Medieval books get rare display at library

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Oct. 21, 2002 at 6:00 AM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Illuminated manuscripts, one of the most fragile of the medieval arts, are getting a rare display at the New York Public Library in an exhibition titled "Rare Illuminated Manuscripts and Early Printed Books."

The library's important collection of manuscripts delicately illustrated with miniature paintings and decorations in brilliant color embellished by a generous use of gold are almost never shown because exposure to light causes fading, as it does with tapestries. Since most of the manuscripts are bound, only two pages at a time of any one book can be displayed.

Among the most elaborate manuscripts on view are three fairly large illuminated sheets from a lectionary of sacred writings to be read at religious services that was created for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese by Giulio Clovio, the most admired limner in 16th century Italy. Although the artwork in most such manuscripts is unsigned, the names of some master miniaturists such as Clovio have come down to us by reputation.

Clovio's miniatures on vellum are epic in composition and are obviously inspired by Michelangelo's frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. They illustrate the Nativity and Resurrection of Christ and the Last Judgment, a masterpiece full of writhing human forms detailed on such a small scale that it should be inspected with a magnifying glass.

The small exhibition includes important examples of 15th century manuscripts as well, notably an exquisite painting of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary by an unknown Franco-Flemish miniaturist. It takes up a double page in a Book of the Hours, one of those hand-sized volumes containing prescribed order of prayers for the canonical hours that were popular with Medieval royalty and aristocracy.

Among the printed books included in the show is the library's celebrated royal folio, two-volume copy of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, the first major work to be printed with portable type outside China and Korea. Only 48 copies of this Bible have survived, so that its display alone is worth a visit to the show that will run through this week.

The invention of metal portable type by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, along with the means to print typographical characters with even presswork and alignment triggered a revolutionary chapter in the history of the dissemination of the written word. To view the Gutenberg Bible is to be in the presence of a key element in the development of modern culture. No wonder U.S. Customs officials were instructed to remove their hats when the library's Bible arrived in New York from Europe in 1847.

Also of note is the first Florentine edition of Dante's "Divine Comedy," originally titled "La Commedia" when it was published in 1481. It is one of the first books to be illustrated with engravings, and the pages opened for viewing have an engraving showing Dante and Virgil envisioning Beatrice from the poem's Canto 2. It has been attributed to a minor artist named Baccio Baldini or to a design by the more renowned Sandro Botticelli. Take your pick.

Several of the illuminated manuscripts are exhibited alongside printed, illustrated editions of the same or variant texts.

Another rarity on display, appropriate for the recent observance of Columbus Day, is the earliest printed account of Christopher Columbus' report to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain upon his return from the New World, printed in Barcelona in the spring of 1493. It is the only copy of the Barcelona printing known to have survived, and one of the library's most treasured holdings.

The exhibition is the first of a series that will showcase selections of precious items in the many divisions of the library's humanities and social sciences collection.

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