Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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lluminated Texts - Masterpieces by Illuminists



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Introduction - Illuminati

Brief History

Eras and Books

Decorative Elements

Marco Polo Book Images from 1400

Books  &  Links


Introduction - Illuminati

Illuminati is where the English word 'luminaries' comes from.  Illuminati, the illustrious luminaries of their time, were the artists who decorated texts in Medieval and Renaissance Italy.  During their day, these painters were just as famous as the artists who painted on gesso on wood, and on soft plaster on walls.  But today, only artists such as Michelangelo and DaVinci are household names.

Ironically, today the work of the illuminati can be seen by more people than ever before.  The texts they illuminated, are no longer in the hands of popes, princes, and wealthy merchants.  Today, their work is displayed in museums, with usually one paged turned each day to reward the frequent visitor with a look at all the splendid artistry.  

Luckily for us, many museums have photographed the pages and put them on-line, so the Internet visitor can view many pages at one go!  I provide images on this page when copyright restrictions allow, and link to the museum sites where you can view lots more images. A full list of links is at the bottom of this page.  Browse at your leisure.

This image is an illuminated page from 1487 from the WebGallery of Art. This is the best link where you can view illustrated manuscript pages from 1150 to 1550 from many countries.

I'll eliminate my use of words like 'stunning', 'amazing', 'gorgeous', 'mini-masterpiece' and so forth on this page, but just assume I mean that for every example I offer up to you, because it's what I think!  Appreciate that the they must have used magnifying glasses to help paint them and to enjoy them, because some are truly miniscule.



Brief History

These artists worked from roughly the year 1200 to the 1500s.  This corresponds, not coincidentally, with the advent of primitive book-making techniques through to advanced book-printing techniques.  The earliest technique was the hand-lettered book.

This example is from 1400s Northern Italy of Cicero's writings now at the British Museum.

The labor intensive steps were usually these:

  • The Cartolai or paper makers would make the paper from parchment or vellum (Middle Ages) or wood fiber (Renaissance)
  • A Cutter would fold the paper into the page size desired and cut the edges
  • A Stitcher would sew one edge of the paper to bind the pages together 
  • A Cover artist would create thin wooden boards for the front and back covers for the book, then gum on a sheet of leather, which was attached to the spine of the book with more gum/resin
  • A Cover artist would then decorate the cover, usually tooling it and painting it with gold leaf or ink
  • A Calligrapher would pen the text on charcoal drawn lines in the area designated for the text, early texts were cursive scripts but later block printing was used so they could write even smaller and still be legible
  • An Illuminato would paint in the desired images and initial letters of the major paragraphs, the earliest decorations were in gold and silver thought to illuminate the page and cover, which is how they got their name, large designs were traced from designs first done on a wax tablet to avoid mistakes

This example of a tooled leather book cover  is of a 1470 Venetian Bible now at the Bodleian Library.

Scriptoria made way for wood carvers who carved text and crude images in reverse into a flat piece of wood:  woodcuts.  The wood was then rolled with ink and stamped onto a page.  The pages were then assembled as described above, and the hand painting was done as before. 

When fixed and moveable type was invented, the text was assembled into a frame, rolled with ink, and pressed onto the paper.  The binding and decoration was then done by hand.  But even at this point in time, woodcut images were still stamped onto pages after the text printing.

Only when color printing and the printing of drawings advanced, did the illuminati find their work dwindle to the rare contract with a rich merchant for a customized family book, or with the church for a special text.  Some illuminati found work decorating documents like:

  • marriage certificates, 
  • treaties, 
  • invitations, 
  • announcements and 
  • awards.  

Even today, you can hire a calligrapher do this kind of work.  They are the inheritors of this ancient art form.



Eras and Books

The Middle Ages is considered by connoisseurs as the high-point of illuminative arts perhaps because it is a time when both the text and artwork were done by hand, and these texts are the major source of Middle Age paintings.  During the Renaissance, Italian illuminati broke away from the dominant Flemish school and developed their own style. 

