The Manicule: A Remnant of Readers Past

Between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries, the manicule was one of the most common symbols inscribed by readers in the margins of manuscripts and inserted by publishers in printed books. This small hand with the index finger extended, was primarily used to indicate a particularly important passage of text, but would become so much more than a simple highlighting device.  

I first noticed this intriguing symbol in some of the eighteenth-century texts from the Rare Books Collection, which I am working with as part of the Cultural Collections Projects Program (pictured left). The very first one that I examined had a relatively simple, yet well-drawn manicule in the margins of one of the pages, pointing directly at a sentence in the text.[1] However, as I progressed to the next text, the manicule had become no more than a quick scribble which faintly resembled a hand.[2] The quality between the manicules in these books was striking – why was there such a difference?   

One explanation could be that in the latter case I had stumbled across a late example of the handwritten manicule, which began to fall out of use during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and printed manicules, inserted by publishers, took their place. In the centuries before, the handwritten manicule was a sight to behold, with some so detailed that they took over the entire margin of a page.  These fascinating hands, which are often severed just after the cuff, shared a generic form yet were undeniably individualistic, reflecting the personality of their inscriber.  

While each manicule shared the same basic features and function, their appearances were very distinctive. Some would have extravagant cuffs, dotted with jewels, while others sported simple sleeves. The hands themselves could also be extremely detailed and lifelike, right down to the fingernails. Or, they could be no more than a few scribbles suggesting the barest outline of a pointing hand.

They all, however, have the ability to evoke the reading concerns of their long departed writers. Working almost like a signature, the manicule was a personal symbol that readers developed and used to indicate their presence in the text.[3] Indeed, the clothing accompanying the hands can be dated if detailed enough, enabling us to know the exact period in which the reader was active.  

It is interesting to note that despite the pervasiveness of the manicule in the history of textual culture, it took quite a long time for a single word to come to represent the device. The manicule has had approximately fifteen English names: hand, hand director, pointing hand, pointing finger, pointer, digit, fist, mutton fist, bishop’s fist, index, indicator, indicule, maniple and pilcrow.[4] The term ‘manicule’ has become the one most employed by manuscript specialists, however. The word itself derives from the Latin maniculum, meaning ‘a little hand’ (in any posture), providing quite a general and accurate description of this common symbol.  

While beginning as a simple indexical tool, over time, the manicule has become a remnant of readers past, a pictorial signature that enabled the reader to leave their presence with the book, long after they had gone.  

Gemma Lee 

PhD Candidate 

School of Historical and Philosophical Studies 

Research Assistant, Great Rare Book Archaeological Dig Project

Museums and Cultural Collections Projects Program

University of Melbourne 


[1] Cicero, Marcus Tullius, John Davies, Adrien Turnèbe, and Petrus Faber. M. Tullii Ciceronis Academica (Cantabrigiae: Typis academicis, sumptibus autem Corn. Crownfield: Prostant apud Jacobum Knapton, Robertum Knaplock, & Paulum Vaillant, bibliopolas Londinenses, 1725).  

[2] Cicero, Marcus Tullius, and John Davies. M. Tullii Ciceronis Tusculanarum disputationum (Cantabrigiæ: Typis Academicis. Sumtibus Corn. Crownfield. Prostant apud J. & J. Knapton, J. Crownfield, R. Knaplock, N. Prevost, & A. Vanden Hoeck, bibliopolas Londinenses, 1730). 

[3] William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).  

[4] The last two terms, ‘maniple’ and ‘pilcrow’ are considered mistakes in terminology, as neither accurately refer to a symbol which represents a pointed hand. The rest of the terms have all been correct at some point in the history of texts. William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). 


Some Fascinating Early Woodcuts of Women from Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus

De Claris Mulieribus, or De Mulieribus Claris, translated as ‘Concerning Famous Women’, by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), is a prime example of one of the treasures contained within the University’s Rare Books Collection. Originally published in 1374, the University acquired a copy in 1903, as part of the George McArthur Bequest.

