WITH AN ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN SCOTTOWE
Decorated manuscript on vellum with three illuminated initials.
Northern Italy, probably Lombardy or Ferrara, c.1440-1450.
132 x 92 mm, 221 leaves + 1 flyleaf at front and back, complete, I-XVI10, XVII8, XVIII-XXI10, XXII10-1 (lacks 1 blank), XXIII2+3, justification 75 x 60 mm, ruled in blind lines for two columns of 30 lines, in a very regular, tiny and experienced hand with many abbreviations in a Southern Textualis in two sizes; catchwords. Rubrics red, versals touched in yellow, two-line initials alternating in red and blue, most of which with penwork decoration. 3 illuminated initials: 1 figurated nine-line initial F (fol. 1) with full border in the margin consisting of a four-sided bar around the text and flowers, birds, parrots, spray, pollen and tendriled hairlines, 1 seven-line initial P (fol. 25), 1 five-line initial D (fol. 166v). The opening of fols. 166v-167 was enhanced with a charming and captivating decorative grotesque of St Michael and the Dragon in monochrome green tones. The underlying pen and ink drawing is very accomplished and made to appear as if part of the original decoration. Very clean and wide margins, prickings still visible in upper and lower margins, fine parchment, very few stains or darkening of vellum, overall crisp condition, illumination in fine condition as well, the green dragon a very little flaked. Modern calf, blind tooled, one clasp. Incipit: “Incipit in nomine domini breviarium usum consuetudinem romane curie in primo sabbato de adventu Ad vesperas Capitulum// Fratres scientes quia hora est …” => beginning of the ecclesiastical year on first of advent Explicit: “Et posui seyr [sic!] montes eius in solitudinem et hereditatem eius in drachones deserti. Explicit dominicale officium tocius anni” => verse from the daily proper of the mass.
The manuscript contains the Proprium de tempore, the temporal of the Roman breviary with no further local specifications. The rubrics mark the beginnings of liturgical sections and sometimes give notifications for the day. Both the neat script and the very thin high quality vellum suggest it was intended as a portable reference tool, perhaps for a wealthy priest or scholar. The three initials mark the beginning of the ecclesiastical year in advent, the liturgy for the Nativity of Christ “Primo tempore alleviata est terra zabulon” and the opening of the liturgy for Pentecost “Deus qui hodierna die corda fidelium”. The decorated initials, the first with a portrait of St Paul, including the border decoration on the first folio, link the manuscript to northern Italy. The blue and green acanthus leaves springing from the initials, the form and design with sprouting buds and green leaves on top, the mauve corpus and the burnished golden grounds argue for a workshop outside the centres of book illumination of Ferrara or Milan around 1450.
In the absence of a calendar, the litany and the sanctoral, the painted decoration and its style are the only indicators to location and date. Our artist might have been a follower of masters like Giorgio d’Alemania, who was active in Ferrara between 1441 and 1462, in Modena around 1476. It is interesting to note that the liturgy of Pentecost, doubtless a major feastday, is enhanced with an illuminated initial (fol. 166v), rather than Easter Sunday, which is regarded as the most important feast of the ecclesiastical year. And while the encounter of St Michael with the dragon would have matched the symbolism of the Resurrection, as Christ had vanquished the powers of the evil in rising from the dead, it seems a bit out of place in connection with Pentecost. This extraordinary marginal decoration must have been added to the manuscript at a point when the liturgical function of the book was not its prime purpose. The well accomplished combination of spiralling floral ornament and the animated form of dragon and human figure, one almost emerging from the other, evokes the spirit of the Italian baroque, as it is found, for example, in Polifilo Zancarli’s and Odoardo Fialetti’s so-called ‘Vertical Grotesques’.
A series of ornament etchings at the British Museum and Harvard Art Museum suggest that it was published in Venice between 1600 and 1630. (Many of his grotesque designs can be browsed on the website of The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The playfulness of the design could well point to the early 17th century. On the other hand, there is a very striking similarity with a particular dragon from a late Renaissance calligraphy book, now in the Newberry Library at Chicago: Wing MS ZW 545.S431, letter S. This was written in England in 1592 by John Scottowe, who died in 1607. Our dragon is astonishingly similar to one there, its form only slightly adjusted to the marginal space it covers in the present manuscript. Without knowing the precise provenance, it will probably be impossible to prove how a pattern from a late 16th-century English calligraphy book could have found its way into a mid-15th-century Italian breviary, but this motif with only slight variations was known in Europe before 1600, and could have been added at that date. Either the model of this dragon was very widely spread among scribes and calligraphers, or, the manuscript was once in the collection of an English calligrapher. The green and blue monochrome tones of the modelling hint at an artist who intended to somehow ‘medievalize’ his work and perhaps adjust it to the period of the manuscript. The colouring is typical neither for the 17th nor 15th century.
Provenance: The original provenance of the manuscript is hard to establish as the breviary does not include a calendar or a litany. Moreover, it seems to be complete without the sanctoral. The very few annotations usually only amend the text, but do not profile an early owner. A number in pencil on the front pastedown 128/12954  is in a German handwriting, so we may assume that the manuscript was in a German private collection.
BMC V 561. Goff P.296. IGI 7428. Renouard 19:2 “Première édition d’une grande rareté”. Brunet IV 505 “Livre fort rare”.