Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 29, 2018
Jonathan J. G. Alexander The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy: 1450–1600 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 456 pp.; 100 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Hardcover $75.00 (9780300203981)
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Jonathan Alexander became aware of the lack of a survey in English of Italian Renaissance illumination while preparing the groundbreaking exhibition The Painted Page: Italian Renaissance Book Illumination 1450–1550, held in London and New York in 1994–95 (exh. cat., 1994). He took up the challenge equipped not only with a profound knowledge of painting in Italian books, but also an extraordinary background in manuscript studies. He has published essential monographs and catalogues on art and manuscripts of the ninth through sixteenth centuries from many areas of Europe and brings to this survey his experience in addressing a myriad critical issues of the history of art, including the representation of gender, class, and labor; artistic methods and practice; and letters as forms, symbols, and images. Specialists, but also general readers, can be grateful that this ambitious project has resulted in an in-depth work of vast erudition that will long serve as an inspiring guide, resource, and stimulus to new inquiry.

Previous studies by Alexander of Italian Renaissance painting in books focused primarily on a few masterpieces (Italian Renaissance Illuminations, 1977) or were organized thematically according to various subjects, such as patronage and texts (The Painted Page, 1995). The present volume is a true survey in which manuscripts, patrons, and painters are discussed chronologically and by region in the first five chapters, while the last five are thematic. Alexander balances the regional approach by stressing that many of the most prominent book artists were highly mobile, and he follows some careers over several chapters. Artists traveled to find or follow wealthy patrons and to participate in teams on large showy projects. In addition, the networks of religious orders created a certain continuity across Italy in the production of liturgical books.

Alexander signals at the outset several main concerns and arguments sustained throughout the volume. He traces continuities from earlier periods, especially in books for the liturgy, and highlights innovations, including the white-vine ornament and humanist script that emerged from the desire for a historicizing book design to match classical texts. Alexander defends retention of the term “Renaissance” for book painting in Italy of the period because the work of many scribes and miniaturists was self-consciously informed by study of the arts of antiquity. In addition, an increased sense of subjectivity of patrons can be identified in the growing inclusion of their insignia and portraits. He emphasizes, however, that while humanism and the study of classical antiquity were important to the production of painting in books, the most lavishly produced manuscripts remained liturgical (251).

In the introduction, Alexander deftly outlines key patrons and stylistic concerns of manuscript painting in the preceding decades, locating two centers of gravity in 1400: Milan, where the stimulus was patronage by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and Florence, where production was primarily for the liturgy. By this time, the role of the professional illuminator had risen to a level such that monastic illuminators became the exception rather than the rule. In the first chapter, on Tuscany, Alexander explains how Florence took a clear lead by the mid-fifteenth century, even surpassing Paris in the production of illuminated manuscripts. In this period, intermediaries such as Vespasiano da Bisticci arranged for hundreds of manuscripts to be scripted and illuminated for the great collectors of Europe, and the Medici funded splendid sets of choir books. Miniaturists increasingly conceptualized the main illuminations as compositions akin to monumental paintings with deep perspective, as in the scene of King David in prayer by Monte di Giovanni di Miniato in the large Bible of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (28–9). The “miniature” is almost two feet tall.

Alexander considers painting in central and south Italy, especially Rome, where the humanist interests of popes and cardinals, and their need for liturgical books, attracted scholars and artists. He points out that an important legacy of Sixtus IV for manuscript painting was in the foundation of the Sistine Chapel, for it would require the service books commissioned by succeeding popes and cardinals well into the sixteenth century. Northeast and northwest Italy are the subjects of chapters 3 and 4, and here Alexander argues that the early twentieth-century scholarship of Hermann Julius Hermann on manuscript painting in Ferrara, including on the Bible of Borso d’Este (completed 1461), has skewed a sense of the primary importance of that region for manuscript painting of the Renaissance (77–8). Even if Ferrara’s importance has been overemphasized, Borso’s expensive Bible is impressive. It was decorated with some thousand miniatures and took six years to complete. Work on it nurtured the careers of some of the great miniaturists of the Renaissance, including Girolamo da Cremona, who would be recommended by Mantegna to Barbara of Brandenburg, wife of Lodovico Gonzaga.

