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 in the British Museum—The white-vine style superseded by the classical renaissance.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.

One of the earliest illuminated Italian MS. which bears a date is a Volume of Letters of St. Bernard, now in the Library of Laon. It is very seldom that the earlier scribes and illuminators who produced Italian MSS. or worked in Italy were Italians. They were usually foreigners and mostly Frenchmen, and the art was looked upon at the beginning of the fourteenth century as a French art. This very decided example of Italian work is already different from the French work of the same period. The profile foliages have already acquired that peculiar trick of sudden change and reversion of curve, showing the other side of a leaf with change of colour, which is a marked characteristic of all fourteenth-century Italian illumination. For examples of it, the Bolognese Law Books, Decretals, and such-like, afford frequent illustration. Before leaving this first-quoted MS., we may say that it points to France rather than to Germany or Lombardy for its general form of design, but the foliages are quite of another kind. Another Laon MS. (352) shows the same treatment of foliage, but in effect more like what may be considered as the typical Italian style seen in the famous Avignon Bible of the anti-pope, Clement VII. (Robert of Geneva), which dates between 1378 and 1394.[42]

[42] See Humphreys, Illum. Books of the Middle Ages, pl. 16; and Silvestre, Paléographie Universelle, pl. 117.

A further example still more powerful in expression and skilful in manipulation is seen in a copy of the Poems of Convenevole da Prato, in the British Museum (Roy. 6 E. 9), executed for King Robert of Naples, a patron of Giotto (1276-1337), which, in comparison with the Laon Letters of St. Bernard of about the same date, is even still more Italian.

Cardinal Stefaneschi, another of Giotto's patrons, was also a promoter of illumination. His Missal, now at Rome in the archives of the Canons of St. Peter's, is a fine example of this style. It dates from 1327 to 1343. The MS. of Boethius at Laon is another. But one of the most masterly, whether as to design or manipulation, is a law book in the Library at Laon (No. 382). This grand folio contains “Glossa Ioannis Andreæ in Clementinas”—“The Gloss or Explanation of Joannes Andreas on the Clementines.”

By the way, as illuminated law books, civil and canonical, form so large a section of Italian MSS., it may be well in this place to warn the reader against random explanations sometimes offered in sale catalogues concerning these books, their authors and commentators. For instance, this commentator Joannes Andreas was not, as we have seen it confidently stated (as if it were part of the actual contemporary title of the MS.), Bishop of Aleria (Episcopus Aleriersis), but a jurist of Bologna. The bishop lived a century or so after the jurist, who had completed his long career as professor of law at Bologna extending over forty-five years before the bishop was born. His chief works are Commentaries on the Clementines (printed in folio at Mayence 1471, and again at Dijon in 1575), and Commentaries on Five Books of the Decretals (printed in folio at Mayence in 1455, and at Venice in 1581). While on this topic of Italian law MSS., it may be useful to state clearly what they are. By way of contrast to theCorpus Juris Canonici, or Body of Canon Law, the subject of books dealing with the so-called Decretals, the other branch, including the Institutes Digest and Novellæ of Justinian, was entitled Corpus Juris Civilis.

The Decretals, then, which we so often meet with in public libraries under various names, are the canons which mainly constitute the Canon Law. Strictly speaking they are the papal epistolary decrees (decreta), said to have existed from very early times. In the ninth century a collection of them was formed, or manufactured, in the name of the celebrated Isidore of Seville. But with the donation of Constantine to Pope Sylvester and many others in the later compilation of Gratian, these are usually looked upon as spurious and false. The great and authorised collection was completed by a simple Benedictine monk of St. Felix, in Bologna, a native of Chiusi, the ancient Clusium, in Tuscany, a man so learned in the law as to have earned the title of “Magister.” This is the work often richly illuminated which goes by the name of the “Decretum Gratiani.”[43] When glancing over the lovely initials and beautiful foliages or resplendent ornaments, we are apt to overlook the work itself which is truly monumental; being a summary of the papal epistolary decrees, the synodal canons of 150 councils, selections from various regal codes, extracts from the Fathers, and comments of Schoolmen; all methodically arranged and digested so as to facilitate its use as a manual for the schools. It is said to have occupied the compiler incessantly for twenty-five years. Immediately on its completion in 1151 it was at once authorised by the Pope Eugenius III. as the only text-book to be used in the public schools, and to govern the decrees of the Ecclesiastical Courts. Hence its celebrity. Its transcripts are very numerous, and it has been often printed. As to the Sext and Clementines they are merely additional commentaries on supplementary collections of decrees. Thus a new collection authorised by Boniface VIII. is called the sext, i.e. the sixth book of the Decretals. The Clementines were the constitutions of Clement V. Other collections such as that of John XXII. are called Extravagantes.

[43] See Add. 15274, British Museum.

