The 50 drawings of fantastical cities and their armies contained in this album — offered in New York on 5 December — were dedicated in 1595 to the new Doge of Venice, Marino Grimani. Specialist Rhiannon Knol explores its remarkable utopian vision
‘This is the sort of thing you’re always hoping you’ll find and rarely do,’ says Rhiannon Knol, specialist in Books & Manuscripts at Christie’s in New York, as she looks at a fantasy manuscript made as a gift for Marino Grimani, elected Doge of Venice in 1595.
Bound in red gilded leather, the manuscript contains 50 pen-and-ink drawings of imaginary cities, almost all of which are island fortresses. Facing each illustration is an emblematic cartouche with an explanatory poem.
‘Each city has been given a name and its own distinct characteristics, and they’re all for the glory of Venice and Grimani. So there’s “Grimanopolis” and “Durissima”, which is a play on La Serenissima, the nickname for Venice,’ Knol explains.
Before becoming the Doge of Venice, Grimani had been the city’s Superintendent of Fortresses. Specifically, he worked for many years on the construction of Palmanova, a great defensive military fort intended to protect Venice, which was ‘constantly at war with the Ottoman Empire and other European cities and empires,’ the specialist observes.
Shaped like a star, Palmanova was of a relatively new and superior military design. Beyond the enhanced defensive capabilities this structure afforded the city, the symmetry of the star shape linked it ‘to ideas of Renaissance utopia, scholarship and mathematical perfection,’ says Knol.
Little is known about Marco Verricci, the man whose signature the manuscript bears — although he did produce another album of ‘incredibly imaginative engineering drawings’, now housed in Venice’s Biblioteca Bertoliana. One Italian art historian has suggested that Verricci may be a pseudonym for Filippo Pigafetta, a Renaissance mathematician known for his work on fortifications. ‘My suspicion is that he was probably an engineer who worked on Palmanova,’ says the specialist. ‘He has a kind of draughtsman’s style that makes me think he had at one point designed real fortresses, and is now making this gift of imagination to the former superintendent.’
Indeed, lines between ‘artist’ and ‘engineer’ were often more fluid in the Renaissance, Knol explains: ‘Michelangelo designed the fortifications for Florence to similar utopian ideals; Leonardo also made designs for forts, although they weren’t actually built.’
While printed books from the Renaissance on the theory of fortifications include drawings of hypothetical fortresses, those are strictly books on design. ‘I’ve never seen anything exactly like this before,’ the specialist says.
Verricci’s rendering of the city of Grimanopolis is perhaps the most emblematic of the manuscript’s larger project. ‘It’s a perfect, ten-point star city on a hill with water going through it — an island city just like Venice,’ the specialist explains.
Throughout, the level of detail is extraordinary. ‘These cities are truly inhabited: there are little churches, people on the ships in the water, animals running around,’ says Knol. ‘Quite a lot of them are slightly out of scale, so you have giant rabbits among the ruins of one of the cities.’
In one illustration, a broken statue of Apollo is depicted outside the city. ‘Things are not permanent unless you protect them,’ observes Knol.
‘There’s so much to learn about Renaissance thinking from this manuscript, and a lot of enjoyment to get out of it,’ she adds. ‘You can look at it for hours. I find it pretty moving to think that this is one of two things that survive from this one very imaginative person. It’s a record of a personal vision that otherwise would have been lost.’
The 16th-century manuscript will be offered in the 5 December sale of Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts Including Americana at Christie’s in New York.