Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Manuscript Illumination in Italy, 1400–1600

During the early Renaissance, the art of manuscript illumination flourished in Italy, alongside that of painting, with the formation of regional schools and centers of production.

Many of the famous artists who painted altarpieces and frescoes in fifteenth-century Tuscany were also involved in the decoration of choir-books for the most important churches and monasteries. The leading painter in Florence during the first quarter of the fifteenth century, Lorenzo Monaco, headed a large scriptorium in the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where he was involved in the decoration of one of the most celebrated series of choir-books ever produced in Italy (Last Judgment in an Initial C: Cutting from an Antiphonary, 1975.1.2485). In the middle of the fifteenth century, Fra Angelico’s closest follower, Zanobi Strozzi (King David in Prayer in an Initial B: Cutting from a Psalter, 1975.1.2470), was among the many painters and professional illuminators engaged by the Medici and other important Florentine families to decorate both liturgical and secular texts in the newest Renaissance style of painting.

The production of humanist manuscripts in Florence centered around the busy workshops of booksellers (cartolai), who entrusted the decoration of their volumes to outside painters and professional illuminators. The famous bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421–1498) led a thriving enterprise that helped build some of the most impressive private libraries in Renaissance Italy, such as those of Duke Federigo da Montefeltro in Urbino, and King Ferdinand I of Aragon in Naples.

Manuscript production in Siena was limited primarily to the commissioning of liturgical choir-books for the cathedral, the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, and the most important monastic churches. Until the last decades of the fifteenth century, the illumination of these volumes was entrusted to prominent local painters, from the Osservanza Master (All Saints in an Initial E: Cutting from an Antiphonary, 1975.1.2484) to Sano di Pietro (Martyrdom of Saint Agatha in an Initial D: Cutting from an Antiphonary, 1975.1.2488) and Francesco di Giorgio.

Lombardy and Emilia
Fifteenth-century manuscript production in Lombardy and Emilia centered primarily around the courts of the Visconti in Milan and Pavia, and the Este in Ferrara, which became gathering points for itinerant painters and illuminators from the various centers in the region. These artists were engaged in the decoration of luxurious books for private devotion and humanist texts, in addition to choir-books for the ducal churches. The dominant figure at the Visconti court in the early years of the fifteenth century was the Late Gothic Lombard painter and illuminator Michelino da Besozzo (M 944), praised by contemporaries as “the most excellent painter among all the painters in the world.” In the second half of the fifteenth century, the work of the leading painter at the Este court in Ferrara, Cosmè Tura (Assumption of the Virgin in an Initial A: Cutting from an Antiphonary, 11.50.1), was instrumental in the development of a distinctly Ferrarese Renaissance school of illumination.

In the early fifteenth century, a regional school of illumination had developed in the Veneto, headed by Cristoforo Cortese, who was active primarily as a miniaturist for the many important scuole, or lay confraternities, in Venice (Saint Mark the Evangelist and Saint Sinibaldus Venerated by Members of a Lay Confraternity: Leaf from a Mariegola, 1975.1.2468). Cortese’s Gothic style of painting was succeeded in the second half of the fifteenth century by the classicism of Mantegna’s followers, beginning with Girolamo da Cremona, whose work was sought by the most enlightened Renaissance patrons throughout Italy, from the Gonzaga in Mantua to the Medici in Florence (Descent from the Cross: Cutting from a Missal, 49.7.8).

By the end of the fifteenth century, with the rise of printed books, the craft of manuscript illumination in Italy had become increasingly specialized and confined primarily to the production of luxury goods for the wealthiest class of patrons. The most important commissions centered around the papal court in Rome, where Michelangelo’s models were transferred onto parchment by the most famous sixteenth-century illuminator, Giulio Clovio (Pierpont Morgan Library, Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, M69). Also executed for the papal court were the extraordinarily refined illuminations and small images for private devotion produced by Francesco Marmitta (The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1975.1.2491). These works represent the final, glorious moment of manuscript painting in Italy.