Vespasiano da Bisticci – ‘cartolaio’ of Florence

Vespasiano_da_Bisticci_portraitIt must have been a very exciting time in Florence in the fifteenth century. The Humanists favoured Greek and Roman texts, rather than religious ones, and wanted them written out in luxury books. But who could procure the fine vellum needed, or the scribes to write the books in the new/old style of Humanistic Minuscule, artists to decorate them with white vine-scroll ornament, and skilled craftspeople to bind them in velvet or supple leather? Enter one Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421–1498) as shown here. He started working at a libreria along a street of similar shops when he was only 11 years of age but he learnt quickly and, when still a young man, became a member of the stationers’ guild and thus a fully fledged ‘cartolaio’.

Bartolomeo_Sanvito_-_Portrait_of_Petrarch_in_the_Incipit_Letter_“N”_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Humanists wanted their ancient texts written in an ancient script. They thought Gothic scripts were too modern (though they look very old-fashioned to us!), and called them lettera/littera antica/antiqua. Looking back in history at various writing styles they were keen to get as close to the scripts of Rome and Greece, but they didn’t go back quite far enough. They settled instead on the clear and precise style developed during the reign of Charlemagne, another lover of all things classical. Charlemagne wanted a clear, easily readable script, that could be used throughout his empire, and this was it.

 

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The Humanists adapted it – they made the script more upright, they added feet to the  minims (sometimes emphasised too much!) and used classical Roman Capitals to complete the impressive look. The appearance on the page is almost of printed text when it is written as clearly and precisely as this. It is extremely difficult to justify text when it is hand-written – it is certainly not as simple and easy as highlighting a paragraph and clicking on a button to align left and right margins! Yet in this manuscript now in the British Library, written by Rodolpho Brancalupo, it is precisely what he has achieved.

Screenshot 2023-12-13 at 17.00.14Many of the pages of books at this time also reflected Classical influences. Those associated with the great Paduan scribe Bartolomeo San Vito and others often had decorations of swags and foliage, cherubs and acanthus leaves, vases and jewels, sea creatures and pearls – as can be seen in the manuscript page in the second paragraph. Others were decorated with bianchi girari (white twists), which worked well with the lighter and more delicate script. This is shown in this manuscript from the Fitzwilliam Museum which was supervised by Vespasiano da Bisticci and produced in about two months – an amazing feat!

IMG_3778Vespasiano’s shop can still be seen in Florence. It was on the corner of the Via del Proconsolo and Via de’ Pandolfini. Close by is another shop as here. This is a magnificent building with a most impressive doorway.

 

IMG_3780Above the rounded and decorated arch, between two horizontal swags of leaves and foliage, is a small carved open book. Those a little carried away by the romance of the bookshop of the famous bookseller thought that a book carved above the entrance indicated that this is the very shop.

 

IMG_3783This ‘book’ shop, though, is on the wrong corner, and in some ways sadly, although amazing that it’s still there, Vespasiano’s old shop is much more mundane now – at the time of writing it was a pizzeria. This is on here the correct corner and it was from where the bookseller traded.

There is much more about the Humanists, their manuscripts, and Vespasiano and his clients in ‘The Art of the Scribe’, published by the British Library, summer 2024.

The British Library One Day Illumination Masterclass Course

August 2023, finished animalsIt can be quite daunting signing up for a course which for many involves completely new techniques and tools. Most people haven’t picked up a paintbrush or dealt with paint since schooldays, and the thought of painting a mediæval miniature may be very tempting, but what if everyone else on the course is a trained artist? The British Library one-day Illumination Masterclass course is geared to allay all fears (at least most of them!). Much of painting in the style of mediæval miniatures is technique, and this is what I teach. These are the results of the course held in August 2023.

IMG_3380Everything is provided for each participant, no-one has to bring anything. It takes quite some time to prepare everything beforehand, and also a considerable time to set up for the course on the day. Here are the wet and dry boxes (those on my courses will know all about these!).