  • thicker pigments
  • a hard, polished surface
  • a sharp outline around figures
  • depth of field
  • rich colors
  • complex decorative designs similar in density to Islamic art (called Arabesque)

The earliest examples of illuminated texts are:

  • Song texts for sung masses (antiphonal) decorated for the churches, convents and monasteries (the initial 'S' to the right is from an antiphonal from Pisa 1300s now at the Bodleian Library)
  • There were many books with liturgical texts such as sermons that were illuminated (1439 Parma now at the Bodleian Library)
  • Bibles for the alters in churches were very commonly illuminated, and other church prayer books (1470 Venice Bible, and 1450 Padua Bible now at the Bodleian Library)).
  • Books of Hours were the prayer books used by the rich for their periodic prayers during the day.  Similar to how those of the Islamic faith pray 5 times a day, the faithful of the Middle Ages were required to pray 8 times a day (canonical hours), and the prayers were about the life of the Virgin (the scene below is an Historiated initial D from an Italian Book of Hours from 1450 now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, this is my favorite link on this page!)


Historiated initial D from an Italian Book of Hours from 1450 now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, this is my favorite link because they let you 'page through' 15 pages of this book, I enjoy especially the accurate paintings of the flowers and plants, and the calligraphy, and because books are generally closed, the colors are not damaged by sunlight so they are as vibrant today as when they were first painted

(The U.S. Library of Congress has an entire French Book of Hours from 1524 available for page by page viewing.  It is text machine printed on parchment with some pages illuminated with the life of Mary.)

During the Renaissance, Venice was the center for printing in Italy and the world, and the types of books that were illuminated widened to include:

  • Science books such as medical texts for universities, and books of maps for travelers, traders and the wealthy, and architectural texts
  • Greek and Roman texts recovered from antiquity (1400s examples now at the Bodleian Library)  like Juvenal, Cicero (1400s N.Italy examples at the British Museum), Livy
  • Entertainments like Boccaccio's Decameron (Dyonio and Fiammetta from The Decameron, 1467 Ferrara now at the Bodleian Library), Ariosto's comedies, and of course Dante's Divine Comedy (1300s Northern Italy now at the Bodleian Library Hell, Purgatory, Heaven)
  • Histories and Biographies about Italian city-states and leaders
  • Poetry like that by Petrarch and Dante, and Erotic poems provided Venetian publishers with lucrative Europe-wide bestsellers

One book that was a best-seller was one for a very special reason:  it was an early reader.  Aesop's Fables was used throughout Italy as a book to teach people how to read .  The Greek fables were almost always illustrated with woodcuts to help the new-reader figure out the texts.  



Decorative Elements

There were a limited number of elements possible for the illuminato to decorate.  Each element has a specific name, and some have different names for each part of an element.  There are also names for every type of decoration!  (If you are interested in all this ephemera, here's a link to an on-line illumination dictionary from the British Museum.)

Generally speaking, the main decorative elements are (many illustrated below in a 1458 Florence Prayer Book that belonged to Lorenzo de Medici as seen in the WebGallery of Art):

  • Decorated initial - small decoration on a starting initial letter
  • Flourished initial - large decoration and surrounding decoration in a starting initial letter
  • Historiated (or Inhabited) initial - a human figure or figures painted inside a starting initial letter
  • Borders - these can include all four borders around the text (top, bottom, left, right) or only some of them, they can be Inhabited by figures or just decorative with putti, florals, plants, jewels, animals, places
  • Coats of arms - wealthy families hired illuminati to paint their coats of arms into their books (the one to the right is from 1490 Venice in the WebGallery of Art's collection )
  • Full page images - these were to help illuminate the text nearby, often depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin, Jesus or the Apostles, and some of Old-Testament stories, or locations


1458 Florence Prayer Book that belonged to Lorenzo de Medici as seen in the WebGallery of Art




Marco Polo Book Images from 1400

Here are some of the miniatures from a rare manuscript of Marco Polo's Travels from 1400, now at the Bodleian Library and available to view on-line (from page/folio 218-271).  The artwork is by a Johannes and his school of artists. 


This painting supposedly shows the Polos leaving Venice to return to the east, with Marco in tow.  Look to the right, next to the giant swans, and you can see Marco (in red) with his father and uncle, about to board a very small boat.

Venice, as painted by Flemish artists who knew only certain things about the city, tends to look a lot like Brugges.  The add the famous 4 horses in what is supposed to be St. Mark's Cathedral (left-top), and the arches on the ground floor of the Doges Palace, with what looks like the Doge and his wife on the balcony, watching the Polos leave.



