Commentary on:
Petitions from and Privilege granted to Gerard Voss for his Latin translation of the works of St. Ephrem of Syria (1589)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: va_1589


Commentary on Petitions from and Privilege granted to Gerard Voss for his Latin translation of the works of St. Ephrem of Syria, Rome (1589)

Jane C. Ginsburg


Please cite as:

Ginsburg, J.C. (2022) ‘Commentary on Petitions from and Privilege granted to Gerard Voss for his Latin translation of the works of St. Ephrem of Syria, Rome (1589)', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. The Petitions 

2. The Privilege

3. Formalities

4. Persons mentioned in the petitions and privilege


1. The Petitions

Voss’ petitions express growing frustration with the delay and expense of issuing the privilege he believed he was promised would be granted without fees.  The petitions combine some standard rationales with very individual argumentation.  Consistently with many privileges, Voss contended that the privilege would reward the author’s labor and the care the author took to ensure the work’s accuracy, and would prevent others from introducing errors into the text (“lest that work published recently in Rome, be changed or altered, or corrupted, whether by negligence or ill-will or any other pretense, or deformed by mistakes, or otherwise changed perchance in title, or form, either by adding or subtracting”).  Voss also sought to prevent others from “publish[ing] them [his translations] either with another title, or form, or changed under any pretense, or translated into any other language.”  In other words, he petitioned for control over derivative works, a request the privilege granted. 

Voss also requested “the usual remedies.” These include, as detailed in the privilege, confiscation of infringing books and typefonts; excommunication; and a hefty fine, to be paid to the Papal Treasury.  Although Voss’ privilege does not explicitly so state, many privileges indicate that the beneficiary of the privilege shares in the fine, see, e.g., Sec. Brev. Reg. 208 F. 74 (1593), (privilege to Antonio Tempesta specifying equal division of fine between Tempesta and the Apostolic Treasury).  Sometimes the fine was divided three ways, between the Apostolic Treasury, the right holder, and the accuser and executing magistrate, see, e.g., Sec. Brev. Reg. 339 F. 44,, Petition and Privilege for printing and distributing the Summa of St. Raymond of Peñafort.

Less typical was Voss’ aggrieved reference to having to pay for the privilege (most petitions make no reference to that expense; as a result, it is not clear what it cost to obtain a papal printing privilege). By contrast, some other petitions, like Voss’, explicitly reference the support of a patron, or even were submitted directly by the patron, see, e.g., Sec. Brev. Reg. 339 F. 44 (1603), (petition by Duke of Sessa on behalf of printer Giovanni Tallino);, Petition from a Cardinal and Privilege granted to Cosimo Gaci to translate, print and distribute works by St. Teresa of Avila from Spanish to Italian.  See also Arm XL v 49 F 204rv (n 235) (Dec. 5, 1534) (petition of the humanist and Bishop Claudio Tolomei on behalf of his relative Mariano Lenzi); Sec. Brev. Reg. 199 F 172r (Jan. 26, 1593) (Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini on behalf of painter Cesare Ripa); Sec. Brev. Reg. 239 FF 382 rv, 383r (petition), 389v, 390rv (May 26, 1596) (petition of Fra Giovannni Baptista Cavoto invoking Cardinal Aldobrandini); Sec. Brev. Reg. 303 FF 390 rv, 391r (petition), 392v, 393rv (Dec. 16, 1600) (Cardinal Aldobrandini on behalf of printer Antonio Franzino).  A few other petitions lament difficulties encountered in the process, see e.g., Sec. Brev. Reg. 266 F. 50 (1598) (petition of Orazio Torsellini, complaining of having, per the instructions of the Cardinal-Secretary of Papal Briefs, gone seven times to the Cardinal’s home to deliver the petition personally, only to find him always absent); Sec. Brev. Reg. 122 F 529 (second petition of Martin Zuria) (Sept. 3, 1586) (referring to perceived obstructionism by the Cardinal Secretary of Papal brevi, and asking for another cardinal’s intervention to resolve the impasse).  But none that I have found express so much frustration with the process as to threaten to cease entirely the production of the work for which the petitioner sought protection (“Truly and frankly I say, if that Motu Proprio is not conceded and expedited for me through all things freely, I have decided to disregard it entirely, & to defer every matter, therefore I would wish that the matter be judged well, so that a better resolution may be given.”).

