Ask kids where books come from, and they’ll probably tell you, Amazon.
Nope. Books, as we know them, actually come from Italy.
Specifically, they come from a period of time when Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages and Italians wanted to rediscover their ancient Roman literary and cultural heritage.
Who better to do that than a bunch of scholars, artists, and scribes in Florence?
From September 22nd, 2016 to January 16th, 2017, Boston witnessed a unique show, or more accurately, series of shows, about the invention of the modern book in Florence 500 years ago.
The show was called Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books and was part of an exhibition on illuminated manuscripts in Boston collections that takes place in three locations at once—the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and Boston College’s McMullan Museum (beyondwords2016.org)
It took a team of five curators sixteen years to select and research the 250 examples of illuminated manuscripts and printed books from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance on display in the three locales.
These books were, for the most part, buried away in the stacks of Boston-area college libraries, museums, and other institutions.
Even Harvard Business School had one—an accounts ledger belonging to Medici merchants who became rulers of Florence during the Renaissance, if you can imagine such a thing.
The Gardner’s former associate curator, Anne-Marie Eze, oversaw the selection of the books and the overall method of displaying them at the Gardner.
Eze’s most spectacular find occurred at Harvard’s Houghton Library, when a scholar handed her an old prayer book containing a portrait and wondered if Eze could identify it. [AME1]
“My heart nearly jumped out of my chest,” Eze recalls. “As soon as I saw it, I knew exactly what it was—Pope Julius III’s personal prayer book, which had been assumed lost for hundreds of years.” [AME2]
Eze, digging into the provenance of the book, recognized from markings and later inscriptions that it had been in a collection of a wealthy family in Italy in the 18th century and later came into the hands of England’s greatest book collector, Sir Thomas Phillipps, during the 19th century.
The manuscript has been at Harvard since the 1960s but how many hands it passed through before arriving there no one knows..
“It’s a beautiful book but looks somewhat the worse for wear,” Eze says, “but that’s probably because it has been on an epic 500-year journey from Rome to Boston. Long lost manuscripts don’t reappear like this very often.”
Indeed, virtually all of the books are typically locked away, and usually nobody but scholars with a particular interest in a given illuminated manuscript seek permission to view them.
Visitors to the three exhibition sites came face to face with manuscripts and early printed editions of Boccaccio, Dante, and other books we consider classics but back then were simply known as “bestsellers.”
At the Gardner, there’s also a huge illuminated manuscript of Gregorian chant, the thousand-year-old precursor to modern musical notation.
You’re welcome to hum a few bars, like I did.
One of the unique works also on view at the Gardner is a book that contains paintings of three fish, including a swordfish with a whale-like blowhole.
“Back then, artists had no idea what most of these exotic animals looked like,” Eze says, “and so they simply copied existing images from bestiaries (books on animals) and other sources.”.
“Or maybe there were swordfish with blowholes that have since become extinct.!” She joked.
Eze’s favorite work in the exhibition is a copy of Boccaccio’s On Famous Women, produced by hand in Lombardy in the 1490s. An early owner of the book read it for guidance about how to keep young women away from licentious behavior.
Writes the author, “This is why I consider it highly inadvisable to give maidens too much freedom to stroll about and listen too readily to the words of just anyone. I have often read that girls who do this have seen their reputations so stained that afterwards they could not be washed clean, even by the glory of perpetual chastity.”
Sounds a lot like parents talking to their kids about Snapchat.
Italian manuscript makers married German technological printing prowess to their own artistic sensibilities and the result is well worth a pilgrimage to the Gardner.
Across the sites of Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections visitors saw how books evolved from individually hand-written and painted masterworks to the bestsellers we find on Amazon today.
The exhibit closed on January 16th, but the Gardner continues to have insightful and inspiring things to see all year round. You owe it to yourself to pay them a visit.