Pierre Gilles

PIERRE GILLES, or Petrus Gyllius as he is known from his Latin texts, was born in Albi in 1490. We do not know very much about his youth and early education. Judging from his later work and interests, however, it is clear that he shared the education and enthusiasms of the new generation of French humanists. This included his contemporaries François Rabelais, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, and Guillaume Budé, all humanist friends or disciples of Erasmus and the Italian humanists.

GILLES TOOK an early interest in natural science, especially ichthyology, and studied the marine life along the southern coast of France and the Adriatic, in 1533 publishing his One Book on the French and Latin Names of the Fish. He followed the example of the best humanists by editing the works of his contemporaries. Among his editions are Elio Antonio de Nebrija’s A Dictionary of Place Names and Lorenzo Valla’s History of King Ferdinand of Aragon. He also published a Greek-Latin Lexicon, a translation of the Greek Father Theoderit’s Commentary on the twelve minor prophets, and a selection of texts from Aelian, Porphyry, Heliodorus and Oppian, among others.

IN 1544 Gilles left France with a French embassy that included the king’s royal cosmographer, André Thevet d’Angoulême. Gilles seems to have spent the years 1544 to 1547 in Constantinople, gathering literary sources and investigating the physical remains of the ancient city. Out of money, in 1548 he enlisted in Suleyman’s army and joined the expedition against Persia. In 1548 he met the French ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Gabriel d’Aramon, who took Gilles with him to the Holy Land and Egypt.

IN JANUARY 1550, still in d’Aramon’s company, Gilles returned to Constantinople. That same year he travelled with the ambassador back to France. Almost immediately upon his return, however, Gilles headed south to Rome. While in Rome Gilles began the work of sifting through the large number of source materials and notes that he had accumulated on the history of Constantinople. Gilles had made great progress in completing his book on Constantinople by 1555; but then, as the epitaph on his tomb tells us, he was stricken by a fever that he fought for eleven days before dying at the fourth hour on January 5, 1555. His patron Georges d’Armagnac provided for his funeral and his tomb, in the church of San Marcello in Rome.

FROM HIS EPITAPH we learn that Gilles was hard at work organizing his notes for his two works on Constantinople when he died. He apparently left these incomplete; and his nephew, Antoine Gilles, then took up the task of finishing his work. This he did faithfully; and in the 1560s a string of books emerged from his stewardship. The most important for our purposes appeared in Lyon in 1561 and were Gilles’ Three Books on the Thracian Bosporus and the Topography of Constantinople and Its Antiquities in Four Books.

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