Voss’ first petition references an already-printed book, apparently awaiting publication in order to be able to assert the privilege on the frontispiece of the book.  The first volume of Voss’ translation of the works of St. Ephrem was printed in Rome in 1589: Operum omnium sancti Ephraem Syri ... quotquot in insignioribus Italiae bibliothecis praecipuè romanis, graecè inueniri potuerunt: tomvs primvs [-tertivs] ... Interprete & scholiaste R. D. doct. Gerardo Vossio...(WorldCat/BAVat/Google Books). (Subsequent volumes appeared in 1593 and 1598, all asserting Papal privileges on their frontispieces.  See CNCE 18134)  Delaying publication until the privilege could be included with the work was not an uncommon practice.  See, e.g., Sec. Brev. Reg. 266 F 50 (1598) (petition of Orazio Torsellini, December 11, 1597, urging issuance of the privilege as soon as possible so that “the work is not held up any longer”).  The publication date printed on the Torsellini book’s frontispiece is 1597 (the petition is dated December 1597), even though the privilege did not issue until January 1598.  The frontispiece also states “Cum Privilegio Summi Pont.” which suggests it was typeset before the issuance of the privilege, and the publisher fully expected the privilege would in fact be granted.  The privilege is reprinted in full in the book.  See also Sec. Brev. Reg. 277 F 296 (petition) (Dec. 30, 1598) (Ulisse Aldovrandi requests that his privilege be expedited so that he can have the mention “Cum privilegio” printed in the book); Sec. Brev. Reg. 268 F. 132 (1598) (requesting privileges for six books, of which 2 have already been printed).  Petitions for other privileges similarly refer to the petitioner’s having had the works printed (“fatto stampare”) and now seek a privilege.  See, e.g., Sec. Brev. Reg. 138 F. 1040r (1588) (Tolomeo Veltronio for work on the Hospitalers of St John); Sec. Brev. Reg. 220 F 72 (1594) (Domenico Tarini da Turino for Bishop Panigarola’s Disputes against Calvin); Sec. Brev. Reg. 269 F 218 (1598) (Fra Gabriele Ferrara for book on surgery); Sec. Brev. Reg. 309 F 250 (1601) (for Giulio Mazzarino’s discourses on the Psalms).


2. The Privilege 

The text of the privilege, while containing much formulaic language, also seems subtly to acknowledge Voss’ annoyance, and to assure him of Papal goodwill.  The Pope (as represented by the Cardinal-Secretary of Papal Letters) asserts that he is granting the privilege entirely of his own accord, “not due to your insistence of the petition offered to us in this matter, nor due to that of another on your behalf” (a protestation rarely found in other privileges), and emphasizes that he is “accustomed to foster the talents of all learned men” (a self-congratulation that, albeit not exceptional, does not feature in most privileges).  The privilege also echoes Voss’ concern to maintain the integrity of his translation, although this rationale is far from unique to Voss’ privilege.

Substantively, with respect to rights and remedies, the privilege is consistent with most Papal grants.   It also includes a standard clause on proof of the existence of the privilege (the clause appears in other privileges in this database, see, e.g.,, Petition and Privilege for printing and distributing the Summa of St. Raymond of Peñafort;, Petition from and Privilege granted to Cosimo Gaci to translate, print and distribute works by St. Teresa of Avila from Spanish to Italian).  By the middle of the 16th century, Papal grants routinely called for publication of the privilege in the book and/or registration of the privilege with a notary public.  Enforcing officials were to give the printed or registered copy the same faith and credit as an original.


3. Formalities

Throughout the 16th century, published books and prints usually incorporated in the frontispiece the mention “con [or cum] privilegio,” or more specifically, “cum privilegio summi pont.” or similar indication of the provenance of the privilege(s).  Many privilege-holders, including Voss, republished the full text of the Papal privilege in the initial inside pages.  Sometimes the last pages carried the notice. Some books, particularly in the first half of the century, proclaimed stronger admonitions, warning that the printer or bookseller who violates the privilege will “incur horrendous and most grave fines, and will be anathema,” or cautioning that “REMEMBER: NO CRIME WILL GO UNPUNISHED.” (For more examples, and source references, see Jane C. Ginsburg, Proto-property in Literary and Artistic Works: Sixteenth-Century Papal Printing Privileges, 36 Colum. J. L. & the Arts 345 (2013)

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4. Persons mentioned in the petitions and privilege

Marcello Vestrio Barbiani (? – 1606). Cardinal-Secretary of Brevi (papal letters). The son of a famous giureconsulto (legal expert), Barbiani joined the Papal court after his wife, a Roman noblewoman, passed away. In 1596, he was granted a canonicate in the Vatican Basilica. Barbiani served in various capacities under Gregory XIV, Clement VIII, and Paul V, before passing at a very old age shortly before July 9th, 1606.  See Giammaria Mazzuchelli, Gli scrittori d’Italia Vol. 2, 1 at 303 (1758).

Antonio Boccapaduli (1530 – 1593). Boccapaduli was a priest at St. Peter’s, as well as a philosopher, orator, and jurist. See Marco Ubaldo Bicci, Notizia della famiglia Boccapaduli patrizia romana ordinate… at 144 (1762).

St Ephrem of Syria, also known as Ephrem of Edessa or Aphrem of Nisibis (c. 306 – ⁠June 9, 373). Born in Nisibis, St Ephrem became a famous theologian and prolific writer based in Edessa. He wrote the first Syriac commentary on the Pentateuch, as well as a great many teaching hymns—many of which survive today—causing him to be known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, becoming the only Syriac Christian ever declared so.

Gerard Voss (??? – 1609). Priest of the Diocese of Liège and distant relation to the famous theologian and scholar of the same name. In addition to compiling the works of St Ephrem, Voss edited and translated into Latin the works of Gregory Thaumaturgus, J. Chrysostom, and Theodoret as well. He also produced a commentary of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. See John Lemprière, Universal Biography, H-Z, at 767 (1825).



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