NATIVITY, WITH THE VIRGIN IN ADORATION OF THE CHRIST CHILD, cutting from a choirbook, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM
145 x 97mm overall. The Holy Family in an extensive and detailed landscape-setting painted in colours, liquid gold and unburnished gold leaf, the scene bordered with a fillet of brown ink; the verso with parts of a large blue skeletal initial with red penwork decoration and a foliate infill of green, blue and pink, and two four-line staves of red with music of square notation (crease across centre with small loss of pigment, tiny pigment losses in landscape above the shepherd, rubbing to gold of Virgin's mantle). Loosely hinged on card mount, red solander box.
This is the infill of the initial 'P' from the Introit 'Puer natus est' opening the Third Mass of Christmas Day, the fragmentary initial E on the recto opened the Communion 'Exulta filia Sion' of the Second Mass at dawn.
This beautiful and meticulously painted scene, where the same attention and light deftness has been given to the details and figures of the deep landscape as to the central figures, is the work of Fra Antonio da Monza, a Franciscan who signed a miniature (Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Inv. 1764) once in a manuscript seen in Rome in 1736, in the library of Sta Maria in Aracoeli: J.J.G. Alexander, The Painted Page, 1994, cat.119. Other liturgical manuscripts attributed to him, showing a similarly enthusiastic response to the decorative grotteschi in the newly discovered Golden House of Nero, have also been thought to have been illuminated in Rome during the pontificate of Alexander VI (1492-1503), perhaps for the Franciscans of Sta Maria in Aracoeli (Antiphonary, Los Angeles, J.Paul Getty Museum, ms Ludwig V1.3 Painted Page, cat.126).
Almost nothing is known of Fra Antonio's life or career, but his town of origin and the obvious influence of Leonardo da Vinci and Foppa -- clearly evident in the Arcana Nativity -- and other artists at work in Milan in the 1490s have led to the assumption of his dividing his time between Rome and Lombardy. Recently it has been suggested that much of the work attributed to Antonio, including this Nativity, belonged to a single series of Franciscan choirbooks with a provenance from the duchy of Milan: C. Quattrini, 'Antonio da Monza' in Dizionario biografico dei miniatori italiani, ed. M. Bollati, 2004, pp.29-32, citing the present cutting at p.31. The possible identity of the illuminator with the Antonio Scottino da Monza documented in the convent of Sta Maria degli Angeli in Lugano in 1514, 1525 and 1528 has been put forward.