Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Exhibition dates: September 30, 2003 – February 1, 2004
Exhibition location: The Robert Lehman Wing (court level)

The first-ever public presentation of 101 works from the impressive group of Italian illuminated manuscripts assembled by Robert Lehman (1891-1969), one of the foremost American collectors of his day, opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 30, 2003. Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on view through February 1, 2004, features some of the finest examples of the illuminator's art—many of them previously unknown even to scholars—produced in Italy from the 13th through the 16th century. Among the many important new discoveries presented in the exhibition is the only known illumination by the great Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Comparable only to the Cini Collection in Venice in its breadth and scope, the collection formed by Robert Lehman originally comprised some 145 pieces, representing all of the major schools of Italian manuscript production—Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia, Lombardy, and the Veneto. Spanning some three centuries of illumination, these works trace the art form's development from the other-worldly, abstracting traditions of late-medieval painting to the conquest of space and form during the High Renaissance. In addition to examples by such celebrated painters as Duccio, Lorenzo Monaco, Cosimo Tura, Stefano da Verona, and Francesco di Giorgio, the collection includes major works by artists known primarily as illuminators, including Neri da Rimini, Belbello da Pavia, and Girolamo da Cremona. The selection of 99 single leaves and two bound volumes is drawn from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, as well as from a private collection.

Before the advent of printing, around the middle of the 15th century, books were not only written but decorated—often quite lavishly—by hand. The term "illumination" to describe these decorations was inspired by frequent use of gold and silver, in conjunction with colored paints, which literally made the page appear to "light up." The majority of works from the Lehman Collection represents one of the most spectacular types of illuminated manuscripts (and a specialty of Italian artists) – the oversize choir books, known as antiphonaries and graduals, that contain the sung parts of the mass. The principal form of decoration for these books was large initials, often several inches square, placed at the beginning of each hymn and used as a framing device for a narrative scene appropriate to the text. When carried out by artists of the highest caliber, as they so often were, the results were virtual masterpieces in miniature.

Nearly all of the examples on view are single leaves or cuttings of individual initials, the result of the 19th-century practice of mutilating manuscripts for their beautiful miniatures. The removal of such works from their original context creates especially daunting challenges for scholars, and this exhibition reflects important new research on the collection in matters of dating, attribution, and provenance.

The important achievements of manuscript illumination in early Renaissance Florence are represented by such artists as Pacino di Bonaguida, the Maestro Daddesco, and the Master of the Dominican Effigies, whose interest in the suggestion of volume and pictorial space reflects the powerful influence of their more famous Florentine contemporary, Giotto. The Maestro Daddesco's Annunciation in an Initial M, ca. 1310-15, is especially remarkable for its Giottesque sense of monumental grandeur and gravity, despite the miniature scale.

A telling contrast is provided by a near-contemporary example of the same subject by the gifted but still-Gothicizing Emilian artist Neri da Rimini, in which the emphasis is more on exuberantly rendered decorative flourishes, such as the magically suspended draperies of the Angel Gabriel, than on naturalistic representation.

Important examples of later Florentine illumination include Lorenzo Monaco's Last Judgment in an Initial C, ca. 1406-7. Exquisitely painted in this master's ultra-refined and elegant manner, the cutting comes from the famous group of choir books created by Lorenzo and his shop for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which were admired as the most beautiful and impressive of such works in all of Italy.

The earliest example of Sienese manuscript painting on view—and one of the most historically important revelations of this exhibition—is a leaf containing the only known illumination by Duccio di Buoninsegna, the founder of Renaissance painting in Siena. Dated ca. 1285-90, the miniature shows God the Father above the Virgin and Child, framed in an initial B. The infant's very child-like pose and gesture, reaching up to tug at his mother's veil, is one of the earliest appearances of an iconographic motif that will come to exemplify Duccio's new, humanistic approach to this devotional image.

Important examples of later Sienese illumination include a scene of the Virgin surrounded by saints in an initial E, ca. 1430-40, by the Master of the Osservanza, a close collaborator of the great Sienese master Sassetta, and Francesco di Giorgio's miniature of Saint Bernadino Preaching from a Pulpit, ca. 1470-75, remarkable for its naturalism and vivid evocation of the character and appearance of this fiery religious reformer.

Franco dei Russi, one of the leading illuminators at the court of Ferrara, is represented by four magnificent leaves—all from a famous series of choir books commissioned during the 1450s by the distinguished Greek churchman and scholar Cardinal Bessarion. The exhibition also includes a miniature by Ferrara's leading panel painter during the 15th century, Cosimo Tura. These works reflect the eccentric, mannered courtly style that defines the Ferrarese school of painting.

Examples of Lombard illumination include two cuttings, ca. 1430-35, by Stefano da Verona, a leading exponent of the International Gothic style, and previously known only as a panel painter. Typical of this master's delightful sense of fantasy is the scene of the Pentecost, which is enframed in an initial A formed by the intertwined necks of two rainbow-colored dragons.

The crowning achievement of the important Lombard illuminator Belbello da Pavia was the lavish decoration, begun in 1467, of a set of choir books for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. In addition to five leaves from this project, the exhibition includes a recently discovered bound volume of some 96 folios from the same series.

The exhibition closes with one of the few known works by the Emilian artist Francesco di Marco Marmitta da Parma, Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1492-95, notable for its exquisitely detailed and expansive landscape setting. Conceived as an independent miniature, rather than part of the decorative program of a manuscript page, the painting announces the final chapter in the art of book illumination, before its extinction with the rise of modern, mechanical forms of book illustration.

In addition to illuminated manuscripts, Robert Lehman collected paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts. In 1975, he gave some 2,500 objects from his collection, including 14 Italian manuscript pages, to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and also generously funded the Museum's Robert Lehman Wing, where the collection is now housed.

The exhibition was seen earlier, in a reduced form, at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Treasures of a Lost Art is organized by Pia Palladino, Assistant Curator, Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogue by Ms. Palladino, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press. The exhibition catalogue will be available in the Museum's shops for $50.

The publication is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

An afternoon of programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition on Sunday, October 5, in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium: Screenings of the films A World Inscribed, on the history of illuminated manuscript and book production during medieval times, and Medieval Manuscripts, on the step-by-step process of creating a medieval manuscript, will begin at 1:00 p.m., followed by a 2:00 talk by Jonathan Alexander, "Italian Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts: Texts, Patrons, Artists." A performance of sacred music by the New York Early Music Ensemble will take place at 3:30 p.m.

An Audio Guide of the exhibition will be available; the fee for rentals will be $5.00 for members of the Museum, $6.00 for non-members, and $4.00 for children under 12.

The Audio Guide program is sponsored by Bloomberg.

The exhibition will be featured on Museum's Web site, www.metmuseum.org.

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