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A Magic Book of Renaissance Shows

Author(s): Louise George Clubb

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 28, No. 55, In This Issue Special Articles in Memory of
William R. Rearick (1930-2004). Part 1 (2007), pp. 37-52
Published by: IRSA s.c.
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 27/01/2012 23:38

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A Magic Book of Renaissance Shows

In the Spencer Collection of the New York Public Library Shakespeare Library, Iwas shown by the library's director,
there is an object which constitutes a longstanding mystery. It Louis B. Wright, a catalogue from the Milanese book-dealer
is catalogued as a manuscript and is generally called a codex LAntiquariato Librario Radaeli, offering the following:
but neither term really defines it. More than one scholar,
Iamong them, has been misled by past attempts at definition Repertorio di una compagnia della commedia dell'arte.
and by the absence of things to compare itwith. With new evi Codice cartaceo della seconda meta del '500, o al piu'
dence Ican now give a correct name to this nonesuch and, by tardi, dei primi anni del '600 appunti di un capocomico
narrating a quest, clear up some of the mystery. [...] da sottoporre all'esame di un commitente [...] predis
Over decades my scholarly endeavors have come to remind posto per una consultazione r?pida, come una specie di
me of the nineteenth-century European search for the source of un taccuino enciclop?dico [...].
the Nile. As Ihave explored the vast field of Renaissance Italian
drama and its immeasurable - or at least insufficiently measured Of "appunti" there is not a trace, only pictures, one of
- effect on the rest of which was reproduced It is spread over an
Europe, still only partly charted by Italian in the catalogue.
scholars and distantly glimpsed by the English-speaking world, opening of two leaves and depicts on the left [verso] side
I have often thought of Speke, Grant, Bruce, Burton and the a seated congregation of gobbi listening to a sermon
other adventurous geographers who headed into the unmapped preached from a pulpit on the right [recto] side by a very evil
heart of Africa. And like them, I have sometimes drifted away looking friar whose robe covers a protuberance that might be
from the great river into fascinating little eddies and undiscov either a hump or a devil's batwings. At his side is another friar
ered ecosystems. One of these is the curiosity now lodged at the of equally sinister appearance [Fig. 1a, b].
New York Public Library, which drew me away from the verbal This image was astonishing, an extreme rarity in the
texts of literary studies and into a codex which contains not a sin iconography of the Italian theater but simultaneously a witness
gle word, only 115 watercolor images. to a familiar phenomenon. Gobbi, or hunchbacks, occupied
The antefatto of this story goes back toWashington D.C. a permanent niche in Renaissance entertainment in various
in 1965. Working on the Italian drama collection of the Folger venues - as public street and circus performers, court jesters


1a) ?Gobbo congregation? (94v).


1b) ?Preaching friar? (95r).


and picturesque participants in parades, festival processions torturing sinners. Lacking any object of comparison, howev
and other spectacles, religious, courtly and municipal. The er, I saw no reason to dispute Radaeli's, Chiesa's and the
twenty-one engravings of Jacques Callot's fanciful Varie figure New York Public Library's identification of the codex as
gobbP testify to the popularity of the figure. A glimpse of the a sample book of the wares of an acting company's manager
presence of gobbi in improvised farce is provided by a com for organizing festivals that could include kinds of entertain
mand of the Duke of Mantua, a major patron of the famous ments above and beyond the plays acted by his own troupe.
commedia delTarte troupe known as the Gelosi. He was reput Accepting it as a sampler used by a capocomico, therefore,
edly so much amused by some kind of gobbo performance in I interpreted the scenes of equestrian warriors and those of
1579 that he called for a "commedia" inwhich the entire com hell-fire as illustrations of the spectacles that a manager with
pany would appear costumed as gobbi.2 The image published connections in other branches of entertainment might be
in the Radaeli catalogue suggests a scene from such a play. able to procure for his patron in addition to the plays to be
Images of the commedia delTarte from this period of its performed by his immediate company. Such spectacles,
history being scarcer than hen's teeth, the Radaeli description tornei, giostre, processions with elaborate floats and the like
announced a unique curiosity well worth a trip to Italy to exam were a popular part of courtly and municipal festive life in
ine the codex, perhaps to recommend that the Folger acquire many cities at the time, and although not in the immediate
it. On arrival, however, I learned that Radaeli had sold it to purview of the professional acting troupes, were often part of
a private collector who wished to remain anonymous. the same program, for example, during the carnival season
or for some weeks-long celebration of a ducal wedding. By
* * *
a stretch of the imagination one could make a case for the
inclusion of all these pictures in a "taccuino enciclop?dico"
Nearly thirty years later in Venice, searching at the Fon to be shown to a potential client planning a large theatrical
dazione Cini for illustrations to accompany a chapter on the event.