The Rare Books Collection holds a German edition of this text, printed in 1541, which is full of intricate (and occasionally incredibly gruesome) woodcut illustrations of women, courtesy of notable German printer, Heinrich Stayner.[1]. De Claris Mulieribus is a crucial piece in the history of Western literature, and of Renaissance history, being one of the first texts to appear with women as its primary focus.

De Claris is comprised of 106 short biographies of ‘famous women’. This work acts as a feminine counter to a similar project undertaken by a compatriot and close friend of Boccaccio’s, Petrarch, whose De Viris Illustribus is a collection of 36 biographies of famous men through history. The subjects of Boccaccio’s work are drawn from a number of sources, including religious texts, as is the case with Eve, the first woman to appear in the book; through Greek and Roman myths, where a large number of the subjects including Circe, Medusa and Isis originally appeared; to real life heroines, including Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and Sappho, the Greek poet.

Even though Boccaccio’s text focuses on famous female figures, his selections are somewhat puzzling. While he himself was deeply religious, his text favours subjects drawn from mythology, claiming in his Preface that the life stories of Christian women had already been celebrated in literature: they had ‘sought eternal glory by means of an endurance that was often contrary to human nature’, whereas his mythical subjects achieved ‘earthly fame with the help of gifts and instincts they had received from nature.’[2] A number of Boccaccio’s subjects, such as Medea, do legitimately bad things – according to Apollonius she helped Jason to steal the Golden Fleece. In order to distract her father, Medea kills her brother Absyrtus and, as is demonstrated in the accompanying woodcut in this book, throws his hands and head off a horse as they ride off. Yet, Boccaccio believed that the women he selected deserved to be praised, for their ‘intellectual powers…literary accomplishments…moral virtues or their artistic creations.’[3]

It is this praise of women of antiquity that marks this book as a pivotal moment in Renaissance literature. The familiarity Boccaccio displays with Livy, Ovid and Pliny, among other ancient writers is demonstrative of the ways in which they were embraced and drawn upon as a source for humanist philosophers. Indeed, as Virginia Brown, in the Introduction to her 2003 translation writes, Boccaccio here ‘provides a striking foretaste of ideas that would later find clearer expression in the Renaissance….such as the view that it was appropriate for gifted women to seek and acquire fame for their contributions to art, literature, and the active life of public affairs.’[4]

Over the course of its life, the University’s copy of De Claris has been witness to these changing attitudes towards women. As previously mentioned, the text contains a short biography of Sappho, the Greek poet. Sappho is best known for her poems about love and women, and through history, both her character and her writing has been subject to an array of both praise and condemnation. Her poetry, rediscovered in the medieval and later period, led to speculation regarding her sexuality, with critics chastising her for her apparent homosexuality.[5]

Perhaps this is why, in the University’s copy, the pages relating to Sappho have been torn out? Not removed carefully, but ripped, leaving a jagged shard of paper behind. It is easy to imagine this page devoted to Sappho, who was adopted during the Modernist period (by Djuna Barnes) as a ‘patron saint of lesbians’, being torn out at some point in the book’s life, during one of the many periods when patriarchal and religious views pertaining to women and homosexuality have erred on the side of condemnation.

De Claris Mulieribus is an incredibly important work, not only in the history of Western literature, but as an artefact and embodiment of Renaissance thought. This relatively progressive text paved the way for other early works depicting women, such as those by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) and Christine de Pizan (1364-1430).[6] De Claris stands as a crucial piece in the history of women in literature, and indeed in the history of women and feminism, literally embodying the way attitudes towards women have changed over time.

Jaxon Waterhouse

Research Assistant, Rare Book Detectives Project

Museums and Collections Projects Program


[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Ein Schoene Cronica oder Hystoribuch... Augsburg: durch Stayner, Anno M.D.XXXI [1541]

[2 Virginia Brown, On Famous Women, xv-xvi.

[3] Brown, xviii.

[4] Brown, xiv-xv.