Here the Polos receive a golden passport from the Khan.  It's amazing to see the background and floor paintings in this miniature artwork, as well as the frame decorated with stars.  And the flowers around the image are filled with metallic ink.  After the next image, I include an image of an entire page, so you can see just how small these miniature paintings really are.  Mind-boggling.



Here Marco and his uncles are giving the Khan the oil from Jerusalem and the messages from the Pope.  Again, the background, floor and frame are stunning in detail, as are the robes of the Khan and courtiers.  Much of the detail was certainly painted with single-haired brushes.  I include an image of the whole page, so you can see just how small the images really are.

It is curious to see that they had no idea what a Khan (or Caan as they call him in the French, it was written Kaan in the English translations) would look like.  They guessed a scrawny guy with a wispy beard.  They got the beard part so-so, but the Khan was certainly not scrawny, judging from the images we have of him, but stocky with a round head.

The red texts are Marco Polo's chapter headings.  The black texts are the chapter contents.  This manuscript is in French.




This Adoration of the Magi depicts the scene described by Marco Polo, as told to him by people in Persia, about the Three Kings visiting Mary, Jesus and Joseph.  Joseph is my favorite here, shunted off in the far right, on a hard stool, left out of the whole gift-giving thing.  Mary has a crown and regal robes.  All Joseph has is a plain robe.  I don't know who, but the three open boxes fascinate me.  I want one of those boxes.  The backgrounds are jewel-like.




The Khan goes hunting with his falcons, dogs and staff.  His palace has a decided medieval look to it.  I've included in this image the following capital letter, illuminated with a Mongol soldier inside the 'Q', armed with shield and sword, and a dragon spewing out the letter.





This is my favorite miniature, not just because the Khan is getting dressed in European armor (not Mongol war armor, and not just because he has Renaissance tents rather than Mongol tents as he prepares for battle. 

This is my favorite painting because of the Flemish artists' depiction of a Mongol war elephant.  They clearing have no idea of the size of elephants, and only know that the animal has big ears and a long snout.  So here we have a cow with big ears and a long snout, smaller than the horses.





Here the Khan receives tributes from representatives from all his conquered lands.  The detail is, again, a thing of wonder.  I've included the following capital letter so you can see another Mongol warrior with weapon and shield, and the creature that makes up part of the letter.  Some of the dots are applied with the head of a needle.





This is the banquet scene as described by Marco Polo.  The Khan is at the head table alone, only surrounded by Barons who served him his food and drink.  The Khan's wives are seated at a lower table to his right.  All the service is of gold.  Marco also describes a drink dispenser that other later visitors to Mongols-Tartars describe too, the fountain filled with drink. 

The artist put the musicians that Marco described at these events, in the border.  The musicians played every time the Khan drank, so that everyone else would stop and pay tribute to the Khan throughout the meal (the kneeling men).




Here the Great Khan is going hunting with his dogs.  At the right are the wild animals, a deer, boar and a funny-looking bear.  I personally prefer Dino the dinosaur on the capital letter that follows.



Here the Khan's barons are helping him keep his accounts.




Here the Mongols are fighting with an enemy, using catapults and cannons.




This lovely image depicts Marco and his father and uncle in India, where pearl-divers collect the jewels from the oysters below the water.  One hands the jewels to the uncle, while another is still below the water collecting jewels.




Some books on this subject:



Some interesting links:

Illuminated stationary and bookmarks for sale on-line

The Medieval Scribe will illuminate your wedding invitations for you, make illuminated scrolls and certificates

Bodleian Library Manuscripts On-Line by country and century

The Illuminated Middle Ages, Illuminated Manuscripts from French Libraries

Masterpieces in Miniature, The Getty exhibit

Catalog of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Museum search-page, enter 'Italy' '1200' to '1500' to see their on-line collection (I did the search and got this, but you may have to do it again)

The Vatican Museum's collection of illuminated manuscripts with some images online, the famous Urbino Bible is in their collection

WebGallery of Art Illuminated Manuscripts from Italy 1450-1500 has stunning images not copyrighted, free to use and enjoy (tip:  they make beautiful and unique Christmas Cards printed out on a color printer)