BESSARION ANTIPHONAL, in Latin, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM
[northern Italy, c.1455]
577 x 390mm. 111 vellum leaves: 1-138, 147(of 8, lacking viii), two added paper leaves at end, catchwords on final versos, signature marks throughout on rectos of first half of gathering, ?16th-century foliation in outer margins of rectos running 1-113, five lines of text written in a round gothic bookhand between five lines of music of square notation on a four-line stave of red, justification: 395 x 275mm, rubrics in red, one-line initials of red or blue with reserved decoration and flourishing of blue or lilac, followed by calligraphic letters touched yellow, many decorated with penwork flourishes, faces, heads or birds, versals of the same type, ONE LARGE ILLUMINATED FOLIATE INITIAL AND EIGHT HISTORIATED INITIALS, one accompanied by a three-sided ILLUMINATED BORDER INCLUDING VIGNETTES AND THE ARMS OF CARDINAL BESSARION (some small areas of rubbing, thumbing to edges of margins, a few holes from corrosion or worm in first leaf, three in foliage of border, ink corrosion affecting the two added paper leaves, early modification of text and music of final two vellum leaves). ORIGINAL BINDING of brown leather over thick wooden boards, upper cover with vertical wooden batten rockers and both covers with nailed metalwork borders and central bosses, lower cover with four large studs, VIV written in black ink on the lower page edges (some losses to leather and metalwork, including nails, raised dome of upper central boss, two corner bosses, studs from board-edges and straps, and most of the title-label pasted on lower cover, some worming).
THE ONLY CHOIRBOOK IN PRIVATE HANDS FROM THE RENOWNED SERIES COMMISSIONED BY CARDINAL BESSARION, ONE OF THE MOST INTRIGUING AND INFLUENTIAL FIGURES OF THE RENAISSANCE, AS SIGNIFICANT FOR THE HISTORY OF THE BOOK AS FOR HUMANISM AND CHURCH POLITICS
1. This is one of the famed series of choirbooks commissioned by Cardinal Bessarion (Trebizond 1403 - Ravenna 1472) and presented by him to the Franciscan Convent of Santa Maria dell'Osservanza in Cesena. His coat of arms -- azure, an arm gules and an arm argent holding a cross crosslet fitched gules, with a cloud rayonnant in chief, with cardinal's hat and tassles -- is in the centre of the lower border of the opening folio. Originally there appear to have been at least 18 choirbooks, of which fifteen survived the first suppression of the convent in 1810. These fifteen were inventoried by the librarian of the Biblioteca Malatestiana in 1812: the present volume was listed as 'Corale 6 volume segnato col n.VIV Intitolato Comune Sanctorum di pagine 111 mancante del rimanente'. Other than the seven volumes that remained in Cesena (Biblioteca Malatestiana, Bessarione 1-7), this is the only volume of these fifteen known to have survived intact: leaves and cuttings from at least five others are dispersed in various public and private collections.
It is believed that Bessarion commissioned the choirbooks while he was Papal Legate in Bologna, from 1450-55, and that he originally intended them for the newly founded Observant convent of S. Antonio 'de Cypressis' in Constantinople. They had been begun in 1451 and were still in production when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Work continued, although it became clear that the choirbooks would need a new destination. Another Observant house, closer to hand, was under construction, and the completed series of books was presented to the Cesena convent sometime between 1458, the date of its consecration, and 1465. They became the object of general admiration and were praised by all subsequent writers on the city as one of its treasures. G. Mariani Canova, 'Una illustre serie liturgica ricostruita: i corali del Bessarione già all'Annunziata di Cesena', Saggi e Memorie di storia dell'arte, XI, 1977, pp.9-20.
2. Ulrico Hoepli, Milan: Liberia antiquaria Ulrico Hoepli. Milano, aprile-maggio 1928, no 65, p.34.
3. Arnold Mettler, St Gall, Switzerland: provenance from this collection given in the Mensing-Müller catalogue of 1929 and 1935.
4. Brandt, Amsterdam, 20-21 1953, lot 618.
Antiphonal for the Common of Saints, opening with the antiphon for the Office of Apostles Tradent enim vos in conciliis, ff.1-82v; Dedication of a Church ff.82v-111v; antiphons of St Bonaventura at Benediction and St Bernardino at the Magnificat on added paper leaves ff.112-113v.
The illuminator of this Antiphonal is the artist named after his work in other choirbooks of this series, Terzo Maestro del Bessarione. In her article reassembling dispersed miniatures with the manuscripts remaining in Cesena, Mariani Canova drew attention to the great refinement of this illuminator's borders and the 'melodiosa dolcezza di linea' of his style. She attributed to him the frontispiece with the Resurrected Christ (Biblioteca Malatestiana, Bessarione 3) and initials now in the Lehman Collection (New York, Metropolitan Museum) and the J.H. Wade Fund (Cleveland Museum of Art): all also discussed and illustrated by F. Lollini in Corali Miniati nella Biblioteca Malatestiana, ed. P. Lucchi, pp.19-36 & 96-114, pl.60. Describing the present manuscript as location unknown, and working only on the basis of photographs taken in the 1920s, Mariani Canova attributed the initial and border of the opening leaf to the Master of the Franciscan Breviary. Anna Melograni, however, in her discussion of initials by the 'Terzo Maestro' now in American collections correctly pointed out that the painting of the 'disappeared' Bessarion choirbook was in fact in the style of that illuminator: 'Miniature inedite del Quattrocento lombardo nelle collezioni americane', Storia dell'Arte, 82, 1994, pp.293-295.
The clear bright colours, simplified contours and sweet-faced saints all show the Terzo Maestro's Lombard origins. He creates a peaceful, touching and attractive world, free from harsh emotion or appearance and contrasting with the assertive idiosyncracy of some of his collaborators on the Bessarion choirbooks. The opening folio is a particularly charming example of his delicate and amiable style.
f.1 T, with the upright a column flanked by two scenes, on the left, an apostle brought to judgement, clearly modelled on Christ before Herod and, on the right, a flagellation; a three-sided border with a putto in a vignette to the left and in the lower margin two scenes flanking the arms of Cardinal Bessarion, on the left, naked infants playing with a hobby-horse and a ball, and on the right, a prophet or patriarch reclining in a landscape, perhaps representing the Ages of Man
f.12v H, large foliate initial
f.26v Q, St Sebastian, fashionably dressed and holding an arrow
f.41 O, several martyr saints
f.58 E, St Anthony of Padua holding a lily
f.63v D, Franciscan saint in Prayer
f.78 H, St Catherine and St Margaret
f.81v D, a female saint reading a book
f.93v D, Bishop holding a palm cross entering a church accompanied by a deacon and a youth