Before the advent of printing, around the middle of the fifteenth century, books were not only written but decorated—often quite lavishly—by hand. The term "illumination" to describe these decorations was inspired by frequent use of gold and silver, in conjunction with colored paints, which literally made the page appear to "light up." The majority of works formerly in the collection of Robert Lehman represents one of the most spectacular types of illuminated manuscripts (and a specialty of Italian artists)—the oversized choir books, known as antiphonaries and graduals, that contain the sung parts of the mass. The principal form of decoration for these books consisted of large initials, often several inches square, placed at the beginning of each hymn and used as a framing device for a narrative scene appropriate to the text. When carried out by artists of the highest caliber, as they so often were, the results were virtual masterpieces in miniature.
Nearly all of the examples on view are single leaves or cuttings of individual initials, the result of the nineteenth-century practice of mutilating manuscripts for their beautiful miniatures. The removal of such works from their original context creates especially daunting challenges for scholars, and this exhibition reflects important new research on the collection in matters of dating, attribution, and provenance.
The important achievements of manuscript illumination in early Renaissance Florence are represented by such artists as Pacino di Bonaguida, the Maestro Daddesco, and the Master of the Dominican Effigies, whose interest in the suggestion of volume and pictorial space reflects the powerful influence of their more famous Florentine contemporary, Giotto. The Maestro Daddesco's Annunciation in an Initial M, about 1310–15, is especially remarkable for its Giottesque sense of monumental grandeur and gravity, despite the miniature scale.
A telling contrast is provided by a near-contemporary example of the same subject by the gifted but still-Gothicizing Emilian artist Neri da Rimini, in which the emphasis is more on exuberantly rendered decorative flourishes, such as the magically suspended draperies of the Angel Gabriel, than on naturalistic representation.
Important examples of later Florentine illumination include Lorenzo Monaco's Last Judgment in an Initial C, about 1406–7. Exquisitely painted in this master's ultrarefined and elegant manner, the cutting comes from the famous group of choir books created by Lorenzo and his shop for the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which were admired as the most beautiful and impressive of such works in all of Italy.
The earliest example of Sienese manuscript painting—and one of the most historically important revelations of this exhibition—is a leaf containing the only known illumination by Duccio di Buoninsegna, the founder of the Sienese school of painting. Dated about 1285–90, the miniature shows God the Father above the Virgin and Child, framed in an initial B. The infant's very childlike pose and gesture, reaching up to tug at his mother's veil, is one of the earliest appearances of an iconographic motif that will come to exemplify Duccio's new, humanistic approach to this devotional image.
Important examples of later Sienese illumination include a scene of the Virgin surrounded by saints in an initial E, about 1430–40, by the Master of the Osservanza, a close collaborator of the great Sienese master Sassetta, and Francesco di Giorgio's miniature of Saint Bernadino Preaching from a Pulpit, about 1470–75, remarkable for its naturalism and vivid evocation of the character and appearance of this fiery religious reformer.
Examples of Lombard illumination included two cuttings, about 1430–35, by Stefano da Verona, a leading exponent of the International Gothic style, and previously known only as a panel painter. Typical of this master's delightful sense of fantasy is the scene of the Pentecost, which is enframed in an initial A formed by the intertwined necks of two rainbow-colored dragons.
The crowning achievement of the important Lombard illuminator Belbello da Pavia was the lavish decoration, begun in 1467, of a set of choir books for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. In addition to five leaves from this project, the exhibition includes a recently discovered bound volume of some ninety-six folios from the same series.
Franco dei Russi, one of the leading illuminators at the court of Ferrara, is represented by four magnificent leaves—all from a famous series of choir books commissioned during the 1450s by the distinguished Greek churchman and scholar Cardinal Bessarion. The exhibition also includes a miniature by Ferrara's leading panel painter during the fifteenth century, Cosimo Tura. These works reflect the eccentric, mannered courtly style that defines the Ferrarese school of painting.
The exhibition closes with one of the few known works by the Emilian artist Francesco di Marco Marmitta da Parma, Adoration of the Shepherds, about 1492–95, notable for its exquisitely detailed and expansive landscape setting. Conceived as an independent miniature, rather than part of the decorative program of a manuscript page, the painting announces the final chapter in the art of book illumination, before its extinction with the rise of modern, mechanical forms of book illustration.