[5] Reynolds, THE Sappho Companion, 295.

[6] See: Christine di Pizan The Book of the City of Ladies, Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.

Bound in History – Never Judge a Book By Its Cover…Or Its Spine

Following the invention of the printing press, bookbinders in the 15th to 18th centuries cut up and recycled earlier handwritten manuscripts from the Middle Ages.[i] Take, for example, the Historia Jesuitica.[ii] Published in 1627, written in Latin and housed in the University of Melbourne Rare Books Collection, the subject of this book is Jesuit history. A Roman Catholic religious order of priest and brothers, the Society of Jesus (whose followers are Jesuits) was founded near Paris in 1534 and expanded to other countries in Europe (Italy, Spain) and further afield (Japan, India, Brazil). [iii]

While the contents of this book are fascinating, the book’s cover has its own story and comes from a 13th century manuscript. Made from vellum, animal skin, this earlier manuscript was part of a breviary, a book containing the necessary daily psalms and readings for Roman Catholics, and includes lections (sacred text read in a religious service), responsories (an anthem sung by a soloist and choir alternatively following a lection) and versicles (a short verse said or sung by a officiant which the congregation responds to) — (thank you!). [iv] Ornate in nature, you can see the sheet music on the back cover and if you can read Latin, you are in luck!

Recycling and repurposing was not limited to Middle Age Latin manuscripts nor is the Historia Jesuitica the only book of this nature in the University of Melbourne Collection. In 1820 London, a copy of Cicero De Officiis was printed and while not bound in an medieval manuscript (it’s a hardback), part of the book’s spine has fallen away to reveal – newspaper.[v] Not an ancient edition either but one dated to mid-December 1937.[vi] English language newspapers were not the only ones reused for binding. Part of the spine of A Manual of the Trichinopoly district in the presidency of Madras has fallen away to reveal newspaper in Tamil, the language of Tamil Nadu, India, and the same state where the book was published.[vii] It appears at some point these, and other, books were reinforced with newspaper and as the books start to fall apart, little fragments of history come to light.

Wandering through the Rare Books Collection, you often see something interesting poking from the spines of the older books. It makes you wonder what else is hidden among the shelves…

Tamara Jones

Research Assistant, Rare Book Detectives Project

Museums and Cultural Collections Projects Program


[i] Alberge, D. (2016, June 5). X-rays reveal 1,300-year-old writings inside later bookbindings. Retrieved August 2, 2017, from The Guardian:

[ii]  Lucius, L. (1627). Historia Jesuitica : de Iesuitarum ordinis origine, nomine, regulis, officiis, votis … in quatuor libros tributa … / per M. Ludovicum Lucium … Basel: Jacobi Genathi.

[iii] About Us – The Jesuits. (n.d.). Retrieved August 2, 2017, from Jesuits:; Australian Province of the Society of Jesus. (2016). About Us. Retrieved August 2, 2017, from Australian Jesuits:; Lucius, L. (1627). Historia Jesuitica : de Iesuitarum ordinis origine, nomine, regulis, officiis, votis … in quatuor libros tributa … / per M. Ludovicum Lucium … Basel: Jacobi Genathi.

[iv] Breviary. (2017). Retrieved August 2, 2017, from; Lection. (2017). Retrieved August 2, 2017, from; Responsory. (2017). Retrieved August 2, 2017, from; University of Melbourne. (n.d.). Historia Jesuitica : de Iesuitarum ordinis origine, nomine, regulis, officiis, votis … in quatuor libros tributa … / per M. Ludovicum Lucium … Retrieved August 2, 2017, from University Library Catalogue:; Versicle. (2017). Retrieved August 2, 2017, from

[v] Cicero, M. T. (1820). Cicero De officiis ; or his treatise concerning the moral duties of mankind : to which are subjoined, his moral paradoxes ; the vision of Scipio, concerning a future state ; and his letter on the duties of a magistrate ; with notes historical and explana. London: J. D. Dewick.

