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Making the Renaissance Manuscript

Drawing on local collections, this exhibition attempts to encompass
the broadest possible scope of ideas and material manifestations associated with the European Renaissance.

            The hand-written document is an invaluable conduit of human creativity, and this was never more so than in fourteenth-, fifteenth-, and sixteenth-century Europe. There, beginning in Italy and gradually expanding outward, a wide-ranging intellectual movement took hold, with book culture at its core. Inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity, its participants strove to re-center thoughts and actions around common humanity, rather than distant divinity. Established as the studia humanitatis, the movement’s name is the root of the term humanism and the forerunner of our present-day notion of the humanities as a cohesive field of studies. Its practitioners—diverse and sometimes dissonant—collectively fomented the cultural rebirth that we today define as the Renaissance.

            This exhibition explores the numerous ways in which the production of hand-written and hand-decorated documents flourished during this period, even as the age of the printing press dawned. The 100 items on show, drawn from ten local collections, encompass a broad array of ideas and material manifestations associated with the European Renaissance. Accordingly, few deluxe copies of classical texts are featured. Instead, capitalizing on the strengths of holdings in the Philadelphia area, the exhibition charts a more representative path. From pristine showpieces of political authority and idiosyncratic Books of Hours, to school manuals and miscellanies cramming together knowledge old and new, the manuscripts presented here extend beyond the rarefied atmosphere of the Renaissance studiolo. Many of the items bear traces of creative personal engagement, be it through customized heraldry, multi-generational ownership inscriptions, or even the faint imprints of a pair of mislaid eyeglasses. A majority of the objects have never before been exhibited, nor been the subject of in-depth study. Items are arranged according to fourteen themes, arranged within three major sections.

Crafting the Codex

            The first section, Crafting the Codex, deals with the direct and indirect creators of manuscripts. Here, we meet the lofty aristocratic patrons who were the recipients of odes and encomia. But we also encounter authors themselves, often capable of producing elegant presentation copies of their own writings: in the Renaissance, scribal and literary culture were seldom separate. The emulation of medieval scripts thought to be witnesses of ancient Roman writing led to the development of letterforms that remain in use today. Frequent scribal colophons show the individualism of authors and amanuenses. We are accustomed to imagining the stirrings of Renaissance self-consciousness occurring first among famous artists and poets, but such signatures prove that what the historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) proclaimed the “birth of the individual” was a more broadly based phenomenon.

Showcasing Salvation

            The middle section, Showcasing Salvation, takes as its subject the almost infinite array of customization that was possible in books for liturgy and private devotion. The images contained within these books engage with large-scale paintings and newly unearthed antiquities alike; the highly Leonardesque manner of “Master B.F.” is but one example of this phenomenon. The variety present in Books of Hours and other devotional works predates a more authoritarian approach to religious practice brought about by widespread printing, Protestant Reformation, and Catholic counter-reform. Likewise, the spread of new vernacular translations of saints’ lives and even the Bible reflects the desire of a growing literate class to take salvation into their own hands. All told, the manuscripts in this section are witnesses of a last flowering of unproblematized, exuberant Christian devotion in Europe.

Transmitting Knowledge

            The final and largest segment, Transmitting Knowledge, is devoted to the vast topic of practical learning and its conveyance. Here, we find writings from the classical world whose recuperation by humanist editors and translators was met with great excitement. A similar enthusiasm greeted the immigration of Greek scholars and their books to the Italian peninsula. These new arrivals injected vigour into the ossified structures of medieval learning, represented by the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Though this sevenfold ordering of knowledge was largely maintained, the studia humanitatis placed human endeavour on an equal or even superior plane to doctrine. While a more complete revolution in scientific thought would not occur for several centuries, in specialized communities of practice for medicine, pharmacology, and astronomy, the long unchallenged authority of classical sources was gradually overlaid with empirical observations. More prosaically, practical demands placed upon merchants and bureaucrats by increasingly globalized trade led to new types of practical manuals, while impressive hand-painted atlases kept pace with Europe’s expanding horizons.  

            No selection of documents can offer a complete panorama of such a complex and entangled period, and we must remain attuned to the significant absences of neglected groups from the material record. Nevertheless, the aim of this exhibition is to convey the major intellectual and artistic currents of Renaissance civilization, while also providing insight into the fascinating histories of individual owners, authors, artists, and scribes. For the specialist and nonspecialist alike, it is hoped that the encounter with so many long-hidden specimens of human learning and artistry will evoke, in some little way, the wonder of discovery that greeted the humanist book-hunters as they eagerly opened many a dusty tome.