Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2000
Francis Newton The Scriptorium and Library at Monte Cassino Cambridge University Press, 1999. (0521583950)

Building on E. A. Lowe’s pioneering work of 1914, The Beneventan Script: A History of the South Italian Minuscule (2nd ed., ed. Virginia Brown, Rome: 1980) Francis Newton concentrates upon the single scriptorium of Montecassino, and its golden years under abbots Desiderius (1058-1087) and Oderisius (1087-1105). Newton has extended Lowe’s list of manuscripts originating at the monastery; some he has re-dated on the basis of a detailed set of paleographical and codicological criteria, and internal evidence relating to important events in the abbey’s history, such as the dedications of the new basilica in 1071 and of the two tower chapels in 1075. In addition, he places these, and other manuscripts acquired by the abbey in this period, in the larger context of its intellectual life; he introduces the reader to the two abbots, their interests, and their patronage, and to master scribes such as Leo Marsicanus. Bibliothecarius, and for some time a head scribe, Leo was the original author of the Monte Cassino chronicle (Munich, Clm 4623) which provides major documentary information for Desiderius’ reign and accomplishments. It contains three book lists, two of them treasure inventories listing other objects in addition to major “display” books with precious bindings, and a third, a general catalogue of books made at Monte Cassino between 1058 and 1087. In Chapter one Newton discusses the nature, usefulness, and limitations of these lists; in Chapter eight he matches them, where possible, with identified volumes.

In Chapter two, Newton describes the copying activities begun under Desiderius’s predecessor, Abbot Theobald (1022-1035/37), who took steps to remedy the abbey’s severely impoverished library. He then examines the work of the master scribe Grimoald, whom he identifies as the leader of the scriptorium during the crucial first decade of Desiderius’s reign, presiding over the development of the characteristic “Desiderian” style, considered the high point of Beneventan script. Chapter three, an intensive examination of this hand as seen in the abbey’s eleventh-century luxury service-books, presents two of Newton’s major new contributions to its study. Whereas earlier scholars interpreted the climactic, monumental perfection of this hand as the result of a slow and gradual evolution, Newton sees it as a revolution, a relatively sudden development in the years between 1065 and 1075, triggered by the change from the “old angle” of the first curved stroke forming the lower left part of bowed letters, originally a rounded and nearly horizontal “crescent” shape, to a more crisp and angular diagonal one. This and other major characteristics of “Desiderian” script, notably the careful lateral spacing, the organization of letters along the base line, and other features that convey a sense of crisp connectedness, are usefully summarized on pp. 73-74. In this chapter Newton also discusses the strong influence of the Regensburg Gospels of Henry II, now Vat. Ottob. lat.74, given by Henry to the abbey in 1022, from which the Cassinese artists adopted the brilliantly colored and stippled or “vermiculated” backgrounds and the use of flat, gold lobed foliage to form and fill initials. The factor of ink flaking, serious even in luxury manuscripts from this period, is also discussed in some detail: the author observes that many pages, including those most frequently reproduced and presented as monuments of eleventh-century Monte Cassino production, are actually thirteenth-century retracings differing subtly from their original forms.

Chapters four and five discuss the “common manuscripts”: texts largely designed for scholarly rather than liturgical use, which formed the great bulk of volumes produced and owned by the abbey. These are characterized by an interest in the classics and a heavy emphasis upon the early Church Fathers, especially Augustine, whose works Desiderius seems to have been particularly eager to collect and preserve in handsome, uniform volumes. Chapter six, “Practices of the Scriptorium,” is central to the book. It addresses an exhaustive range of aspects of book production, use, and storage at Monte Cassino, from the format and arrangement of gatherings to their binding and storage. But most important is the detailed examination of the developed script, both before and after the introduction of the “new angle.” Here can be found a most meticulous account of the great Monte Cassino hands, letter by letter, ligature by ligature, and so on through abbreviation, punctuation, tonal accents, corrections, and other scribal marks. Newton’s treatment of this material would serve any student well as a check list of features to observe when examining manuscripts and comparing hands; his presentation is paradigmatic for any writer on such topics. In a section on “the expressive page” the author displays remarkably close observation and sensitivity to nuances of design, pointing out instances of a scribal intent that uses layout and the choice of scripts or ornament to give particular emphasis, set a mood, or convey some sub textual message. The chapter concludes with the detailed study of a single, “well-made Cassinese book,” Monte Cassino (hereafter MC) 453, the Vitae of SS. Benedict, Maur and Scholastica. Newton identifies this as the tenth codex in Leo’s first treasure-list of works made for Desiderius before 1071, a volume Desiderius “studiosissime fecit”, “had made with the greatest zeal”—words Newton interprets as meaning that he paid greatest care and attention to its fine execution, including decorations with subtle and not immediately obvious reference to the accompanying text.