 

 

 

 

IMG_3381Each participant has their own work station set up on individual tables so that there is lots of space and everything they need is to hand. This is set up for a right-hander.

 

 

 

IMG_3382To allay any fears about not being creative, to avoid too complex an image for one day, and to use the time as effectively as possible, bestiary animals from manuscripts held at the British Library are chosen, and even these are selected to be ones that aren’t too complicated. Tracings are made which are transferred to treated vellum. The outlines are then reinforced with paint as here.

IMG_3383Instructions are given on dealing with gouache paint, using brushes, and how to paint using fine sable brushes. Here the pigment is being tested with a mixing brush to ensure that the very dilute consistency to paint the outline is correct, and also that the brush is held at the right angle to make the very fine strokes.

IMG_3385Then a modern adhesive is applied. There is not enough time in one day to use traditional gesso which raises the gold from the surface so that it shines brightly, and also creates a smooth surface to achieve a brilliant burnish. Anything other than gesso won’t have the effect of gold as in manuscripts, but it can still be stunning! Here the adhesive has been applied.

IMG_3386Next it’s GOLD. Despite not using gesso it’s always exciting to achieve that brilliance of metal with real gold leaf shining in the light. Areas not being worked on are masked as here.

 

IMG_3387Agate dog tooth burnishers are used to apply the gold.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3390And the effects are rather wonderful!

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3392And again here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3394Finally the paint is applied to create a wonderful mediæval miniature.

 

 

 

Comments from participants on this course:

Fantastic! Well structured and most enjoyable.

Such an enjoyable day, it’s amazing what can be done in a day due very much to the preparation and expertise Patricia brings.

Wonderful day and a very good and welcoming tutor.

Fascinating stuff!

Patricia is a great and supportive instructor. I look forward to taking more classes with her.

Humour, even steady pace, clear instruction, perfect level of detail, and fantastic tuition.

Most enjoyable and informative. Never thought I would produce such illumination in such a short time.

Very well pitched (in my view) to meet the requirements of novices and more experienced participants from a range of backgrounds. Loved the technical information.

Really enjoyed it! It was especially detailed with supplementary information which I liked.

It was very well planned and instruction and teaching were well summed up and delivered. I am going to return and learn more. Thank you Patricia.

It was very interesting and informative; I thoroughly enjoyed the day!

Well organised course. We didn’t bring anything to the course, which is great, everything is provided. Big thank you to Patricia.

(The only negative comments were to do with the arrangement of tables and movement round the room, which we realised as soon as the participants came in, and will be resolved for future courses, and the lighting in the room; it is suggested that if this is a potential problem, then participants may like to bring an illuminated magnifying glass with them.)

The Sforza Hours

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.35.07Imagine how Sir John Robinson from the Victoria and Albert Museum must have felt in 1871. He was in Madrid looking for manuscripts, and had heard of a ‘wonderful Illuminated manuscript.’ A priest was selling it and a price agreed. He put the peseta equivalent of £800 (£66,000 now) into the inside pocket of his brown cloak. Somehow or other though the money was stolen, which was clearly a disaster! However, he found another £800 and managed to secure the manuscript.

This is a page from the book painted by Giovan Pietro Birago showing the penitence of King David. It depicts the king transported to a Renaissance Italian town, and detail that is so typical of this artist. Note particularly the lively modelling of David’s robe highlighted in shell gold (real gold powder in gum Arabic base).

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.33.07However, this wasn’t the only dramatic incident in the manuscript’s history. The book was originally commissioned by Bona Sforza, Duchess of Milan, in the late fourteenth/early fifteenth century from the best artist in the city. As can be seen here, Birago had a wonderful style of painting, very mannered but very precise. Bearing in mind that this manuscript is the size of a pocket book, the detail is amazing.

