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H1: Illumination Revived

H2: Jakub Koguciuk reviews Jonathan J.G. Alexander’s The Painted Book in

Renaissance Italy, Yale University Press, 2016

BIBLIO: Jonathan J.G. Alexander. The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy. New

Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. $ 75.00

TAGS: art, history, illuminated manuscript

Study of manuscript illumination in the Renaissance appeared pronounced dead

before it could bear any fruit. Erwin Panofsky, the founding figure of American

academic art history, claimed that books painted by hand “begun to commit suicide”

by emulating innovations in large-scale painting in the beginning of the fifteenth

century. Finally, they “died of an overdose of perspective” in what used to be called

the High Renaissance.

Despite this death by history of styles, illuminated manuscripts were produced beyond

the middle ages. Some are objects of remarkable splendor. To take an extreme

example, here is Giulio Clovio, the only illuminator featured in Giorgio Vasari’s

Lives, illustrating Biblical episodes for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese’s Book of Hours:
Figure 1. Giulio Clovio, Adoriation of the Shepherds and the Fall of Man:

Opening of the Farnese Book of Hours, 1546. The Pierpont Morgan Library and

Museum, New York, Ms. M. 69, fols. 26v-27r.

The opening respects the standard format of the page by differentiating between the

main pictorial field – a scene evoked in perspectival recession – and the margin, the

area of decorative flatness and iconographic multiplicity. Clovio patiently and

lovingly evokes the sacred scenes, and lets his fantasy run wild in the various statues

and reliefs filling the margin. The spirit of Michelangelo is alive here, in the

exaggerated definition of musculature and the twisted poses of the figures. Each body

is heroic and could not be otherwise in the artistic scene after Michelangelo

culminated the Vasarian history of art. The pages seem to pack the visual impact of

the Sistine Ceiling into a more personal format. They preserve some of the grandeur
of the Chapel, with its basic organization of space and pictorial effects, on a scale that

lends itself to more private viewing.

For Panofsky, objects such as this one attempted to reconcile too much. A book needs

to be flat, and it cannot convincingly engage in perspectival experiments without

turning into something else. It is as if painting on such a scale cannot belong to our

vision of the Renaissance. We associate the discovery of perspective and the rise of

styles aiming at naturalism, whatever it may mean, with large-scale paintings, perhaps

on a frescoed wall. If the achievement of the Italian Renaissance pictorial vision spans

roughly from the walls of Masaccio to Michelangelo’s ceiling, then indeed it is hard

to see manuscript illumination as anything beyond a conservative product of medieval

after-life. In addition, monumental paintings turned Renaissance art into a matter of

intellectual illusion. Theorists ranging from Alberti to Leonardo claimed that painting

was a form of thinking, and therefore its value should be disassociated with the

preciousness of materials. Against this, the Farnese Book of Hours contains

simulations of various objects: some marginal images look at statues in niches, others

like cameo reliefs. Rather than relegating art to the status of notional designs, Clovio

delights at the possibilities of evoking various media. There is something hypnotic

about these strange objects. Clovio is derivative, but he overwhelms with inventive

energy. Surrendering to the impact of this image, the viewer finds immense richness

in its exhilaration.

Jonathan J.G. Alexander’s The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy attempts to re-

formulate the narrative neglecting such images by providing the first general view on

the subject of “the painted book” in Renaissance Italy for the English-speaking
reader. The title is consciously inclusive, as the book aims to include manuscripts as

well as printed material. The study is the fruit of a life of patient scholarship.

Alexander wrote many articles on single manuscripts and particular problems in the

field, collected in Studies in Italian Manuscript Illumination. He also co-organized

Painted Page, the 1995 exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York that brought

together many of the most remarkable Italian books in one display for the first time. It

is hard to imagine a better guide to this material. Through his career, Alexander

witnessed the incremental progress of knowledge on this period, and he has the depth

and breadth of understanding to provide a clear synthesis.

The book is organized by regional schools in two large sections for the fifteenth and

sixteenth centuries. In addition to information about the major illuminations, artists,

and patrons, Alexander discusses the evolution of scholarship on the various Italian

regions. These provide convenient points of entry for the interested student, but these

might have been expanded into full bibliographic essays, perhaps at the end of the

volume. Even as they are, Alexander’s comments are great guides to scholarship on

Renaissance illumination, which is largely Italian, and he is generous to future

students by repeatedly pointing to specific manuscripts and collections in need of

scholarly attention.

