Renaissance Manuscripts. The Sixteenth Century.
These volumes represent a lifetime's contribution and dedication to the field of sixteenth-century manuscript illumination studies by their author. Myra D. Orth, who passed away in 2002, was a specialist in the French book arts whose doctoral research focused on the 1520 Hours Workshop, now known as the group around Antwerp-trained Noel Bellemare.
At the time of her death, Orth had completed much of the catalogue and text, but in the subsequent years Joanna Fronska and Mary Rowse have supplied additional research, and Dierdre Jackson and Julie Hrischeva editorial support. Orth's work displays her immense depth of knowledge for the period roughly contiguous with the reign of Francois I. Analysis of production in this period occupies the vast majority of the introduction, although the catalogue's scope covers manuscript illumination up to 1570. The introduction does not discuss developments that took place in these later periods after the 1540s, nor explain why 1570, rather than the end of Charles IX's reign, forms the latter bookend.
Orth argues that manuscript illumination warrants a significant place in the history of French art and seeks better collaboration between print and manuscript research. She emphasizes though that manuscripts were not simply pre-print works, with clear evidence that some authors actively preferred circulation by manuscript long after the arrival of print--a point now well acknowledged in the field of scribal studies. Moreover, the coming of the illustrated print book made luxury manuscripts the commissions of a courtly and ecclesiastical elite. As leaders of fashion, these clients demanded works that displayed arts at their height, and evidence of their engagement with authors demonstrates interests for new texts, and for interpretation of the new intellectual movements of the age through commissioned translations of classical and humanist texts. Sixteenth-century illuminations, therefore, combined native visual traditions with adoption of Italian art and literature, due to increased French interactions during the Italian Wars, as well as Flemish influences stemming from other figural art forms such as stained glass and tapestry.
In the first volume, Orth also includes analysis of frames and borders, charting the artistic shift from tabernacle borders common in books of hours through to strap-work borders by the 1540s. She canvasses scholarly treatments of borders, of their interaction with the main image, their scope of artistic freedom and as an important intellectual apparatus to the text they accompanied. This is followed by a series of images discussed further in Volume 2's catalogue entries: thirty-three full-page colour plates of key illuminations, and 270 monochrome images. Thirty-three black and white comparative illustrations are added, with the numbers of the catalogue entries to which they relate. A further section to Volume 1 includes short biographies, firstly of artists and scribes, then of authors and translators, and of patrons, dedicatees, and first owners of the manuscripts. Each is appended with available documentation and relevant literature. Finally, six full-page family trees are presented.
Volume 2 is substantially concerned with the catalogue proper, including just four black and white illustrations. Here one hundred manuscripts are carefully presented, grouped by name of artists and in approximate chronological order. The examples represent both outstanding artistic merit and the nature of the subjects of interest at this era. As might be expected given Orth's own expertise, a substantial number, twenty-one, concern the Bellemare group. The catalogue documents bindings, descriptions of miniatures with the text that they introduce, frames and borders, text decorations and any decorated initials, manuscripts' collation, some samples of the text content, knowledge of a print publication, then descriptions of the script, page layout, and any irregularities or missing leaves. A further detailed commentary showcases Orth's enormous knowledge, discussing the commission, author, date, and character of each text. She considers the sources of miniatures and offers stylistic comparisons, highlighting specific examples and any unusual iconography, as well as providing a list of contemporary copies or closely related texts, information regarding provenance, and study of the work's binding. The references listed here are those Orth noted herself, thus including works up to 2002. Later in the volume there is an additional list of newer scholarship but it would be far better to integrate this with the relevant catalogue entries in any future iteration of this publication.
The Catalogue precedes a detailed glossary of terms, and several indices--of iconography, types of books (allegorical, historical, liturgical, etc.), provenance, and of the manuscripts. It includes a further list of the illustrations included in Volume 1. As this description of the contents will make clear, it would be well nigh on impossible to use the information in one volume effectively without the other.
Sadly, there is no subject index to the two volumes. In a reprint, such an index would go some way towards making this extraordinary, detailed research available to scholars interested in tangential questions. This would assist in fulfilling Orth's vision to integrate manuscript illumination analysis more fully into the wider culture and history of the period.
Since 2002, more and more major collections are providing online access to full-colour, high-resolution imagery of their manuscript holdings. This is very welcome, but it in no way obviates the needs for publications such as these that bring together and cross-reference a whole corpus of works spread globally and still hard to discover. Orth's work will be a vital resource not only for manuscript and book history studies, but also to literary, artistic, and historical scholars of the sixteenth century.
SUSAN BROOMHALL, The University of Western Australia
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2018|
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