Around 1520 Philippe de Gueldre, Duchess of Lorraine, acquired a new handwritten illuminated book on the dialogue between reason and the soul. It had been 70 years since Gutenberg had printed the first book in Europe using moveable type, and beautiful printed versions would have been available. But the Duchess, and many others, still valued a “written” book.
Perhaps today the same Duchess would be resolutely carrying around a printed hardback rather than a digital Kindle.
Just like the emerging digital world of today, the early 16th century was a time of massive technological flux and experimentation as printers tested the limits of the new presses while others continued to painstakingly handwrite and treasure traditional books.
A new exhibition of masterpieces from the medieval and Renaissance book collection of businessman Kerry Stokes captures the moment when the handwritten book reached its zenith and new printed books were starting to go beyond simply copying the styles of the past to embrace the new technology.
Philippe’s handwritten book is one of those that will be displayed at University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library.
“For a considerable time the printed book and the illuminated manuscript co-existed side by side, with artists often contributing to both types,” says Emeritus Professor Margaret Manion, one of Australia’s leading experts on medieval art and an advisor to Mr Stokes. Professor Manion, from the University’s School of Culture and Communication, helped select the books for the exhibition and is helping to oversee it.
“One of the most interesting aspects of this group of books is that they demonstrate how in the late 15th and early 16th centuries the crafts and skills developed over the centuries in the production of the handmade and decorated, or illuminated book, were absorbed into the printed version.”
The exhibition includes a Book of Hours, or devotional prayers, produced in Paris by German printer Thielman Kerver in 1522 that boasts 42 splendidly decorated woodcuts. Such illustrations weren’t new for such books, but Kerver was breaking with tradition in the scale of the illustrations and the freedom with which he used them.
Taking advantage of the ease of printing and the space it offered, Kerver created a cycle of illustrations that told their own separate biblical stories that in no way reflected the prayers in the book. It was a completely separate work of art and story telling within the one book. As Professor Manion says:
Once the printers had grasped the technology they began to revel in the freedom and space they had.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a splendid scroll printed in 1521 that is some 11 metres long and known as the Cronica Cronicarum. It is a history of the world written in French, including the so-called sixth age of the world from the birth of Christ to 1520, that focuses on the glories of the French kings and related noble families. Printed in Paris on parchment, the Cronica was also produced in book form, and scroll versions are extremely rare – there are only four known copies – suggesting that these were specially commissioned as archaic luxury items designed for display.
It includes 92 coloured woodcuts depicting saints, popes, rulers and cities, as well as biblical and historical scenes, while the text is interwoven with a network of genealogies. Without it having been acquired by Mr Stokes and brought into the public domain, the scroll might have remained little known, even among scholars.
For Professor Charles Zika, late medieval and early modern cultural historian at the University of Melbourne, the Cronica is an important harbinger of the later development of our history writing.
Like the so-called printed Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, the Cronica builds on the earlier medieval tradition of relying on biblical, classical and medieval sources with their accounts of the deeds of popes, kings and nobles, but also includes material on the vibrant economy and culture of urban centres, drawn from recent publications.
The change reflects the new interests and production of new knowledge associated with humanist interest in the classical and medieval past, which had gained pace following the advent of printing. This is most obviously illustrated, says Professor Zika, by the woodcuts of the cities in these chronicles, many of which provide illustrations of real cityscapes of the time and are based on other contemporary woodcuts, sketches and descriptions.
“These printed chronicles seek to look at broad social events involving communities, rather than focusing on just the heroic achievements of noble families,” says Professor Zika.
“The Cronica and the Nuremberg Chronicle point towards what we recognise as more modern ways of understanding history.”
The Cronica also seems to reflect the general consolidation and centralisation of the state in this period. The Cronica was written to promote France at a time when its king, Francis I, was smarting from his failure to be elected Emperor of the predominantly German-speaking Holy Roman Empire. Just as the Nuremberg Chronicle had been produced in Germany and focused on the history and culture of the German-speaking cities and princes of central Europe, the Cronica responded by focusing on the cities, nobility and kings of France.
“It is very much a political document and it is part of the rivalry between the French and the Germans at this time,” says Professor Zika.
The exhibition of selected works from the Kerry Stokes collection at the Baillieu Library runs from July 14-24 as part of Rare Book Week in Melbourne. It will include three public lectures. On July 19, Dr Hillary Maddocks, honorary fellow at the School of Culture and Communication, will give a lecture on Kerver’s 1522 Book of Hours. On July 21, Professor Charles Zika will give a lecture on the Cronica Cronicarum. On July 22, Professor Margaret Manion and Erica Persak, executive administrator of the Kerry Stokes collection, will talk about the Collection’s latest acquisitions.
Banner Image: Cronica Cronicarum, 1521, Kerry Stokes Collection.