Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 29, 1999
Irmgard Siede Zur Rezeption ottonischer Buchmalerei in Italien im 11. und 12. Jahrhundert Munich: EOS Verlag, 1997. 333 pp.; 12 color ills.; 68 b/w ills. €57.30 (388096629X)

In 1891, Wilhelm Vöge inaugurated the modern academic study of Ottonian book illumination with the publication of his dissertation, Eine deutsche Malerschule um die Wende des ersten Jahrtausends (Trier, 1891). Vöge’s still classic monograph assembled a cohesive corpus of selected Ottonian manuscripts based on an investigation that included stylistic, iconographic, and textual criticism; his Malerschule has since been attributed to the monastic scriptorium of Reichenau. Despite the occasional attack, the Reichenau school has remained the bedrock of Ottonian manuscript studies; dated to ca. 1000, such magnificent books as the Otto Gospels, the Bamberg Apocalypse, and the Pericopes of Henry II indicate that Reichenau was involved in the production of deluxe manuscripts on behalf of the Ottonian rulers.

Just over one hundred years later, Irmgard Siede’s dissertation, Zur Rezeption ottonischer Buchmalerei in Italien in 11. und 12. Jahrhundert, suggests how far, or how little, the study of Ottonian book illumination has advanced since Vöge’s pioneering work. Vöge assembled the general core of the Ottonian world’s greatest artistic scriptorium (with all due respect to Cologne, Regensburg, and Hildesheim et al.), and subsequent studies of Reichenau’s subgroups have provided ever more focused refinements: C. Nordenfalk and B. Nitschke have examined those manuscripts within Vöge’s group connected to the so-called Master of the Registrum Gregorii, while A. Korteweg has explored the contours of a “late” group of Reichenau manuscripts from the middle of the 11th century (e.g., Utrecht, Het Catharijneconvent ABM h3 [the Bernulphuscodex]).1 If Vöge was looking at the Reichenau trees, and Nitschke and Korteweg the leaves, then Siede’s focus might be thought of as the fallen twigs.

To be fair, and if the botanical metaphor might be extended and somewhat sharpened, Siede’s work looks into the saplings that sprang from fallen seeds. Despite its broad title, the essence of this book is an investigation of only four Italian manuscripts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries whose illuminations betray the influence of Reichenau models. Seide’s narrow focus, while perhaps not the study her title suggests, nevertheless provides a remarkably rich exploration of some relatively little-known books whose contents, in the hands of this meticulous scholar, present numerous interesting tidbits that do eventually coalesce into insights worthy of the monograph’s title.

After a short introduction, four lengthy chapters exhaustively examine each manuscript, taking into account, among other things, provenance, codicology, paleography, style, and iconography. Further detailed information is provided in six appendices (a list of pericopes, a full list of contents and gatherings, diagrams of the ruling systems, a collation of selected primary sources, a breakdown of Reichnau’s filial groups, and a register of iconographic motifs in Reichenau manuscripts). This part of the book is surely the strength of Siede’s work, which leaves virtually no stone unturned. Also helpful are the extensive photographs that include every decorated page of the four books (including four color reproductions per manuscript), although it must be said that their small size makes it virtually impossible to discern any details. This makes it difficult to follow some of Siede’s discussions, which often depend on detailed looking.

Modern scholars often decry the lack of precise information in past accounts of medieval manuscripts, but future scholars will have no such qualms in using Siede to access the four manuscripts under consideration. Here, a brief synopsis of the manuscripts, and of Siede’s conclusions, must suffice. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Codex Vitr. 20-6, is a gospel lectionary (evangeliary) produced in Farfa between 1060 and 1670 whose thirteen miniatures show a reliance on a manuscript of the early Bernulphus group. The Ottonian manuscript may have been a gift from Empress Agnes, wife of Henry III, while the copy could have marked an altar dedication in 1060, or perhaps an adventus of Agnes and her son, Henry IV; Farfa was a strong supporter of the royal house during the Investiture Conflict.

Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Codex Acq. e Doni 91, is a gospel book made in Pisa in two stages, around 1150 (evangelist portraits) and 1165 (canon tables and initials); its four evangelist portraits and Ascension miniature were modeled on compositions by the Master of the Registrum Gregorii. This manuscript may have been commissioned by an ambitious Pisan bishop who perhaps used the manuscript to signify a connection to an earlier Christian style.

Padua, Biblioteca Capitolare, Codex E 1, is a festival evangeliary, richly decorated with seven full-page miniatures and numerous figural initials. The manuscript also has a full-page colophon identifying the scribe and artist, one “doctor bonus” named Isidore, who completed the manuscript in Padua on September 15, 1170.2 The Ottonian model was another Bernulphus group manuscript, perhaps a Salian bequest; Isidore’s book was itself the model for an epistolary in 1259 and both books were used in the liturgy until 1508.

