Manuscript, (northern?) Italy, early sixteenth- to eighteenth century.


Small 4to. ff. 29 unnumbered and unsigned, *4 *4 *4 *4 *4 *4 *6(-1), lacking final (apparently blank) leaf. MS, on thick paper, in Latin, occasional transliterated Greek. Text and music, in red and brown-black ink, Italian Gothic rotunda with rubricated initials, last few ll. in later secretary hand, typically 35 lines per page (7 4-line staves and 7 lines), border ruled in black-brown. Light age yellowing, slight marginal foxing, some ll. a bit thumbed, occasional marks, a few ink burns within notation to a couple of final ll., early minor repairs to some inner edges. A very good, well-margined ms. in early C16 (probably northern) Italian red-brown goatskin, ties lacking. Bordered with five blind-tooled rules, centre block gilt to a design of cross-hatched ribbons with interlacing circles, semis of small and large gilt fleurons, centre lozenge with gilt inscription ‘S [Suor?] CAMMILLA’, gilt rosette to outer corners, all edges gilt and gauffered to a rope-work pattern. Spine in four compartments with blind-tooled double-ruled border, cross-hatched fillet and gilt rosette to each, raised bands with gilt fillet, a few minor cracks. Bookplate of Maurice Burrus to front pastedown, early autograph ‘D[onn]a M[ari]a Placida Zaffiri’ to first fol., her initials to first 4-line stave at fol. 4. In folding box.

The handsome binding resembles that made in Bologna, c.1540-50 in Davis III, 307.

Very good copy of this handsome, early C16 ms. processional, with C17 and C18 additions. Designed for easy portability, Processionals contained the antiphons and plainchant music for the liturgical processions of the most important religious feasts, including the Purification (Candlemas), Palm Sunday, the Ascension, the Assumption, Lent, Good Friday and Christmas. They were often copied for religious houses; in this case, for Cistercian use. The specific focus on the processional roles and gestures of nuns (‘sorores’) suggest that it was intended for a convent and originally bound for a Suor Cammilla, whose name was gilt to the binding. It probably remained in the same convent, being at some time in the possession of a Donna Maria Placida, whose ex-libris appears to date c.C17-C18. This was a frequent religious name among nuns and the title ‘Donna’ suggests she was probably an abbess.

The second part, in C17 and C18 hands, contains four antiphons cum notation, without rubrication; except for one (‘Kyrie eleison’), their shared themes are death and the plague. The first is the famous ‘Stella Celi extirpavit […] mortis pestem’. Probably originating in C14 England, it was a Marian invocation used all over medieval Europe to pray for protection from the plague. Addressed as a star, Mary is asked, according to medieval medical theories, to redress the evil influence of other stars causing the epidemic calamity. Its popular and spiritual potency was so great that it was added unofficially to Books of Hours, written on margins and pastedowns, especially in northern Europe, and later printed within music collections and as part of figurative woodcuts, e.g., Jacopo Caraglio’s Virgin with Sts Roch and Sebastian, protectors of lepers (c.1520s). As late as the 1640s the authorities of Coimbra issued it in broadside to reassure the population whilst the city was prey to epidemics. Nevertheless, only a dozen Processionals, mostly written in northern Europe in the C16-C17, are recorded which include rites ‘contra pestem’ or ‘in tempore pestilentiae’, and only four feature ‘Stella celi’.

In this ms., ‘Stella celi’ is followed by ‘Libera me Domine de morte eterna’, in a different C17 hand—an antiphon sung at the end of the Office for the Dead, just before the burial. The fact that both were copied around the same time, very plainly and in notation used for early polyphonic music, suggests that they were needed for pressing practical use in the convent. The last great plague hit northern and central Italy—where, the binding and handwriting suggest, this ms. was probably produced and preserved—very heavily in the 1630s. Monasteries and convents often managed cemeteries and lazarets for the local area and were at the same time easy prey to contagion. The connection between death and the plague in these texts was still clear to the last, C18 annotator who added the antiphon ‘In festo S. Aloisi Gonzaga’, recited on June 21 for the mass of St Luigi Gonzaga (1568-91), canonised in 1729. Although he was not an official protector against the plague, he was nevertheless remembered in C18 breviaries for his ‘mors sanctissima’ whilst caring for lepers in Rome. 

C. Macklin, ‘Plague, Performance, and the Elusive History of the Stella Celi Extirpavit’, Early Music History 29 (2010), pp. 1-31; M. Huglo, Les manuscrits du processional, 2 vols (Munich, 1999; 2004).


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