Italian Renaissance that Iwas writing for The Oxford Illustrat Accordingly, I published a descriptive note about the
ed History of Theatre, I learned that the Milanese firm of Carlo codex in Letteratura Italiana4 and six of the images in The
Alberto Chiesa had acquired the codex in the late 1960s from Oxford Illustrated History.5 With the intention of eventually
the estate of the private collector and had offered it to the organizing an investigative symposium at the New York Public
Cini, endorsing and enlarging Radaeli's description in consul Library and publishing the images together with the papers
tation with the few scholars who had seen it.Vittore Branca, issuing from the theater historians, art historians and musicol
then in command at the Cini, and Maria Teresa Muraro, chief ogists convoked there, Ipresented the slides at a conference
curator of the theater collections, informed me rather on theatrical iconography sponsored by the University of
remorsefully that the Cini had declined to buy the codex Florence and invited responses from the assembled conferen
because it was too expensive, and they referred me to zieri.6 As expected, none of them had ever seen anything like
Chiesa, who revealed that he had sold it to the New York it, and while all agreed that the images testified uniquely to
Public Library. Italian entertainments at the turn of the Seicento, they were as
Obviously the next stop was New York. There Robert baffled as Iwas by the range of subjects represented. Since
Rainwater, Curator of Special Collections, put into my hands no other sample books exist, however, we could only specu
for the first time the parchment-bound book, inquarto format late, with various kinds of reservations, that this codex consti
measuring 205 x 265 mm, of much-thumbed and mended tuted the solitary exemplar of that imagined genre.
leaves catalogued as Spencer Collection Ms. 180. Examining The puzzling order of presentation of the categories of
thousands of watermarks in Briquet and Zonghi3, I found no images is as follows:
exact match for any of several on the leaves, but encoun A. commedia ridicola - farces and circus turns featuring gobbi
tered similar marks used by some Italian and French paper [Fig. 2a, b];
makers in the sixteenth century. The watercolor images, all B. commedia of lovers, scenes of courting, music and dance

by the same hasty professional hand, were indeed not only [Fig. 3a, b];
remarkable in themselves but also indicative of a much wider C. blank
scope than had been conventionally imagined for the reper D. tornei - cavalcades and tournaments [Fig. 4a, b];
tory of any commedia delTarte troupe, including as they did E. paesaggi backdrop landscapes [Fig. 5a, b];
scenes of jousting, battles between armored warriors on F. inferno - scenes of hell for intermezzi, festival processions
horseback, and infernal spectacles of devils and monsters and sacre rappresentazioni [Fig. 6a, b].


There seemed to be no reason why the images were pre to the early seventeenth century, whereas the earliest blow
sented in this pattern of alternating types, almost like a rhyme book listed in Jay's history, known only by report, is a Belgian
scheme for a long stanzaic poem: ABCDEF/ABCDEF etc., one from the late seventeenth century.
instead of according to categories, that is, all the gobbi farces Moreover, the French and English blow-books in Jay's col
together, followed by all the figures of lyric love comedies, lection are small in format and are composed of printed
then by all the cavalcades and tournaments, and so on. Why images repeatedly duplicated and interspersed with blank
should there always be a blank page between the lyric figures pages in the prescribed order, clearly put together and sold by
and the cavalcades, except where a bookbinder, probably in printers, whereas Spencer 180 is larger in format, its images
the eighteenth century, had neglected to insert one? And what hand-painted inwatercolor, each different from its predeces
purpose was served by every leaf's having a scalloped edge sor within the category, all 115 of them the work of a single
with reinforced tabs on either side of each half-moon cut-out, artist for one client.
one for each of the six categories? Most significant of all for theater history is the fact that
while the categories of other blow-books are miscellaneous,
* * *
including flowers and dogs, for example, along with clowns
and devils, the categories in Spencer 180 are derived exclu
With these question
still unanswered and other, unrelated, sively from elements of Renaissance entertainments: farces
projects pre-empting my attention, Imade two visits in the and acrobatics, comedies with music and dancing, tourna
1990s to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where ments and parades with floats, painted backdrops, and
a conversation with Marcia Reed, Curator of Rare Books, scenes of the underworld.
resulted inmy examining a limited edition modern book in two When Idiscussed these new findings with Carlo Alberto
volumes by the professional magician, actor and historian of Chiesa, he was reluctant to accept my conclusions, refusing to
magic Ricky Jay and a team of artists, entitled The Magic relinquish his view of the codex as a sample book, adducing
Magic Book. An Inquiry into the Venerable History & Operation the above-mentioned differences between it and the later
of the Oldest Trick Conjuring Volumes, Designated "Blow printed blow-books as proof that they could not be of the
Books" [ForWhosoever Bloweth on the Pages, ifHe be Versed same genre. He added to his objections the fact that the
in the Secret Method May Cause the Images to Appear, Vanish sequence of leaves was irregular in a couple of spots, not cor
& Change at Will Many Several Times...].7 responding to the order of categories required in a blow-book.
A "blow-book", sometimes called a "flip book", is not real This aberration, however, is easily explained by the rebinding
ly a book at all but a magician's book-shaped prop inwhich which appears to have occurred in the eighteenth century,
- in this case five sets of pictures with the consequent
categories six, comprising loss of some blank leaves and of four
and one of blank pages - are established by tabs affixed to the whole images (verso plus recto) and two halves (a recto inone
pages: at the top of the right-hand leaf of the first opening, case misbound to face a verso of another category). Clearly,
down one inch on the seventh opening, down two inches on neither the bookbinder nor whoever wrote on the spine Libro
the fourteenth, three inches on the twenty-first etc., so that the dei diavoli was aware of the exigencies of blow-book construc
picture (or category of picture) at opening #1 occurs again at tion. It is reasonable to speculate that the original of the codex
openings #7 and #14, and so on. The pages are cut or indent contained 144 openings, twenty-four images per category
ed above and below the tabs so that the tabs don't protrude plus twenty-four blank pages, reduced during or before the
beyond the width of the leaves. In theory, after learning the feel rebinding to 115 images and twenty-odd blank pages.
of the tabs and indentations, the presenter can flip the pages Meanwhile Ricky Jay, the unchallenged expert on blow
so as to display images in one category as if these were the books, flew to New York in late 1999, inspected Spencer 180
only ones in the book. and sent me an exultant message confirming its genre, "It's
I thought it likely that I could now correctly identify the a blow-book. It's wonderful!". Had Chiesa lived longer,
genre of the New York Public Library's codex, and after Ricky Ibelieve that eventually he too would have been convinced
Jay showed me the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century blow by these findings and would have subscribed to my current
books in his private collection in Los Angeles, I felt certain. To view of Spencer Ms. 180. It is not a sample book of the com
be sure, there are differences between the exemplars in Jay's media delTarte, but a blow-book commissioned in the early
collection and Ms. Spencer 180. Judging from the costumes, seventeenth century by a magician or afficionado of magic
the watermarks and the paper, the dealers and scholars who tricks who delighted in images of contemporary entertain
had examined Spencer 180 all dated it from the late sixteenth ments. The landscapes, generic Italian scenes, except for