This image is the text from the Hours of the Cross and the angel at the top holds the crown of thorns and the nails; at the base is a cherub kneeling in adoration of the cross. Note Birago’s style of high cheek bones and wonderfully curling locks. The borders either side are in typical Renaissance style of intertwining foliage, trumpets, and mythical creatures – in this case sirens.

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.33.51It was discovered some time later in a letter written by Birago to ‘Your Excellency’ (un-named) that a visit by Fra Johanne Jacopo to view the manuscript was not without incident. Apparently he stole part of the book! In that same letter Birago explained that ‘The part which your excellency has is worth more than 500 ducats. The other part is with the Duchess …’. So just a part of the book was worth five times more than Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Madonna of the Rocks’, valued at the time at 100 ducats.

In this image the Holy Spirit is descending in the form of a dove on to the disciples. Note St Peter with his keys, the very lively robes, and the wonderful curls of the men.

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.34.27The story of the book continues. It was not finished, but on the Duchess’s death passed to her nephew, Philibert II of Savoy. The manuscript wasn’t long with him because he died a year later and it then went to his widow, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. She went there taking the book with her, and after ten years asked Etienne de Lale to finish the text in a style that is rather inferior to that in the rest of the book. This page is by the original scribe in a strong Gothic Rotunda, a style used in Italy and Spain, much less compressed than the Gothic Textura of northern Europe.

 

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.32.03Margaret also asked the court painter Gerard Horenbout to add more illuminations. His style and that of Birago are totally different but both are supreme artists in miniature. Look at the detail here, how finely the figures are painted, although the sunny, hilly exteriors, and the light interiors of Italy painted by Birago have been replaced by Horenbout to dark rooms and the rather dreary, in comparison, backgrounds of northern Europe. The challenge of depicting haloes is well shown here. There’s not such a problem when the figures are full face and not looking down too much, but when shown as here it’s difficult not to see them as golden plates on their heads.

 

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.34.48Admitting the huge skill of Horenbout, my preference very much is the style of Birago. Here are some more miniatures in the Sforza hours. Now there’s curly hair and there’s curly hair! Admittedly Mary Magdalene was known for her hair when anointing the feet of Christ … but! It was said that she was a hermit in the desert and didn’t eat or drink but was sustained by God. She is supported by angels rising to heaven to receive that sustenance.

 

 

 

Screenshot 2023-07-11 at 11.34.18Never has there been a group of more high cheek-boned, curly haired men than here in this image of the Last Supper. Even the servants ladling soup and pouring and serving wine are depicted in the same way. And for itinerant travellers, the disciples are certainly robed luxuriously.

There’s more to be seen on the British Library’s website here, and although there are only few pages of this manuscript remaining, each of the images is a real gem.

The Glitterati of 2023

Layout 1What a wonderful group of eight budding illuminators-to-be there was for this year’s intensive Tools, Techniques and Materials of Mediæval Manuscripts three-day course in May. It is always interesting to see how eight different people, complete strangers, from different parts of the UK and the world will react when spending three days together. I have been so lucky in that everyone who comes on my courses has been really nice – and so it proved to be this time!

 

 

 

IMG_2930It takes quite a long time to get the rooms ready. The furniture has to be arranged, and then all the tools and equipment set out for each individual – well over 30 individual pieces of equipment. No-one has to bring anything with them – it’s all provided. I do this for three main reasons. It is very expensive buying vellum, books of gold leaf, sets of paints, and fine kolinsky sable brushes. If someone is doing this only once, it is a lot of cost, which could be seriously off-putting! Then, for those coming long distances and even from overseas, buying all the correct stuff is not easy and carrying it long distances on public transport is also a challenge. Lastly, and this is from experience of many, many years, it is so important to have the right tools and materials – too low a gold level in leaf gold means that it will not stick to itself, a old burnisher that someone has found in a drawer may be scratched and ruin the gold, and new scissors bought cheaply will make the gold leaf tear. It really is a case of, quite rightly ,a workman blaming his tools when things don’t go well!

But the results were amazing as you can see. Gesso well laid, gold attached and burnished to a bright shine, and miniatures painted well.