[vi] Cicero, M. T. (1820). Cicero De officiis ; or his treatise concerning the moral duties of mankind : to which are subjoined, his moral paradoxes ; the vision of Scipio, concerning a future state ; and his letter on the duties of a magistrate ; with notes historical and explana. London: J. D. Dewick.

[vii] Krishnamurti, B. (2017). Tamil language. Retrieved August 2, 2017, from Encyclopaedia Britannica:; Moore, L. (1878). A Manual of the Trichinopoly district in the presidency of Madras. Madras: R. Hill at the Government Press.


Apollo Transformed: exploring connections between the collections

From cuneiform tablets to Renaissance and Baroque prints, thousands of gems are nestled in the University of Melbourne. Many of these historically charged yet often whimsical pieces can currently be viewed in Arts West: in the teaching lab, gallery and in the cabinet displays peppered about the building. Taking a closer look at some of the connections between two vibrant collections, I trace the transformations undergone throughout the centuries by the figure of Apollo, the beloved Graeco-Roman god of poetry, prophecy and light.

Figure 1: A bronze figure of Apollo, Italian, 1st century A.D.

The classics and archaeology collection of the Ian Potter Museum is the perfect starting-point for our investigation. Here we find a charming bronze figurine of the god Apollo (fig. 1). The figurine is paradigmatic of Graeco-Roman representations of the god Apollo, and of the human physique. In its idealised proportions, swayed hips and contrapposto stance, the figurine reveals its Greek pedigree, harking back to Greek types such as the famous Apollo Belvedere (of which a 2nd century AD Roman copy survives, held in the Vatican Museum). Such Hellenising bronze figurines were extremely popular in the Roman world. Much like the cheaper replicas of antiquities that were brought home by Grand Tourists as proof of cultural refinement, these figures were highly prized by elite individuals, who sought these cabinet pieces as testament to their taste and cultural connoisseurship.[1]

Figure 2: A bronze statue of Harpocrates, Italian, 1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D.

Another example is a small (and quite delightful) Roman statue of Harpocrates (fig. 2), which is currently on display on level two of the Arts West building. The widespread manufacture of these bronzes suggests the extent to which the Greek tradition was admired and emulated in the Roman world and beyond.

Figure 3: Melchior Meier, Apollo Flaying Marsyas and the Judgment of Midas, 1581

Some centuries later, the artists of Early Modern Europe devoted much attention to the surviving art and literature of classical antiquity. Observe, for example, Melchior Meier’s Apollo Flaying Marsyas and the Judgment of Midas, (1581) (fig. 3). This stunning scene draws on two entertaining episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (circa 8 AD). The section on the left draws on Ovid’s account of the punishment inflicted on the satyr Marsyas for his boast that his musical talents surpassed those of the god Apollo.[2] Elsewhere, Ovid relates a musical contest between the Arcadian god Pan and Apollo, in which Apollo transforms Midas’s ears into those of a donkey for preferring Pan’s tunes.[3] Meier’s representation skilfully weaves together these two mythological tales, depicting the flayed Marsyas on the left, while the god mocks the donkey-eared Midas with Marsyas’ flayed skin on the right.

Importantly for our survey of Apollo’s guises, the depiction of mighty Apollo in the centre of the engraving shows the unmistakable influence of the Apollo Belvedere, one of the most famous of the classical sculptures that were studied by Renaissance artists. The Apollo Belvedere had been discovered near Rome in the late 15th century, and had become the subject of much interest for Early Modern artists by the early 16th century.