-i.. -'- ' ...w'"y?*-'3affi:;'

2a) ?Gobbo barber scene? (106v).


2b) ?Gobbo barber scene? (107r).


3a) ?Lover with guitar? (107v).


3b) ?Dancing lady? (108r).


4a) ?Mounted chiarino player? (109v).



I -v??{^'~y???

4b) ?Knight in armor? (11 Or).


5a) ?Walled town with a campanile and dome? (98v).


5b) ?Walled town with a campanile? (99r).


6a) ?Monstrous hellish couple drawn on float? (105v).


6b) ?Monstrous hellish couple drawn on float? (106r).


a few recognizable Roman and Florentine monuments, sug to be answered, but my original plan for an interdisciplinary
gest that the artist was familiar with entertainments confined symposium followed by publication of various opinions with
to, or at least representing, the regions of Lazio, Umbria and a facsimile edition of the blow-book has been relegated to the
Toscana. bottom of a list of more immediate ventures. Meanwhile, indi
The codex remains unique but even more complex than it vidual images are being studied and used in art history exhibi
seemed when itwas thought to be an acting company's sam tions, I've lectured on the subject at the Getty Research Insti
pler. It tells us less than was hoped for about the commedia tute in 1999 and at Berkeley in 2003, and in his 2002
delTarte, since it is not restricted to the stage repertory, but it off-Broadway show On the Stem Ricky Jay included a dazzling
promises to tell much more than was expected about Italian legerdemain sketch based on the principle of the blow-book,
Renaissance entertainment in general. Will we ever know why although not with reference to Spencer Ms. 180. Until a full
or exactly when or where this anomalous blow-book was pro reproduction of the codex becomes possible, this partial
duced? Do the ?mages record specific occasions or troupes? account of my research will at least correct the error of calling
How did the codex survive? These and other questions are yet ita sample book of the commedia delTarte.

1 York, 1995, pp. 107-141. In the revised edition of 1997,

Firenze, 1616. paperback
2 Ms. in Modena in French translation the color plates were omitted. To view the images and match them
in Este archives quoted
Mic La Commedia to the revised textual reference, the reader must consult both edi
by Constant (K. Miklashevski), dellArte, Paris,
1927, p. 187.
3 6 L. G. "A Repertory Italian Theatri
Ch. M. Briquet, Les filigranes facsimile ed. The New Clubb, of Late Renaissance
Briquet, ed. J. S. G. Simmons, Amsterdam, 1968, v. 3; A. & A. Zonghi, cal Images: The New York Public Library's Spencer Manuscript 180",
A. F. Gasparinetti, 1953. in Iconograf?a del Teatro, ricerca metodol?gica e gestione inform?tica,
Zonghi's Watermarks, Hilversum,
4 illustrate Internazionale di Studi: Universit? di Firenze, Teatro del
L. G. Clubb, "Un repertorio per compagnie teatrali", Convegno
Prato, 23-26 May, 1996.
Letteratura Italiana 3,1995, pp. 240-242. Collegio Cicognini,
5 L. G. 7 of American
"Italian Renaissance Theatre", in The Oxford New York: Library Fellows of the Whitney Museum
Illustrated of Theatre, ed. J. Russell Brown, Oxford and New Art, 1994.