IMG_2945Here are the results and comments from those on the course, although comments are not necessarily next to the image completed (by the way, the images may be a bit skewwhiff because I wanted to make sure the brilliance of the gold was captured).

Amazed at what I’d learnt on the first day. I thought we had a lot to do, and we did, but Patricia had timings meticulously planned, and we finished. it was extremely good value for such an in depth course (and most memorable).

 

IMG_2934Your help and advice at all stages have been very welcome; thank you for your encouraging words throughout the course. So glad to have attended. I have learned a great deal and particularly enjoyed using gesso. Absolutely fantastic. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2935Superb! I’ve learned so much and will definitely experiment with techniques in the future, Unique and top quality training with plenty of inspiration for future explorations. Very clear, easy to follow and clearly based on practical experience. Brilliantly pitched.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2937I just want to say what a wonderful experience this has been – absolutely perfect for me! Thank you so much for your wonderful warmth and hospitality (well beyond what the course would require to be a success).

 

 

 

IMG_2936Perfectly paced and really fun, learned so much, quill making amazing. Patricia you are wonderfully encouraging and positive, Loved the gesso and gilding. Tremendous! Wish I could have stayed for a week.

 

 

 

IMG_2942I was so looking forward to it, but the course was so much more than I could have expected, The learning was wonderful, and I cannot thank you enough for all the effort you put in to make it an amazing experience. Excellent! Repeats, great demonstrations, you are a wonderful teacher! All my thanks.

 

 

 

 

IMG_2939This is famously the best course in the world, which is why we’re all here. No-one was disappointed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IIMG_2940 loved the fact that you walked us through the details of all the supplies we used, where they came from and how they are made. It was an amazing experience, I have learned so much more than I had hoped to. Patricia, you are a very generous teacher and person. I am so glad I signed up for this workshop.

 

 

 

Courses are held in Kent, UK, about 35 minutes by train from London. They are run usually the third weekend (plus the Friday) in May, and details are sent out in my free online monthly newsletter. The courses fill up very quickly, so if you are interested, do book your place as soon as it’s advertised!

Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache

CIMG2401It is often very confusing when starting out in calligraphy to be faced with bottles of different inks, some specifically for calligraphy, some for drawing and some for fountain pens. What’s best to use? To avoid any confusion I would strongly recommend paint rather than ink, and, in some cases, paint is actually far better than ink on challenging papers or when writing in books. So if using paint, then the only paint I would recommend is Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache. I know I’m a bit biased because I did work with Schmincke to develop the paints, but my payment ended there, and I now recommend them because they are really good!

 

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******Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache special offer! L Cornelissen, main suppliers of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache, have very kindly arranged a fantastic offer! THIS IS ONLY FOR SUBSCRIBERS TO MY NEWSLETTER, and if you are a new subscriber, it is expected that you are honourable and subscribe for at least a year and hopefully longer, rather than being dishonourable and subscribing to get the offer and then unsubscribing a month or so later (subscribe here) then the price of the set of 12 x 20 ml tubes in a wooden box with an explanatory leaflet is £83 instead of £115 +p+p. (The cost of p+p from Cornelissen for non-UK is very reasonable). If you would like to have this set, which will last most people a lifetime if they are calligraphers and/or painters of mediæval miniatures (ie don’t use a whole tube at one go!), then send me an email through my website and I’ll send you back your own personal code which you then use when you contact Cornelissen. You will also need to send me a screenshot of your subscription confirmation or the most recent newsletter.

***PLEASE NOTE: It is just me doing this, I’m not a business nor do I have administrative help or a PA, and dealing with every request for this offer takes time. There are occasions when I am really busy probably working on commissions, designing, teaching, preparing lectures and talks, writing articles for journals, writing and doing the artwork for my books, being the Secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Craft, working on the Stanford Calligraphy Collection, answering and writing emails, and occasionally having a little bit of time to myself! There may therefore be, a delay in dealing with your request, and occasionally it may get lost in the quite considerable number of messages I receive!

