Choirbook, in Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum

[Italy (probably Florence), thirteenth or early fourteenth century]


Folio. 320 x 240 mm. 40 leaves (plus a paper endleaf at front and back), wanting single leaves throughout and at end, collation: i9 (wants ix), ii7 (wants xii, xiv-xv), iii-iv10, v4 (last two leaves cut away), single column of 6 lines of text with music on a 4-line red stave (rastrum: 21 mm.), paragraph marks in blue, red rubrics, reading numbers and original folio numbers in roman numerals in blue and red in margins, initials in red or blue with ornate scrolling penwork, the largest of these in variegated red and blue and containing sections of densely packed red and blue penwork, single large initial ‘R’ in blue, red, green and pink acanthus leaves bound together by coloured and burnished gold bands, all on burnished gold grounds, acanthus leaf fronds extending into two margins enclosing gold fruit and a roundel with a personal device (apparently one of the nails from Christ’s Cross in red and silver on black grounds), some small seventeenth- or eighteenth-century marginal additions, cracking to paint of initial in places and small losses, edges of leaves slightly scuffed and thumbed with some small losses to ink in places, lower corners repaired in places, damage worse to cockled leaves at back, tooled with floral rollstamps over early perhaps original sixteenth century leather wooden boards, four brass bosses on each board, tears to surface of leather and tears and repairs to spine, front board slightly detached from book-block at head inside front board.


This is a single volume from a series of choirbooks, containing the relevant parts of the office from the First Sunday in Advent to the Feast of St. Aegidius (1 September), followed by readings for the consecration of a church.


The probable origin of the illumination in Florence, as well as the apparent depiction of the Holy Nail in the roundel above the principal illuminated initial, suggests this choirbook was produced for use in the Duomo there. Since the Middle Ages, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, was one of three sites to claim ownership of one of the three nails of the Crucifixion (the others being Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, and the Cathedral of Saint Peter, Trier; but note that such claims must be taken with a pinch of salt, as records exist of some thirty institutions who claimed to own Holy Nails or substantial parts of them). Cosimo Minerbetti, archdeacon of the Duomo in the opening years of the seventeenth century described it in detail, alongside a thorn form the Crown of Thorns, the thumb of St. John the Baptist, the elbow of St. Andrew the Apostle and entire corpses of SS. Zanobius and Podius. There the relic was housed in a reliquary on an altar commissioned by the Medici family. Members of this paramount Renaissance family from Lorenzo di’ Medici (reigned 1449-92) onwards, as well as the numerous artists and intellectuals they patronised such as Botticelli and the puritanical preacher Savonarola, must have gazed upon the relic and perhaps this volume among others, during their procession around the cathedral during Masses.

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