The most ancient MSS. of the Decretals bear the title of Concordantia discordantium Canonum (a “concordance of discordant decrees”); afterwards The Book of Decrees; lastly, The Decretals. It was considered, however, by some, jurists and others, to be not so much a concordance of discordant canons as a subjugation of the ancient canons to the decrees of the Papacy, and as already stated, many of its decrees were found to be false and fictitious. Nevertheless, it is by no means an uncommon volume among the illuminators. Let us now return to the Laon example—one of four or five of the species in that collection. The scene where the author is presenting his work to the pope—we now know them both—is quite a painting. Except for the defect that kneeling figures are somewhat mis-shapen or ill-proportioned in the lower limbs, the work is quite comparable with contemporary mural painting, both for composition and colour. It is almost modern. It is quite realistic. In costume, expression, easy and appropriate attitude, it has quite outrun French illumination altogether.

Another dated MS. (1332) in the same Library (No. 357), “Rubrics of the Decretals,” is a most amusing example of the universal taste for irony and satire in the initial figures and corner effigies.

A much-lauded MS. among these fourteenth-century examples is one that has been carefully and expensively reproduced by the late Cte. Horace de Viel-Castel, namely, the “Statuts de l'Ordre du Saint-Esprit au Droit Désir ou du Nœud,” an order instituted at Naples in 1352 by Louis I. d'Anjou (called Louis of Taranto), King of Jerusalem, Naples, and Sicily, cousin and husband of Queen Joanna of Naples. The style of the illumination is precisely the same as those just mentioned belonging to Laon, and as several MSS. in the British Museum. Its stem and foliage ornament is very brightly coloured in fine green, scarlet, rose, ultramarine, and gold. The miniatures which occasionally contain evident attempts at portraiture, are painted in the manner of the school of Cimabue and the earlier Italian painters, more particularly that of Simone Memmi. It is substantially the Byzantine manner, but improved and enlivened by attention to natural attitude and expression. The greenish under-painting of the flesh-tints is often noticeable. The decorative portions are very skilful and elaborate, as well as extremely neat and symmetrical; the gold profuse and brilliant. Indeed, the whole production may be studied as a typical example of its time. The text, though good, is not so beautiful as the Bolognese hand usually found in Italian MSS. of the following century. But perhaps this should add to its value as a proof of its being absolutely contemporaneous with the foundation of the Order, and therefore of its being the identical MS. ordered by the magnificent founder, Louis of Taranto, second husband of the too-celebrated Joanna of Naples. Their marriage took place in the August of 1346, and on the 27th of May, 1352, being Whitsun Day, they were crowned. In memory of this happy event, Joanna founded the Church of the Virgin, Louis instituted the Order of the Holy Spirit, or of the Knot, the symbols of which appear frequently in the illumination of the MS. It was named in honour of the Day of Pentecost—“L'Ordre de la Chevalerie du Saint-Esprit.” The phrase “au droit désir” had reference to the circumstances preceding the marriage. The knot was worn in token of the “perfect amity” of the members of the Order.[44]

[44] See reproduction, published at Paris by Englemann and Graf in 1853, 1. fol.

Other works of the fourteenth century are enthusiastically praised by Italian writers, as, e.g., those of Don Silvestro, a Camaldolese monk, who flourished at the same time as the illuminator of this MS. of Louis of Taranto, and who worked on the great choir books of the Monastery “degli angeli,” in Florence, so loudly commended by Vasari and others who had seen them. They have long been broken up and dispersed, and it is not improbable that cuttings from them were among those bought by Ottley, Rogers, and other amateurs. A fragment of an Antiphonary of Nocturnal Services, now in the Laurentian Library at Florence, finished in 1370, shows the style of work to be of the kind just described. Other great choir books of the earlier period are preserved in the Academy at Pisa. But the number of MSS. to which reference might be made is legion. Those of this date are chiefly civil law books; next to these come the canon law, and divinity. Among the intermediate class are the copies of the Rationale of Durandus, one of these being in the British Museum (Add. 31032). Now and then a fine Missal, like the “Stefaneschi,” or the Munich Missal of 1374, which may be referred to as being one of the models of the school of Prag. On the whole, perhaps, the law books are more numerous than liturgical ones, and are referable generally to Bologna or Padua. The name of Nicholaus of Bologna occurs more than once in these books. A book of offices of the Virgin, by Nicholaus, is now at Kremsmünster, and a New Testament, dated 1328, in the Vatican. Tommaso di Modena, another distinguished Italian illuminator, also had much to do with altering the style of the artists who worked for Charles IV. at Prag. Some of his work, or work presumed to be his, is still to be seen in the Bohemian capital. Next to these Bolognese MSS. we may place those of Florence—copies of the Divina Commedia and the Triumphs and Sonnets of Petrarch, which, with historians and copies or translations of the classics, chiefly occupied the illuminators of Florence and Siena, with one notable exception. Whoever has visited any of the North Italian cities cannot fail to have noticed and admired the magnificent choir-books still to be seen in the cathedrals and cathedral libraries. At Siena the Piccolomini service-books are truly splendid; those in San Marco, the Riccardi, the Laurentian, and other collections in Florence, are no less admirable. Verona's best work is chiefly elsewhere, at Florence, Siena, etc. At Milan the Brera Graduals—each of them a man's load to carry—are simply gorgeous in the lavish richness of their letters, miniatures, and decorations. Venice, again, has another grand collection of MSS. of the highest class in her Attavantes and Gerard Davids; Rome, in a crowd of princely libraries, has multitudes—literally multitudes—of exquisitely illuminated volumes. Naples also has some noble examples of the great craftsmen. We have not yet mentioned the Ambrosian Library in Milan, nor, except the Vatican, a single library by name in Rome. The mere names of the Corsini, Sciarra, Barberini Libraries are enough to those who have ever explored their contents to remind them of work that can nowhere else be seen so perfect, so profuse, as in beautiful Italy.

