HIGHLY IMPORTANT AND RARE 16TH CENTURY ITALIAN MEGILLAH AND MATCHING BLESSING SHEET, BOTH WITH COPPER ENGRAVED BORDERS BY ANDREA MARELLI
Rome, circa 1570
Megillah with illustrations printed in black on vellum, 10 membranes, 16.4 cm high, 223 cm long, 20 paired text columns of 23 lines, 9.8 cm high, blind horizontal and vertical ruling, additional blank piece of vellum joining megillah to roller 15 cm long, blessing panel 16.2 cm high, engraved frame 14.6 cm high, 20.2 cm wide, containing blessings recited before and after the megillah reading, fine Italian Hebrew square script in brown ink with taggin (crownlets). Mounted on wooden roller.
Very good to excellent overall condition, text of separate blessing sheet with minor scuffing affecting legibility of a few letters, some occasional minor fading to decorative border.
THE EARLIEST MEGILLAH WITH COPPERPLATE DECORATIONS.
Only two other examples of this engraved series are extant: both lack companion blessing sheet, neither in private hands. VERY LIKELY THE EARLIEST USE OF COPPERPLATE BORDERS FOR A HEBREW TEXT.
THE EARLIEST SEPARATE BLESSING SHEET FROM A MEGILLAH and THE ONLY BLESSING SHEET EXTANT FROM THIS ENGRAVED SERIES. Whereabouts of a second blessing sheet from this series (published in Berlin, 1930) is unknown.
ONE OF THE VERY FIRST MEGILLOT WITH DECORATION. Only one other decorated scroll (Venice, 1564; Private Collection, Israel) predates this megillah. It is hand-painted.
ONLY FOUR DECORATED MEGILLOT (INCLUDING THE PRESENT SCROLL) SURVIVED FROM THE 16TH CENTURY, THE EARLIEST CENTURY OF ESTHER SCROLL ILLUMINATION.
THE DECORATION AND ITS ORIGINS
The megillah's twenty text columns are framed, in pairs, by an ornate copperplate border filled with delightful mannerist images. Bands of fanciful scrollwork, centered by humorous masks, surround the border on four sides, while four nude and winged putti occupy its corners. Those at top are seated on robust fruit swags, apparently plucking treats for two small birds perched upon their raised fingers. The putti of the lower corners stand beside two imposing ostriches, who, with the gentle guidance of their celestial companions, pluck fruit from the scrollwork below. This border was printed on eleven individual pieces of parchment, ten of which were sewn together to form the megillah itself. The remaining sheet provided a separate, matching blessing panel for the scroll.
The exquisite copperplate border used for this scroll was executed by Andrea Marelli, a printmaker and book illustrator active in Rome circa 1567-71. While little is known about Marelli's career and oeuvre, at least four examples of his work are known today. Among them is a series of decorative frames that illuminates the history of the present Esther scroll border. Perhaps not surprisingly, this putti-filled frame, whose images bear no relationship to the Esther narrative, was not originally intended to enclose the text columns of a megillah. Rather, it was created, along with twenty-five others, to frame the twenty-six letters of a calligraphic "knot" alphabet designed by Giovanni Francesco Cresci. One of the most famous Italian calligraphers of the 16th century, Cresci published this alphabet, along with Marelli's frames (some of which bear Marelli's initials or name), as part of his scribal manual Il perfetto scrittore (Rome, 1570). A copy of this extremely rare first edition, preserved in Oxford's Bodleian Library (Douce C 298), reveals that the very frame printed on the present Esther scroll appears, in its original context, around Cresci's majuscule letter "O."
Marelli's frames and Cresci's knot letters were, quite significantly, the only portion of Il perfetto scrittore executed in the new and extraordinary technique of copper engraving. Only recently introduced into book illustration, this innovative technique enabled Marelli to far surpass the quality and detail exhibited in the other, woodcut, sections of the manual. Indeed, Cresci was so proud of Marelli's frames that he predicted, in his treatise on the knot alphabet, that "the draftsman who supplied me with these borders will be praised for his extraordinary imagination and inventiveness."
Published in Venice, 1575, the second edition of Cresci's scribal manual did not include Marelli's borders (nor the knot alphabet they framed). One must therefore assume that these frames were quickly sold off by Cresci, who left Rome during the summer of 1570. Surely it did not take long before several of these borders were given a new, no less extraordinary, life along the once-barren borders of the scroll of Esther.