Layout 1The colours chosen for the set are based on Michael Wilcox’s book, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, which is well worth reading if you’re not familiar with it. This means there are two reds, two blues and two yellows. In addition there is a green – oxide of chromium (which works particularly well with a pen), burnt Siena as the brown (mix it with ultramarine for a great grey), Jet black (a great black ink), permanent white, goldpearl and silver – both metallic pigments. All are particularly finely ground so pass well through a pen and also almost all have great coverage so pencil guidelines don’t show through (important for we calligraphers!)

 

IMG_1898For more information about the selection of colours and how to mix them, there is a special Calligraphy Clip here. Please note that Redpearl is no longer available in the set, nor two blacks, but silver is included.

 

 

 

 

CIMG2423The tubes are a good size, and in calligraphy and painting miniatures, you don’t need much paint, so they will last a long time. Palettes for most paints are usually wide to allow for big brushes, this means the paint evaporates quite quickly, this is not what we want for calligraphy. I use small science crucibles for mixing paint as they have less surface area for evaporation. Squeeze about 1 cm (just under half-an-inch) of paint into the palette, slice this off with a knife to get a good edge and to prevent excess paint transferring to the screw of the tubes and making it difficult to open next time. Add water to the paint drip by drip; this is best done with an ink dropper (available at Cornelissen); if you add water from your brush, you don’t know how much liquid it is holding and so may add too much and then have to add more paint – and so it goes on!

CIMG2403The consistency of paint you want is that of thin, runny cream, so add sufficient water and mix up all the paint until that is achieved. If the paint is too thick then it won’t flow through the pen, and if too thin then it won’t cover pencil guidelines. The consistency is the same for painting mediæval miniatures.

 

CIMG2404Always add dark colours to light as you will need less pigment. It takes a lot of a light colour to make a difference to a dark colour, but only a touch of a dark colour to change a light colour. See my Calligraphy Clip about this paint to find out an easy way to reproduce mixed colours. It is important to mix up all the paint before using it. On the right there is clearly some red still unmixed and this could change the colour in the pen when using.

 

CIMG2402I never wash up palettes or throw paint away. Using crucibles, I simply pop on the lid and leave them. When I want to use that colour again, I add water drop by drop until the paint has softened and then use a brush to gently stir and add more drops of water with the ink dropper to mix to the consistency of thin, runny cream.

 

 

CIMG2424The same applies with paint palettes; I don’t wash them either, and, as they’re used by students on my courses, they often have quite a mix of paints on them. I love these porcelain palettes with many tiny wells which are ideal for the small amounts of pigment used for miniature painting. They also come with a lid which provides another surface for mixing, but you do have to let the paint on the lid dry before putting it over the welled part of the palette. I forgot this once – oops!.

Layout 1So to mix good colours using the Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache set, use those which have a tendency towards one another. So for a good orange choose a red which has a bit of yellow in it – vermilion – with a yellow that has a bit of red in it – cadmium yellow. To get a less pure orange, here I mixed cadmium with madder. Madder has a bit of blue in it, so works well with ultramarine, which has a bit of red in it to make a good purple (better than the colour shown on the right!). A less pure purple is made by mixing madder with Paris blue. Paris blue has a bit of yellow in it so makes a great green if mixed with lemon yellow which has a bit of blue in it. A less good green is made by mixing Paris blue and cadmium yellow. Oxide of chromium is a bit of a dull green so add other colours to liven it up. And burnt Siena and ultramarine make a grey with great depth – you’ll never use just black and white again once you’ve mixed this!

The metallic gouaches do need a bit of practice, and I show how to use them both on my DVD – Illumination – and also in my book Illumination – Gold and Colour. Order here.

IMG_2466The Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache set comes with a useful two-sided leaflet which explains more about mixing paints and also has some ideas for using the paints too (again this is the old leaflet, but the new one is very similar).