Figure 4: Johann Ladenspelder after Albrecht Dürer, undated

The Early Modern admiration for and adaptation of classical prototypes also emerges in an ostensibly biblically themed work, Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504). A copy of the work by Johann Ladenspelder is held in the Baillieu Library Print Collection (fig. 4). The poses of Adam and Eve here unmistakably echo those of the Apollo Belvedere and the Medici Venus.[4] Dürer had probably seen the Apollo Belvedere – if not directly, then via an illustrated reproduction – during his trip to Italy in 1494. Comparison with the attitude of the Apollo Belvedere reveals how Dürer has reversed the pose of the classical prototype, removing the Apollonian trimmings of the quiver and chlamys, but retaining the dynamic contrapposto pose and classically idealised proportions. In his famous work Lives of the Artists, contemporary art-historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) explicitly mentions the Medici Venus and the Apollo Belvedere, along with other familiar figures such as the Farnese Hercules and the Laocoon, as popular models for Renaissance artists representing human figures.[5]

It is notable that Dürer draws on classical sculptural models even in a biblically themed work. The whole thus epitomises an Early Modern spirit of cultural synthesis. Apollo, in the guise of Dürer’s Adam, has certainly undergone a great deal of transformation compared with earlier representations such as our bronze figurine (fig. 1).

Figure 5: Enea Vico after Baccio Bandinelli, The Academy of Baccio Bandinelli, 1564-61

Even when artists of the 16th century began pursuing different approaches to depicting human figures, the classical models were still of central importance. Early modern approaches to representing the body combined detailed study of classical types, and newer understandings of anatomy via dissection. This Early Modern use of both dissected cadavers and classical sculptures for representing human figures is recorded in Enea Vico’s engraving of The Academy of Baccio Bandinelli (circa 1564-61), after Baccio Bandinelli (fig. 5). In this remarkable scene, the engraver has depicted the artist’s workshop as a space for fusing classical artistic theory (represented by the classical statuary in the foreground and above the mantelpiece) and anatomical study of the human body (seen in the dismembered human cadavers and bones shown in the foreground). With its idealised proportions and serpentine silhouette, the figure of a standing male in contrapposto (shown in the lower right foreground) epitomises classical representations of male figures – perhaps even inviting us to recall the image, so familiar to Early Modern artists, of the god Apollo.

Bandinelli’s scene evokes an atmosphere of fervent artistic activity, steeped in the classics and scholarly endeavour. The scene forms a rather attractive backdrop to this survey of Apollo’s journey from antiquity to the Early Modern period. During the course of this survey, Apollo has undergone a great deal of transformation – embodying, in a sense, the evolution of the classics in Early Modern Europe.


Caroline Ritchie, Research Assistant



[1] Hemingway, S. 2002, ‘Posthumous Copies of Ancient Greek Sculpture: Roman Taste and Techniques’, Sculpture Review 60 (2), 26-33.

[2] Tarrant, R. J. ed. 2004, P. Ovidi Nasonis Metamorphoses, Oxford: Oxford University Press, VI, 382-400.

[3] Ibid. XI, 146-171.

[4] Panofsky, E. 1955, The Life and Times of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 86.

[5] Vasari, G. (1986), Lives of the Artists, trans. by G. Bull, Middlesex: Penguin Classics, preface to part III.

Finding Dürer’s Perspective

In the early 16th century Nuremberg-born artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) changed the landscape of his artistic practise – literally. Taking his cue from Leon Battista Alberti (1404 –1472) and Piero della Francesca (1415–1492), Dürer began to introduce the ‘secret art of perspective’ into his works.[1]  He used measurement and geometry to produce images that created the illusion of depth in a flat pictorial-plane. Over five hundred years later, the University of Melbourne’s Print Collection set out to celebrate Dürer’s cross-disciplinary approach to art and mathematics with the Dürer Drawing Day!

In the beginning of his artistic career, Dürer did not have the precise understanding of perspective that is associated with him today. Dürer struggled in his very early works to separate the different pictorial-planes accurately enough to create the illusion of depth. In The Prodigal Son Amid the Swine (1496) for example, a tree appears to sprout from the roof of a house in the background. The year 1510 is a turning point for Dürer’s artistic practise. After his travels around Bologna, he had gained and practised knowledge of the art of perspective sufficiently to apply it in his own drawings. The Large Cannon (1518) is an impressive example of Dürer’s mastering of the overlapping plane and ability to create the impression of depth in a two-dimensional landscape.