As specimens of local centres the British Museum offers many examples. Thus Add. 15813, though ordered for Sta. Justina of Padua, was probably illuminated at Venice; 15814 at Bologna; 15260 probably at Ferrara; 18000 at Venice; most of the fragments in 21412 in Rome; 20927 in Rome; 21591 at Naples; 28962 at Naples; 21413 at Milan; the majority of the Ducali, of which the museum contains a large collection, in Venice. Some of the Spanish-looking MSS. executed for Alphonse V. of Aragon were actually produced in Naples.

C. 1530
Brit. Mus. Ada. MS. 15813, fol. 27
Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 17525, fol. 155

It is not safe to assert that because a work is ordered for a monastery or a prince that the copyists or illuminators always went to the monastery or palace to do the work, though frequently they did so. Most of the MSS. executed for Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, were produced in Florence. There was more than one atelier of illuminators in Florence. There were others in Bologna, others in Rome, and quite a large establishment in Naples. Others resided in Milan, Ferrara, and Verona. Those at Ferrara lived chiefly at the Ducal Palace. Those at Verona were the guests of the great Ghibelline leader, Can della Scala, and his immediate successors. Those at Naples, in the time of Alphonso the Magnanimous, and especially of his son, Ferdinand I., were maintained solely for the augmentation and embellishment of the Royal Library.[45] A list of seventeen copyists, including the famous names of Antonio Sinibaldo, Giovanni, Rinaldo, Mennio, and Hippolito Lunensis, and of fourteen or fifteen illuminators, all of distinguished ability, is given by Signer Riccio from the archives of the city. The splendid work they achieved may still occasionally be met with. In the British Museum (Add. 21120) there is a beautiful copy of the Ethics of Aristotle, with very peculiar initials and ornaments; and in the National Library, at Paris, many other very fine examples of Neapolitan work. Of the handwriting of Mennius we have a fine example in Add. 11912, which is a quarto copy of Lucretius, written on 160 leaves of vellum. Fol. 1 has a grand border on a gold ground, with a miniature containing a handsome initial E suspended over the author's head, who is seated at a desk writing. The first three lines of the text are in Roman capitals, alternately gold and blue. The illumination is of a transitional character, inclining rather towards the candelabra style of the Milanese and Neapolitan Renaissance—the Heures d'Aragon, executed for Frederick III., show a similar taste for candelabra, etc. On the other hand, the initials are of the older white stem type, with coloured grounds. The writing is a small and very neat Roman minuscule, and dates probably about 1485, or between 1480 and 1490. The penmanship of Hippolito Lunensis appears in Ficino's Translation of Plato; also in the British Museum, Harl. 3481, and in Add. 15270, 15271.

[45] Riccio, C.W., Cenno Storico dell Accademia Alfonsina. Naples, 1865.

The Heures d'Aragon referred to above are a rich example of the Neapolitan Renaissance preserved in the National Library at Paris. Writers on Italian miniatures are very numerous, and a good deal of interesting information about Italian MSS. may be found in M. Delisle's Cabinet des MSS., etc.

There is one style of Italian illumination made very popular by the illuminators of the works of Petrarch, many of which are found in various libraries. That is the one called the vine-stem style. It consists of gracefully coiled stems, usually left uncoloured or softly tinted with yellow, and bearing here and there peculiar ornamental flowerets, while the grounds are picked out with various colours, on which are fine white triads of dots or traceries in delicate white or golden tendrils. A later variety of this style makes the stems of some pale but bright tint, and the grounds of deep colour. The vine-stem style seems to have prevailed throughout the whole of Italy just previous to the classic revival brought about by the Medici in throwing open their museums of sculptures, coins, and other antiquities, and by the liberal patronage of the new classic work by Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, and the Dukes of Urbino. After 1500 the vine-stem style seems to have gradually died out, and thenceforward only varieties of the revived antique became the fashion.

To the Italian Renaissance we shall revert in a later chapter.