THE MARELLI MEGILLOT
The present scroll belongs to an exclusive group of megillot adorned with Marelli's innovative borders. Only two other members of this group are extant today: one is preserved in London's British Library (Or. 13028), the other in Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College. Unlike the present megillah, neither of these scrolls retains its original blessing panel. In fact, only one other Marelli blessing panel has been documented: pictured in the Juedisches Lexicon (Berlin, 1930), the whereabouts of this sheet are unknown.
Comparison of the three Marelli scrolls reveals that two distinct types of megillah borders were devised from Marelli's frames. One is exemplified by the London and Cincinnati scrolls: these megillot employ at least eight of Marelli's frames (including the one used on the present megillah), stringing them together to create an extravagant array of ever-shifting images. Grotesques, telamons, putti, and a host of real and imagined animals parade before the viewer as he scrolls through the megillah's text. The richness of this spectacle is amplified in the London megillah by the addition of vibrant colors, applied by hand, perhaps intended to suggest the appearance of an illuminated manuscript.
An entirely different atmosphere emanates from the border of the present scroll. This megillah uses only one of Marelli's frames, repeating it eleven times to embellish the entire scroll (ten membranes) and a separate blessing panel. The repetition of this single frame, with its images of placid, winged putti, imbues the scroll with a serenity and visual cohesiveness absent from its more lively and diverse counterparts. Spared the painter's brush, the megillah preserves the original, intended appearance of Marelli's engraved borders.
THE EARLIEST DECORATED MEGILLOT AND THE EMERGENCE PRINTED MEGILLAH BORDERS
The Marelli megillot occupy an exceptional, dual position in the history of Esther scroll decoration. While precious little is known about the origins of this artistic genre, it is quite clear that the desire to embellish the megillah's borders first emerged in Italy during the second half of the 16th century. Exceedingly rare, however, are the remains from this nascent period: in contrast to the hundreds of decorated megillot extant from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, only four have survived from the 16th century: a Venetian megillah of 1564 (Israel, Private Collection), and the three Marelli scrolls, datable to circa 1570 (A decorated megillah from Castelnuovo, Italy [Jerusalem, JNUL, Heb 4o19720], which has long been attributed to 1567, has, upon careful examination, been redated to 1628). It is important to note that no megillah from the 16th century contains figures or narrative scenes related to the Purim story. This transition, from Esther scroll decoration to Esther scroll illustration did not occur until the early 17th century (as, for example, in three megillot written and illustrated in Ferrara, 1615-20, by Moses Pescarol).
The Marelli scrolls thus witness the earliest stage in the evolution of the illuminated Esther scroll: its decoration. At the same time, they anticipate one of its most extraordinary later developments: the use of printed borders to frame the megillah's hand-written text columns. Interestingly enough, only a decade before the Marelli scrolls were produced, controversy erupted in Italy over sixteen megillot whose texts had been printed, rather than inscribed. Issued in Riva di Trento by Joseph Ottolenghi, these scrolls were declared unfit for ritual use by one of the greatest halakhic authorities of the time, Rabbi Moses Provencal of Mantua. In addition to forbidding, in general, the use of printed scrolls, Rabbi Moses ordered the destruction of Ottolenghi's entire edition. It would be nearly two-hundred years before another Italian printer dared to issue a megillah with printed text columns.
As the Marelli scrolls well demonstrate, this recent controversy did not deter Italian Jews from commissioning the very first Esther scrolls with engraved borders. What is surprising, however, is that this remarkable innovation was left dormant for nearly seventy-five years: the next datable megillot with engraved decorations emanate from the middle of the 17th century. Printed in Amsterdam, these borders were created by the renowned (Italian) Jewish engraver, Shalom Italia. They are the first copperplate borders specifically designed for the scroll of Esther. The true efflorescence of this genre, however, occurred during the 18th century, when numerous megillah borders were printed in Italy, Amsterdam and Bohemia/Moravia. Significantly enough, only in Italy were these engraved borders frequently designed to accommodate paired text columns. And so, despite the century and a half that separates them, Italian megillot of the 18th century remain intimately tied to their exalted predecessors, the exquisite Marelli megillot.