The Manuscript, and the Poem

Murtha Baca

The 1681 Mellini manuscript held in Special Collections at the Getty Research Institute consists of twelve folios of handwritten text on laid paper,1 in folios folded together in four gatherings of three uncut leaves each to form a sort of pamphlet. The pages in the first section of the manuscript measure 7 ¾ by 10 ¼ inches. The second section of pages is slightly larger at 7 ¾ by 10 ½ inches. A half sheet forms the front “cover” of the manuscript.2 The folios are bound with S-twisted silk or linen cord, some original and some evidently added later. A number of the folios have a watermark3 with an anchor topped by a star; others have a watermark of a star with a globe (figs. 1, 2). The writing is in iron gall ink,4 which was used prevalently during Pietro Mellini’s time. The ink in the first section of the manuscript appears darker and the strokes are thinner, whereas the ink in the second section is browner and the strokes are thicker; the two sections are explicitly indicated as having been written in February and April of 1681, respectively.

Watermark with anchor and star from Mellini manuscript
Fig. 1. Watermark of an anchor topped by a star. From Pietro Mellini, “Relatione delle pitture migliori di casa Melini [sic] inviata à Madrid in versi,” 1681, cover. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute (860066)
Watermark with star and cross from Mellini manuscript
Fig. 2. Watermark of a star with a cross. From Pietro Mellini, “Relatione delle pitture migliori di casa Melini [sic] inviata à Madrid in versi,” 1681, fol. 1v. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute (860066)

On the cover, which consists of a single half folio on slightly heavier paper and in handwriting different from that of the poem itself, is the title “Relatione delle Pitture migliori di Casa Melini inviata à Madrid in versi” (“Account of the best Paintings in the Mellini Home sent to Madrid in verse”). The handwriting appears to date from the seventeenth or eighteenth century and is posterior to the writing of the poem itself.

In the upper left-hand corner of folio 1 recto, written in pencil, is “Millini Ph 6174/7773,” referring to the period when the manuscript was part of the Phillips collection.5 Also on folio 1 recto is a small tab with the Roman numeral VI; this is the number assigned to this item when it was still in its original place among Savo Mellini’s papers. Although the opening title clearly indicates that Pietro Mellini was the author, the handwriting is almost certainly that of a professional scribe, in all likelihood the same scribe who drew up the conventional inventory of the family’s collection of artworks in 1680.

On the versos of folios 1 and 2, at the lower right, the scribe wrote the first word or two that would appear on the recto of the following page (“Posa”; “Da Monsiù”); from folio 3 onward, this practice, which is found in many historical manuscripts, is abandoned. In the bottom center of folio 9 recto is an irregular wormhole, which continues through to folios 9 verso, 10 recto, 10 verso, 11 recto, 11 verso, and 12 recto.

The poem itself is divided into two parts: the first, dated February 1, 1681, describes fifty-three works in the Mellini collection; the second, dated April 26 of the same year, contains forty-two works. The numbering starts over with “no. 1” in part II. The poem is written in terza rima,6 the rhyme scheme used first and most famously by Dante in his Divine Comedy.7 As mentioned in the essay “Issues and Challenges in Translating Historical Texts,” knowledge of the Divine Comedy was an essential component of the education and culture of someone of Pietro and Savo Mellini’s social milieu.8 The last stanza of the poem is a quatrain,9 with the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B.

The item numbers, format, medium, and measurements of the works described in the poem are indicated in the right-hand margin in the first part of the poem, and in the left-hand margin in the second part of the poem. Part I has Arabic numbers, whereas in part II each number is preceded by “no.” It seems probable that this information was copied or transcribed from the conventional inventory of 1680.

This document is unique in that it is a hybrid of two very different types of texts: a poem (by a mediocre writer) strewn with literary and cultural allusions, and an inventory of works of art—a legal document that was typically drawn up during the process of settling a decedent’s estate.10 Thus we have a highly subjective, ostentatiously dramatic account of what Pietro Mellini believed to be the major works in his family’s collection, written in the form of a poem, combined with the kind of descriptive information on the format, dimensions, and media of the works that is typical of a conventional legal inventory.


  • 1. Laid paper is a handmade paper produced by laying pulp on a wire screen in a manner that leaves parallel and perpendicular lines in the finished product. A watermark pattern is often incorporated into the screen.
  • 2. See the essay "Provenance of the Mellini Manuscript" for details on how this manuscript was extracted from Savo Mellini’s papers.
  • 3. Watermarks are faint designs incorporated into paper during the papermaking process. They appear as translucent or shaded areas that are visible only through transmitted light. Watermarks were first introduced in Bologna in 1282.
  • 4. Iron gall ink is made by binding carbon particles in the extract of gall (an abnormal growth on oak trees); when applied to paper, iron gall ink darkens through oxidation.
  • 5. See the essay "Provenance of the Mellini Manuscript."
  • 6. Terza rima is a verse form consisting of stanzas of three lines each, with the rhyme pattern A-B-A, B-C-B, C-D-C, D-E-D.
  • 7. The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) is the most famous poem in the Italian language, and the first major work composed in the Italian vernacular (as opposed to Latin). Dante Alighieri wrote this epic poem between about 1308 and his death, in 1321.
  • 8. See the essay "Issues and Challenges in Translating Historical Texts" for further information.
  • 9. A quatrain is a stanza consisting of four lines.
  • 10. See the essay "What Is an Inventory?"