Finally, Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, Codex Cod. C, encased within a mid-eleventh century jewelled cover, is another evangeliary, with fifteen full-page miniatures executed between 1185 and 1191. The original Ottonian model (not the intermediary Romanesque model) certainly would have come to Vercelli during the episcopate of Bishop Leo, one of Otto III’s most important advisors and panegyricists; Vercelli maintained close relations to the court of Henry VI at the end of the twelfth century.

In each essay, Siede has a threefold mission—to demonstrate the reliance of the Italian work on the Ottonian model, to account for the presence of that Ottonian manuscript in a particular Italian context, and to suggest an explanation for the use of the Ottonian model and the function of the Italian book. This is a hefty task, which the author performs admirably, except, perhaps in the last matter. Furthermore, as Siede herself points out, four case studies do not constitute enough evidence for very broad conclusions (in fact, her concluding chapter runs a mere eleven pages). Nevertheless, she does suggest some patterns in the reception of Ottonian manuscripts in Italy. Already in the late tenth century, German liturgical manuscripts travelled to Italy as part of Ottonian and then Salian theopolitics intended to integrate Italian bishoprics and cloisters into the Reichskirche. The dispatch of manuscripts was often at the behest of the ruler seeking to establish a personal religio-political relationship with the recipient. The models of the Madrid/Farfa and Vercelli evangeliaries are examples of this phenomenon.

The Hohenstaufens continued the Ottonian and Salian involvement in Italy. The Ottonian models of the Florence/Pisa and Padua books perhaps were acquired through Hohenstaufen bequests that were themselves meant to forge connections between court and church. In three of her examples (not Florence/Pisa), Siede proposes that the deluxe Italian manuscripts were intended for (potential) use by the ruler as a participant in the festival liturgy, or by his substitute—a vicarius imperatoris who served as the proxy for the emperor in his role as a sworn canon of the foundation. This is an appealing, if problematic, theory, for which there is mixed evidence. Certainly a strong case can be made for the rex canonicus, and one imagines that books suitable for his use must have been produced (the Aachen Gospels of Otto III is a likely candidate for such a book). But are these Italian books examples of this phenomenon? In the Vercelli lectionary, for example, Siede suggests that the three lavish images for Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—all based on Ottonian models—indicate a special use in the presence of a ruler (p. 191). Yet surely the three high points in the Christian year do not need any more justification for the introduction of imagery. And the model and copy relationship between the Ottonian and Italian books suggests an even greater complexity that the author’s suggestions only begin to elucidate. It might be added, too, that while these Italian manuscripts are perhaps rich by Italian standards of the time, they do not approach the splendor or artistic competence of (extant) Ottonian books.

Siede’s book is a rich investigation of four manuscripts that disclose something of the Nachleben of Ottonian manuscript illumination, a story that hitherto has not been addressed adequately. Zur Rezeption ottonischer Buchmalerei in Italien is in many ways a grandchild of Vöge’s work: its precise analysis retains the ancestor’s solidity, while its attempt to ground the manuscripts in their historical framework takes into account the concerns of the present. But in this case the descendent is too much like the forebear. Siede’s is not a broad narrative—the most prominent example of the transmission of Ottonian manuscripts to Italy, the Gospels of Emperor Henry II, sent from Regensburg to Montecassino before 1024, receives barely a mention. And of the fifteen Ottonian manuscripts listed (pp. 198-200) that were known to have been in Italy by the end of the eleventh century (plus another six whose date of transmission is unknown), only three were from Reichenau; even adding the four lost manuscripts Siede reconstructs still shows how much of the story—that not related to Reichenau—remains to be told. In the end, however, scholars of Ottonian or Romanesque book illumination, and those concerned with the cultural history of medieval Italy will be grateful to Irmgard Siede for providing a meticulous investigation of four books and the rich context in which they were produced.

Adam S. Cohen
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of Toronto

1 Carl Nordenfalk, “Archbishop Egbert’s Registrum Gregorii,” in Studien zur mittelalterlichen Kunst: Festschrift für Florentine Mütherich zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. K. Bierbrauer, P. Klein, and W. Sauerländer (Munich, 1985), pp. 87-100, with further literature; Brigitte Nitschke, Die Handschriftengruppe um den Meister des Registrum Gregorii (Recklinghausen, 1966); Anna Sophia Korteweg, De Bernulphuscodex in het Rijksmuseum Het Catharijneconvent te Utrecht en verwante handschriften (Amsterdam, 1979).

2 Cf. Jonathan J. G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 18 and fig. 27.

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