Dividing manuscripts into periods and regional schools means that key figures of the

book appear and re-appear. Many artists worked in both centuries and travelled

extensively throughout Italy. Bartolomeo Sanvito, the scribe and perhaps illuminator

who made humanist script into a pan-Italian phenomenon, began his career in Padua,

but made most of his precious manuscripts in Rome. Girolamo da Cremona, an artist
who also travelled south, is as important for manuscript illumination in the Veneto as

he is for Siena. Clovio was born in Croatia as Juraj Julije Klović, but worked in

Venice, Rome, Florence and Parma. This permeability extends to patrons: Matthias

Corvinus, the Hungarian king who seemed to have engaged in diplomacy through

collecting manuscripts throughout the peninsula, is a constant presence in the book.

The impression that regional divisions do not suffice is not a criticism towards

Alexander, but rather evidence that this artistic landscape was extremely dynamic.

The last five chapters of the book cut across regional lines by addressing critical

themes in the study of Renaissance illumination: the hand-decoration of printed

books, patronage, text and image issues, the relationship between illumination and

other visual arts, and finally the context beyond Italy. Any of these sections could

serve as an appropriate conclusion of the book. As a collection, they present a

tantalizing bouquet of un-addressed issues in the study of Renaissance books. As

elsewhere, Alexander is careful and patient, often admitting that problems require

further work. In certain sections, this reserve is even excessive. For example, it would

be interesting to hear Alexander’s opinion on whether the painter Andrea Mantegna

made any of the illuminations occasionally attributed to him. We have no firm

evidence for this apart from stylistic affinities. However, Alexander’s speculation

would be more valuable than most. Given that so much work that remains to be done,

some of these final sections can only gloss through major questions. The international

context seems an especially promising direction, as Alexander discusses only English

patronage and the purchases made my Matthias Corvinus.
The curious imbalance between the two parts of the book – the regional survey and

the five thematic chapters – illustrates the challenges of work in this field. From the

first attempts to categorize Italian art, surviving works have been divided according to

their place of origin. The nineteenth century gave us the “Florentine school” and the

“Venetian school” along with a handful of others. This fits with a long-standing

campanilismo in Italian culture, ranging from Vasari’s preference for his Florentine

compatriots to the current regionalist policies of the Lega Nord. This intellectual

framework conditions the organization of survey texts as well as most major

collections. In large museums, Venetian paintings are hung separately from Florentine

and Roman ones. This preeminence of regions mostly makes sense. Art-making in

Renaissance Italy depended on local networks of painters and patrons. Many cities

placed painters in guilds which regulated their craft by maintaining standards of

training and production. Artistic success often depended on familiarity with local

networks of power and patronage.

On the other hand, it is sometimes hard to say whether regional styles constitute parts

of historical past or rather they are in themselves interpretative categories. In other

words, we do not know whether for Leonardo da Vinci being a Florentine artist meant

producing works with a precise set of stylistic traits. It also seems that some “schools”

were simply more local and distinctive than others. Sienese artists up to the sixteenth

century made paintings continuously re-engaging their local tradition beginning with

Duccio and the Lorenzetti. Rome should surely be considered apart from this system.

The wealth of the papal court attracted artists from many parts of Italy, and something

like a local style of art did not appear until the Baroque period.
All of this is not properly Alexander’s subject, although questions on regions as

intellectual criteria are suggested by the structure of the book, at once foundational

and revisionist. The first chapters build up a survey region by region, guiding the

reader through Italy in smaller units. The later part attempts to present a view on

larger processes, at once integral to and invisible in the sections on particular places.

Along with the wealth of insight and information, to provoke such considerations is

one of the achievements of this study. A scholar of painting or sculpture in

Alexander’s position would have a selection of previous surveys to rely on. The basic

information about what happened where in Italian Renaissance art has been presented

many times already. Hence, many books about better-known media can afford to be

more critical from the get-go. Alexander does not have this luxury, and finds himself

in a position of constructing many partial narratives at the same time. What could

easily be chaotic turns out to be inspiring and judiciously presented.

This rich study has a handbook quality that will reward many readings and repeated

browsing. It brings to mind Peter Humfrey’s Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice in the

variety of collected material and synthetic breath. A reader who is not an expert in

Renaissance illumination may quickly grow tired of the rapied succession of

manuscripts, artists and patrons, many of who are still unfamiliar figures. In these

moments, I found myself looking at the images, which must be among the most

impressive collected in any survey of manuscript illumination. J.J.G. Alexander’s

scholarly generosity and gift of synthesis will undoubtedly push the field forward.