ITALIAN ILLUMINATION

Barbaric character of Italian illumination in the twelfth century—Ravenna and Pavia the earliest centres of revival—The “Exultet”—La Cava and Monte Cassino—The writers of early Italian MSS. not Italians—In the early fourteenth century the art is French—Peculiarities of Italian foliages—The Law Books—Poems of Convenevole da Prato, the tutor of Petrarch—Celebrated patrons—The Laon Boethius—The Decretals, Institutes, etc.—“Decretum Gratiani,” other collections and MSS.—Statuts du Saint-Esprit—Method of painting—Don Silvestro—The Rationale of Durandus—Nicolas of Bologna, etc.—Triumphs of Petrarch—Books at San Marco, Florence—The Brera Graduals at Milan—Other Italian collections—Examples of different localities in the British Museum—Places where the best work was done—Fine Neapolitan MSS. in the British Museum—The white-vine style superseded by the classical renaissance.

Considering the position occupied by the Roman Empire as the civiliser of Europe, it is not a little curious and somewhat surprising to find that in the twelfth century, when German and French artists were doing such good and even admirable work, that of Italy was almost barbaric. A MS. in the Vatican (4922) is shown as a proof of this. It is not an obscure sort of book that might have been written by a merely devout but untrained monk for his own use, but a work of importance executed for no less a personage than the celebrated Countess Matilda. The scribe was Donizo, a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Canossa. It is of the early or præ-Carolingian type, rather inclined to Byzantine, but with the big hands and aimless expression of all semi-barbaric work. Yet it has a certain delicacy and carefulness. In Rome itself during the ninth century barbarism was at its very lowest point. Only the sea-port towns had any notion of what was being done in other places. Painting was practised, it is true, so was mosaic, but the worst of Oriental carpets would be a masterpiece of elegance beside anything done in Italy. Whatever gleams of artistic intelligence appear, they certainly emanated from Ravenna or Pavia. But as there were no wealthy and peaceful courts, no indolent, high-bred, luxurious courtiers during that dark and troublous period, miniature or illumination had no call for existence. In the twelfth century book-illustration consisted simply of pen-sketching of the most elementary kind. The Lombards alone produced anything like illumination. A sort of roll containing pictures of the various scenes of the Old and New Testaments which represented the leading doctrines of the Church, and which used to hang over the pulpit as the preacher discoursed upon them, is the only representative of the time. Such a roll was called an “Exultet” from its first word, which is the beginning of the line “Exultet jam Angelica turba cælorum” of the hymn for the benediction of the paschal wax tapers on Easter Eve. Several of these “Exultets” are still kept in the Cathedral at Pisa, and in the Barberini and Minerva Libraries in Rome.[40] Of course the pictures are upside down to the reader, so as to be right for the congregation.

[40] See one in British Mus., Add. MS. 30337, and description of it in Journ. of the Archæol. Assoc. vol. 34, p. 321.

Very little progress was made, as we may imagine, until after the great revival movement begun by Cimabue, Giotto, and their contemporaries, about the middle of the thirteenth century. But before taking up any inquiry into Italian work generally we must not omit reference to the remarkable MSS. produced at La Cava and Monte Cassino during the Franco-Lombard period. Some idea has already been furnished in dealing with Celtic MSS. and the foundations begun by Columbanus and his scholars. Indeed, the general character of these Lombard MSS. is seen in the Franco-Celtic. The distinguishing feature, if there be one, is the frequent recurrence among the interlacements of the white dog. The La Cava Library, which was one of the finest in Italy, has been transferred to Naples. Monte Cassino still continues and maintains not only a library but a printing press, from which the learned fathers have issued at least one great work on the subject of Cassinese palæography. Of all the præ-Carolingian hands, Lombardic or Lombardesque was certainly the most peculiar, and is perhaps the most difficult to read. One evidence of this is the diversity of opinion on the true reading of certain proper names in the original MS. containing the oldest text of Tacitus which happens to be a Lombard MS. The characters and other examples of the eleventh to the thirteenth century that have been published at Monte Cassino, however, fully illustrate the peculiarities of the handwriting, and give besides several splendid examples of calligraphy.[41]

[41] The La Cava MSS. have been described by P. Gillaume in an essay published at Naples, 1877, and those of Monte Cassino by A. Caravita, Monte Cassino, 1860-71.