Chapter seven deals with books presented to the library of Monte Cassino, from royal gifts such as the Gospels of Henry II, mentioned earlier, to more modest copies of rare and desirable texts. This chapter and the first parts of Chapter 8 return to the identification of manuscripts listed in the chronicle and to evidence for their deployment and use in specific areas of the church. Newton extrapolates from the known contents of the abbey’s eleventh-century library to the particular interests of its bibliophile abbots, librarians, and scribes, with particular concentration on the history of the early Church and patristic literature, especially Augustine, as well as on the history of the region, of the abbey itself, and of the Benedictine order.

In this concluding chapter Newton also returns to the “display books” with which his discussion begins, notably the Vitae of Saints Benedict, Maur and Scholastica, Vat. lat. 1202, with its portrait of Desiderius, seeming to stand upon an oriental-carpet spread of richly bound volumes, against a background identified as the atrium of the new abbey, and presenting to the seated St. Benedict a copy of his Lives, together with the buildings and lands depicted below. In a tour-de-force of visual and textual exegesis, Newton analyzes the dedicatory poem on the facing verso, with its subtle references, cross-references, forward and backward rhythms, and expressive parallels, matching with the miniature in level, flow, and symbolism: the two form, as he demonstrates, a diptych in which each leaf mirrors the other, a supreme example of the interdependence of text and image.

Like all volumes in the series, this one is handsomely produced and extensively illustrated, with 4 color and 212 black-and-white plates, as well as 82 text-figures. Almost all plates are to scale: this has the advantage of giving a real sense of the range of sizes of Cassinese writing, but also the disadvantage that many writing samples are just that: mere details from a much larger page. Plates 1-47 illustrate the great display manuscripts tied to the Chronicle treasure-inventories, which can be closely dated and upon which Newton bases his revised chronological sequence; the rest present in alphabetical sequence by present location the other books discussed, including “common” manuscripts of Monte Cassino origin, gifts, imports, etc. The “Plate descriptions” preceding these illustrations discuss the entire manuscript, not simply the passage illustrated.

In his introduction and occasionally thereafter, Newton states that his primary focus is paleographical and not art historical. Indeed, the art historian will often be frustrated: in many cases decorations are discussed but not illustrated. The Ottonian Gospel-Book of Henry II—inspiration of much Desiderian ornament—is illustrated only by a single page of minuscule text, devoid of any significant decoration. On the other hand, the art historian will find much of use and value in this volume: the illustration of many small initials, typically under studied; the introduction of new decorated manuscripts and the closer study of known ones such as MC 453; the discussion of the “expressive page,” a useful demonstration that a page or opening need not be heavily decorated in order to be a visual masterpiece; and above all the exegesis of the “diptych” of dedicatory poem and miniature on ff.1v-2 of Vat. lat. 1202, the Codex Benedictus.

This labor of three decades demonstrates a remarkably intimate and detailed acquaintance with several hundred manuscripts. It amply fulfills the promise of its title and provides even more: a sense of personality and of context, and of the scholarly preoccupations and wide ecclesiastical and political connections of Monte Cassino in its golden age under Desiderius and Oderisius.

Elizabeth Parker McLachlan
Rutgers University