1513-21), who is depicted in a miniature in the volume. Gargha was a Hospitaller priest and diplomat. His Orationes was an early printed book containing the text of two speeches he made to Pope Leo X at the Fifth Lateran Council in December 1513 and March 1514. In these speeches, Gargha begged for support for the Order on Rhodes.

A decorated manuscript leaf with a panel featuring a man with a white beard and holding a rosary, wearing the black habit and white cross of a Hospitaller, bordered by colourful foliage and a seahorse.
Miniature of Fabrizio del Carretto, Hospitaller grandmaster: Add MS 89542, p. 1 (detail)

In his first speech, the Hospitaller grandmaster warned that a large Turkish fleet was being assembled to attack Rhodes, an island that he said was key to Christendom’s defence, with its strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling routes to the Black Sea, Turkey and Syria. He called for the reform of the Church, a new crusade against the Ottomans, and the capture of Constantinople and Jerusalem. Gargha’s second speech followed much the same lines as his first. He again called for a crusade and said that the Ottomans were now preparing to attack Italy itself. Such an expedition never came, but the Pope and Francis I of France did dispatch several ships to Rhodes.

A coloured map of Rhodes depicting its settlements and topography
A map of Rhodes, from Heinrich Hammer’s Insularium illustratum, c. 1490: Add MS 15760, f. 12v

The manuscript is just one of several pieces of Hospitaller propaganda held by the Library, including two printed editions of the Orationes (C.25.i.1.(6.) and IA.18396.(10.)), several copies of Guillaume Caoursin’s account of the 1480 siege of Rhodes in Latin, German and Danish, and an English pamphlet on the fall of Rhodes in 1522 (C.55.h.5).

A group of horsemen with scimitars pursue the Hospitallers from Rhodes. In the background, a group of soldiers stand by a ship.
Woodcut depicting the 1522 siege of Rhodes, from The begynnynge and foundacyon of the holy hospytall / & of the ordre of the knyghtes hospytallers of saynt Iohan baptyst of Ierusalem (London, 1524)

After fighting off sieges in 1444 and 1480, the island finally fell in 1522, when the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent besieged Rhodes for six months until the Hospitallers finally surrendered. At the back of our newly-acquired volume (pp. 38–40) is a unique text discussing the Order’s defeat. This French account was written by a Hospitaller soon after the siege, possibly a member of the Order’s chancery. The author bemoans the loss of Rhodes and the many dead in the siege, before giving a list of reasons why the island fell. It appears to be a unique text, and hints at a debate within the shell-shocked Order as to why they lost their island home of 200 years.

The manuscript is also notable for its fine humanistic script. The scribe was Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (b. 1475, d. 1527), who worked in the papal chancery in Rome. As a Vatican Scriptor, he wrote the formal antica tonda script, used in Gargha's Orationes, and popularised the cancelleresca (chancery) script. This became the model for the printing types with which he printed several short humanist texts. He also planned, but left unfinished, a manual of writing printed from wood blocks based on his hand, the first of its kind, of which many copies exist. The British Library holds four other manuscripts of his work (Add MS 26873, Add MS 11930, Royal MS 12 C VIII and Harley MS 5423), as well as copies of his printed publications. His pamphlet La Operina (1522) is thought to be the first European writing manual aimed at a general adult audience.

The opening pages to a printed book, with elegant Italic typography
Opening pages of Ludovico degli Arrighi, La Operina (Rome, 1522): C.31.f.8.(1.)

We are delighted that this manuscript of Gargha’s Orationes is now part of our collections. The manuscript was presented to the British Library by Nicolas Barker, formerly Head of Conservation at the British Library, who had received it in turn from Vera Law (b. 1899, d. 1985), calligrapher and gilder. The manuscript can now be viewed in full on our Universal Viewer.


Rory MacLellan

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