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Initial Impressions

Stephen N. Fliegel, Curator of Medieval Art
February 23, 2016
Initial G[audeamus omnes] from a Gradual: The Court of Heaven, 1371–77. Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci (Italian, 1339–1399). 1930.105

A variety of liturgical manuscripts were used during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for the celebration of the Mass and offices. These included missals, gospel lectionaries, choir psalters, breviaries, graduals, and antiphonaries. Of these, large music choral manuscripts were often the most spectacularly decorated. Choral books were usually produced as multivolume sets to cover the entire liturgical year. The two main types of choral books in the Renaissance were the gradual, which contained the musical parts of the Mass, and the antiphonary, which contained the music for the daily office. All medieval churches were expected to have a gradual and an antiphonary (always made in several volumes), and all monasteries were certain to own them.

Choral books were usually made in large format in order to be placed on a lectern where they could be viewed simultaneously by the members of a choir. Given their large scale and prominent placement, they would have been highly visible within a church and therefore became symbols of that church’s prestige and dignity. Only the wealthiest ecclesiastical foundations could afford to commission the most lavish choral books, which were frequently decorated with large letters containing sacred figures or religious scenes, known as historiated initials. These illuminated initials not only illustrated liturgical feast days within their texts but also served as visual aids that enabled the user to navigate through the volume. Many of the finest and most richly decorated choral books were made in Italy during the Renaissance. Some of the most spectacular examples in the museum’s collection are now on view in gallery 115 through the end of this year.

The technique of manuscript illumination is essentially the same as painting on panel. However, instead of wood panel, the texts, gold, and paint in a manuscript were applied to parchment or animal skin, a very durable support. The illuminator began with a primer, then laid down the gilding and pigments. Initials and marginal decoration provided the book with a look of great luxury. Before the era of printing, the copying of a text by hand was a laborious, time-consuming, and expensive process. The decoration of books also represented a substantial investment of time and resources. In 14th- and 15th-century Italy, panel painters were usually entrusted with commissions for illuminating books. Some of the epoch’s most prestigious Italian painters illuminated books in addition to painting frescoes or altarpieces in order to eke out a living, and major centers—Florence, Siena, Milan, Rome, Mantua, Perugia, and Ferrara—developed with 
reputations for high-quality book illumination.

The achievements of the Florentine school of illumination are represented in the museum’s collection by a beautiful illuminated initial “G” dating to 1370–77 by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci (1339–1399), a Camaldolese monk. The initial introduces the text Gaudeamus omnes in Domino (Let us rejoice in the Lord), the beginning of Introit for the Feast of All Saints (November 1). The highly chromatic initial with punched and burnished gold represents the enthroned Christ, with the Virgin Mary seated at his right to whom rows of saints and angels turn in adoration. This monumental “G” is generally considered to be the artist’s masterpiece; it belonged to a large set of choir books illuminated for his monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. Don Silvestro became a monk there in 1352 at age 13, became prior in 1398, and died the following year.

Leaf Excised from a Gradual: Historiated Initial P with the Nativity c. 1500. Attavante degli Attavanti (Italian, Florence, 1452–1520/25) and workshop. Ink, tempera, and gold on parchment; 59.8 x 41 cm. The Jeanne Miles Blackburn Collection 2003.173


So famous were the choir books of Santa Maria degli Angeli that they were admired by both Lorenzo the Magnificent and his son, Giovanni, the future Pope Leo X. The degli Angeli choir books represent one of the crowning achievements of the art of illumination in early Renaissance Florence. Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century painter and art historian who claimed to have seen them many times, was amazed that works of such refinement could have been produced during that period, meaning 150 years or so before his own day.

Another outstanding leaf from a choral book is a historiated initial “P” depicting the Nativity. It is used to celebrate one of the most joyous events of the Christian Church—the birth of Christ. This splendid leaf contains the chants used for that particular Mass. It features a prominent initial “P” with sprays of foliage along three sides of the page. The initial was painted by one of the most prominent Florentine illuminators of the late 15th century, Attavante degli Attavanti (1452–1520/25), whose patrons included Duke Federigo da Montefeltro of Urbino, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, and the Medici Pope Leo X. Attavante’s miniatures often include detailed landscapes with receding vistas and sun-drenched hills, townscapes, and ultramarine skies. His figures are delineated with distinctive eyes, and their beards can occasionally assume the “heroic” look of Old Testament patriarchs. At times his youthful males suggest the sculptures of Verrocchio, under whom he reputedly studied. Attavante had a large workshop in Florence and often collaborated with other illuminators on important projects. The border ornament is certainly the work of an assistant, while Attavante himself painted the scene of the Nativity within the initial.

A stunning, extensively decorated leaf from a gradual dating to the 1480s is dominated by a large historiated initial “R” (for Requiem aeternam, from the Mass of the Dead) painted in Renaissance Ferrara. Illuminated by Jacopo Filippo Argenta (active c. 1478–1501), it includes a realistically painted scene in which a central priest surrounded by acolytes stands over the body of the deceased and reads the Office of the Dead. The ceremony takes place within a vaulted chapel that recedes in space to create the illusion of perspective.

The leaf comes from one of 21 choral books known to have been commissioned by Bartolommeo delle Rovere for Ferrara Cathedral. Delle Rovere, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, was the Bishop of Ferrara from 1474 to 1494, and his heraldic arms appear at the bottom of the page—a shield bearing an oak tree (rovere in Italian) surmounted by a patriarchal cross. Argenta worked on the choir books for Ferrara Cathedral from 1478 to 1486.

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, every church, chapel, and community of monks or nuns needed choral books, and the copying and “noting” (supplying the music) of manuscripts went on continuously throughout Europe, even beyond the invention of printing. These beautiful books were among the most prestigious treasures of a church or monastery. Today, numerous Italian choral books, including detached leaves and fragments, are preserved in museums and libraries around the world, their parchment leaves and gold and silver illuminations as brilliant and fascinating to our eyes as they were centuries ago to Renaissance men and women. Many are artistic masterpieces and works of great historical importance. 

Leaf from a Gradual: Initial R with the Mass of the Dead 1480s. Jacopo Filippo Argenta (Italian, Ferrara, active c. 1478–1501). Ink, tempera, and gold on parchment; 77 x 52 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1927.426


Cleveland Art, March/April 2016