Unknown Copier after Albrecht Dürer, The Prodigal Son and the Swine, engraving

Dürer’s (not so concisely named) 1525 Painter’s Manual: A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas, and Solids by means of Compass and Ruler (Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt) consolidated all the information about perspective that he had learnt in Italy.  The manual starts with an explanation of how to draw the most basic line. Each section of the book develops this line into more and more complex forms. These  forms, including spirals, columns, foreshortened squares, two and three-dimensional shapes, then form the artistic building blocks for drawing objects that appear to occupy ‘real’ space. The Manual was designed as a ‘step by step’ guide for aspiring art students, although Dürer concludes with a series of ‘cheats’ designed to create ‘easy’ perspective (perhaps for the lazy student).

Albrecht Dürer, Draftsman Drawing a Lute (The Manual of Measurement), woodcut, 1525

The Dürer Drawing Day took its inspiration from some of the final ‘cheat’ images in the Manual. Two 1525 woodcuts show contraptions designed by Dürer to (apparently) ‘easily’ draw accurate images of people and objects.  The second of these shows a draftsman drawing a lute. To paraphrase Dürer’s own description, a draftsman uses ‘a strong thread hammered into the wall to create the near point of sight and places a vertical frame parallel to the wall. Then ‘a lute or other object to your liking is placed on the opposite end of the table to the wall. The near point of sight is placed on parts of the lute and string attached with hot wax to the frame to mark where the near point of sight passes through the frame. The points that the crossed strings denote are then marked on ‘your drawing tablet creating an accurate dotted outline for the lute.[2] This complex description visually translates to the seemingly simple diagram shown in the woodcut.

Mastering an Old Master’s Technique

For the Drawing Day, this drawing device was recreated (complete with lute) to see whether Dürer’s ‘shortcut’ really worked. The experimental music collection at the Grainger Museum provided a back-drop for the Melbourne Print Collection’s attempt at an artistic experimentation of their own. With the exception of a few modern substitutes (masking tape instead of wax and Bluetac instead of a nail) a prototype Dürer drawing device was demonstrated to the assembled audience (including student artists) on the day.

Our modern reconstruction of Durer’s drawing apparatus

Theoretically, the device appeared to be a success. However, it was quickly discovered that the practical application was flawed. It required such meticulous positioning of the frame, object, paper and threads, that the slightest movement of any part of the device could undo the accuracy of the drawing. To create a perfect curve (as is required with a lute) was also incredibly time-consuming, as it required a lot of points to be marked in close proximity to each other – with each point requiring a minimum of two people to plot. A frustrated audience, who also struggled with Dürer’s shortcut, speculated whether the device was a literal drawing tool for Dürer or a visual representation of what a draftsman imagines when creating perspective or even a final joke on artists who did not take the time to read whole manual…

Alongside the drawing device, a number of Dürer’s prints (held at the Baillieu Library) were displayed for attendees of the Drawing Day to get up close to. The contrast between the complexity of the content of images (such as Melancholia, 1514), and the sparse and simplistic outlines produced by the drawing device was stark.  It was hard to imagine how the selection of dots and dashes on our page could ever evolve into a lute, let alone a detailed allegorical figure.

Selection of Durer prints from the Melbourne print collection

At the end of the Drawing Day the lute remained aloof and very difficult to draw. It seems most likely that alongside his understanding of geometry and his imaginative inventions, Dürer added a healthy dash of artistic talent to his works to make them masterpieces.

A masterpiece by one attendee of the Durer Drawing Day

With thanks to the Grainger Museum.

To learn more about the Baillieu’s Print Collection click here –


Katherine Reeve, recipient of the International Museums and Collections Award 2017



[1] Walter L. Strauss, Introduction in Painter’s Manual: A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas, and Solids by means of Compass and Ruler (1525), (Abaris Books, New York; 1977), p.7.

[2] Albrecht Dürer, Painter’s Manual: A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas, and Solids by means of Compass and Ruler (1525), trans. Walter L. Strauss (Abaris Books, New York; 1977)

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