Imagine 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).
However, 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.
It 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.
The 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.
Margaret 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.
Admitting 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.
Never 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.