University of Chicago Library

Guide to the Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Collection of Northern Italian Documents, 1194-1794

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Descriptive Summary


Rosenthal, Samuel R. and Marie-Louise. Collection of Northern Italian Documents




2454 manuscripts


Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center
University of Chicago Library
1100 East 57th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.


The Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Collection of Northern Italian Documents is a group of 2,455 legal manuscripts, nearly all notorial, dating from the late-twelfth century to the eighteenth century.

Information on Use


The collection is open for research.


When quoting material from this collection, the preferred citation is: Samuel R. and Marie-Louise. Collection of Northern Italian Documents, Ms #, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Scope Note

The Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Collection of Northern Italian Documents is a group of 2,455 legal manuscripts, nearly all notorial, dating from the late-twelfth century to the eighteenth century.

The Rosenthal collection is particularly rich in materials documenting families and legal transactions in Verona, Padua, Treviso, Venice, and other cities of the Veneto. Landowning families whose names figure prominently in the collection include Baiamonte, Castello, Gandolfi, Persico and Riprandi, Rambaldi, Sagramoso, Spolverini, Tarengo, Tramarini, Vallisnieri, Aproino, Sessa, Barbarigo, Mocenigo, Priuli, and Raspi.

The documents in the Rosenthal collection are concerned with a wide array of legal acts and transactions, but especially with the transmission of land and property through land sales, leases, rents and exchanges, loans, debts and payments, dowries, testaments, and divisions of family patrimonies. The collection also contains legal instruments such as arbitration agreements, compromises, and decisions in lawsuits that affected the disposition of patrimonies. Nearly all of the documents are in legal Latin. Those in Italian, generally Venetian in origin and mostly post-1550, translate verbatim the Roman legal terminology.

Documents in the Rosenthal collection for the most part were commissioned by large landowning families as proof of legitimate title to property or to serve as the verification of tenures.

When land was sold, inherited, given in dowry, or renounced, the prior notorial instruments associated with the property passed into the hands of the new owner.

In this fashion the noble families of northern Italy gradually built up large collections of parchments pertaining to the collective patrimony, documents from a variety of sources that traced the accumulation, management, dispersal, and transmission of wealth over several generations.

Four smaller, distinct subsections complete the Rosenthal collection. The first is a group of Venetian ducal bulls issued from 1339 to 1596 and documenting public pronouncements by the doge of Venice on legal issues such as the validation of a testament or confirmation of a land transaction. A second non-notorial collection is composed of ducal documents dating from the eighteenth century that are administrative in origin and consist of short letters to governors and officials in the Venetian territorial dominion on military and fiscal affairs.

The final section of the collection comprises two groups of papal bulls that are distinct from each other and from the vast majority of the parchments. One group on heresy and the Reformation in Cologne provides a vivid picture of the Counter-Reformation papacy; the other is concerned largely with relations between the papacy and the city of Genoa in the sixteenth century, particularly as regards the construction of warships to lead an anti-Turkish fleet.

Provenance and Acquisition

The initial 2,452 documents in the Rosenthal collection were formerly in the possession of the notable nineteenth-century English antiquary Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872). In the preface to the catalogue of his library, Phillipps explained his passion for collecting and his eclectic approach to the acquisition of manuscripts and rare books:

In amassing my Collection of MSS. I commenced with purchasing everything that lay within my reach, to which I was instigated by reading various accounts of the destruction of valuable MSS. As in the beginning of any undertaking few persons are sufficiently masters of their subject as to judge unerringly what may be done & what not done so with regard to myself; I had not the ability to select, nor the resolution to let anything escape because it was of trifling value.

Phillipps' passion was such that he amassed some 60,000 manuscripts and 50,000 printed works, one of the largest private collections in history. His eclecticism was such that he purchased not only the classes of precious manuscripts sought by antiquaries and collectors, illuminated and literary works, classics, local histories, genealogies, and heraldry, but also commonly neglected pieces such as notorial documents. The extensive groups of notorial manuscripts acquired by Phillipps from Italian sources were among the very few such notorial collections ever to be taken out of Italy.

After Phillipps' death in 1872, the problem of the maintenance of his massive and largely unorganized collection became acute. In 1885 the heirs received permission from the courts to dispose of the manuscripts and some books and prints. It appears that one block of Veneto manuscripts was auctioned to an American buyer, Adolph Sutro of San Francisco, in the next few years, possibly in the Sotheby sales of 1893-1898.

A succession of auctions and private sales reduced the estate markedly, but even so a considerable body remained in the hands of Phillipps' heirs until 1946, when the collection was sold en bloc to the London booksellers William H. Robinson, Ltd. The pieces now in the Rosenthal collection, still unsold two decades later, passed to New York bookdealer H. P. Kraus in 1978. In the fall of 1982, the University of Chicago Library purchased the collection from H. P. Kraus and incorporated it within the manuscript holdings of the Department of Special Collections. The acquisition of this important collection of historical documents was made possible by a gift from two generous friends of the Library, Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal, for whom the collection was named.

Manuscripts 2454 and 2455 have the same provenance as those in the main body of the collection and were purchased by the University of Chicago in 1984.

Additional Description

Descriptions of individual documents may be found in the searchable Rosenthal Collection Database, which may be browsed by date, name, place, and subject.

In 1984, the Department of Special Collections published a guide to the Rosenthal Collection, Historical Documents from Northern Italy: The Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Collection (University of Chicago Library, 1984). Copies of this guide are available from the Special Collections Research Center.

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