Book painting of the sixteenth century has been less studied than that of the preceding centuries, and all regions of the period are considered in chapter 5. Venice and Rome became the major centers, but important manuscripts also were produced elsewhere. Alexander suggests that the Ghislieri book of hours, made in Bologna with paintings by a number of artists including Pietro Perugino and Amico Aspertini, was conceptualized as a gallery of pictures (151–2, 271). Chapter 9 expands consideration of monumental painters working as miniaturists and the interrelationship of painting in books with other media.

The art of printing books first came to Italy in 1465. Alexander’s choice to use the more encompassing term “book” rather than “manuscript” in the title of his survey allows him to address the important phenomenon of the illumination of printed books in chapter 6. Alexander also explains the continuing motives for the patronage of illuminated manuscripts in the era of print, including competition to create impressive sets of choir books for churches and monasteries and the pervasive belief that a humanist education and great library were important attributes of a great ruler (235).

In addition to being a regional survey, The Painted Book is a valuable general introduction to concerns specific to painting in books. Chapters 7, 8, and 10 address the themes of patronage and artists’ methods; key texts and their illumination; and appreciation of Italian book painting outside of the peninsula. Alexander’s incisive assessments of many critical debates also make this book essential reading for specialists and for further research. For example, he summarizes the evidence for the argument that the great calligrapher Bartolomeo Sanvito was also an illuminator and proposes that while some manuscripts written out by Sanvito were indeed painted by Sanvito himself, others were by the miniaturist Gaspare da Padova (45–56). Throughout, he is generous in referencing the work of other scholars and points out numerous areas ripe for further exploration.

The book is beautifully designed and has many full-page illustrations. As the author emphasizes, one difficulty in studying and writing about illuminated books is that the most sumptuous volumes can be filled with hundreds of paintings that can only be fully appreciated by turning the pages, an experience not available to most and impossible to adequately illustrate in a survey. Readers of Alexander’s book may be inspired, therefore, to consult the increasingly numerous full copies of manuscripts digitized and made available online by holding institutions such as the British and Vatican libraries. But manuscripts can range from small prayer books, fitting in the palm of the hand and to be read in private, to massive choir books requiring six or more strong people to carry them, with notation to be followed by a number of singers (212). The relationship of the size of the book to the human body, so essential to understanding how reading is to be “performed,” is easier to assess from a full material facsimile if the original is not available.

From the points of view of pedagogy and historiography, it is interesting to note that while paintings in books occupy a prominent place in general histories of the art of the Northern European Renaissance written for an English-speaking audience, I find that they are barely discussed and illustrated in surveys of Italian art. There also appears to be little agreement on a canon of Italian book painting, for only two manuscripts, both of the fifteenth century, are discussed in more than one out of five current Italian Renaissance textbooks aimed at American and UK undergraduates. The Bible of Borso d’Este and the book of hours created for Gian Galeazzo Visconti (late fourteenth century to early fifteenth century) each appear in two textbooks. We cannot attribute these choices to the usual suspect Giorgio Vasari, for neither of these manuscripts, nor their artists, are mentioned by him in his Lives of the Artists (Le vite de’ piú eccellenti architetti, pittori, 1550, and Delle vite de’ piu Eccellenti pittori scultori, 1568). The miniaturist Giulio Clovio, who was the subject of an enthusiastic biography in the second edition of Vasari’s Lives and whose work was especially admired until the early nineteenth century, finds mention in only one of the five textbooks. Alexander’s book fills a lacuna in Renaissance and book/manuscript studies with a new picture of the commissioning and making of many kinds of painted books for a variety of patrons. His rich account should stimulate reconsideration of the nature and extent of painting in books and their place in Renaissance visual culture. 

Helena Szépe
Associate Professor, Renaissance Art History, University of South Florida

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.