Friday, July 11, 2008

Meanwhile in Fifteenth-Century Italy...Part 1

The Marchese Borso d'Este left Ferrara on March 13, 1471 with a magnificent itinerant court for the specific purpose of receiving from Pope Paul II his investiture as the first duke of Ferrara..  Accompanying him on his trip to Rome was a splendid entourage consisting of his principle vassals, the Signori di Carpi, Correggio, Mirandola, and Scandiano, and five hundred additional gentlemen dressed in luminous gold and silver brocade.  Next came the Camerieri arrayed in golden cloth and the squires in silver brocade.  Fifty mules followed the entourage covered with crimson velvet with the coat of arms of the Marchese respendent in the warm spring sunshine.  Another one hundred mules followed, their necks adorned with gold fringes, and tassels and delicate silver bells ringing gently as they swayed along.  They were regaled in embroidered cloths of white, red and green (the colors of the Este livery), which bore the coats of arms of various vassals.  An assemblage of one hundred footmen brought up the rear of the traveling court.[1] (and according to some contemporary accounts the words “mission accomplished” were embroidered on the 15th century aircraft carrier)

Lodovico Antonio Muratori writes of the effect this had of the people of Rome; "The entry of Borso into Rome, for its singular magnificence, filled with wonder the same populace of Rome, which was accustomed to great spectacles.”[2] On April 14, 1471, Paul II declared Borso the first Duke of Ferrara, presenting him with a cloak of gold brocade and a ducal beret.  He also presented Borso with a staff and a golden necklace of precious gemstones.  The investiture itself constituted quite an opulent display. Borso’s entire visit to Rome was comprised of a carefully orchestrated series of ceremonial events where Borso could express his political solidarity with the Pope and his piety through the self-conscious performance of ritual. 

He carried with him on his journey a portable library, which had been commissioned especially for this triumphant occasion.  His traveling collection consisted of an elaborately illuminated breviary which had been presented to Borso by the Bishop of Adria, a copy of the Book of Sidrach, an unnamed Italian book, a copy of the Legends of the Saints in French,[3] a missal which the Marchese intended to present to the Cardinal of Spoleto, and a sumptuous two-volume bible, known as the Bibbia di Borso.  This Bible was one of the most lavishly embellished manuscripts ever produced and it had taken an entire workshop of illuminators six years to complete. The Bibbia measured 375 by 265 millimeters (around 15 by 10 inches) and contained 604 parchment folios.  The manuscript was originally bound in gold brocade and adorned with gilded silver clasps, cornices and medallions, but was rebound during the sixteenth century.[4]  Such a collection of manuscripts would have amounted to a splendid display.  The Marchese ordered them all recovered or rebound for the journey.[5] Why did Borso a book, customarily placed in the service of private contemplation, delectation and learning as a tool for his public project of self-fashioning? Let’s look at the Bibbia with this question in mind.

The Bibbia di Borso can be understood as a public expression of princely magnificence and piety intended to gain favor with the Pope.  It also served as a reflection of the magnificence of his court as a whole.  The complex relationship between Borso as patron, this bible, and the courtly space of the library can be elucidated by the illuminations within the Bibbia; particularly the miniature which depicts King Solomon in his court. 

The court of Solomon is portrayed in the elaborately decorated incipit to the Book of Ecclesiastes (Lat. 429, 293r, Figure 1).  Three vertical bands of flowers, spirals and putti dance and twist in an unruly fashion around the written text.  Two putti sit at the bottom of the page, visually integrating the decorative marginalia with the biblical narrative. The illuminated scene shows us a courtly dance set within a Renaissance atrium, flanked by two halls. The classical geometry of the architecture combined with the composition of the figures creates a sense of balance and order; a metaphor for the social order of the court.  Within the central portion of the atrium three lords and three ladies clasp hands and step in a circular motion, the graceful folds of the dresses indicating the counter-clockwise direction of their movement.  Three musicians play on a high range, a lower range and an S-shaped trumpet (Figure 3). With this visual suggestion of sound we might almost imagine the austere, rhythmically vital Renaissance harmony, animating the dance of the illuminated courtiers.

Both the auditory and visual productions taking place in front of the throne are presumably intended for the King.  The two suggestions of sound; the voice of God and the sound of the music depicted in the illuminated scene compete with one another.  The vibrant tension between the voice of God and the sound of courtly delights emphasizes the piety of the king.  Solomon alone bears the responsibility for keeping his kingdom in the grace of God, while the lords and ladies of his circle are free to frolic about and participate in the courtly delights of music and dance.   In this context, we may view the illuminated page as a microcosmic reflection of courtly society during Borso’s reign. Like the Solomon depicted on the incipit to the Book of Ecclesiastes, Borso presided over an opulent court and sought to emphasize his piety through his lavishly decorated Bible. The story is a model in sumptuous patronage leading to divinely sanctioned political power. The construction of the temple led to divine sanction of Solomon’s rule and assurance that all the king’s descendants would become part of a ruling dynasty. The Bibbia as a visual tool through which Borso could reinforce this theme of divine sanction.

[1] Lodovico Antonio Muratori, "L'Apologia di Borso," in Delle Antichità Estensi, (Modena, 1717), Parte Seconda, chapter IX published in Renzo Renzi, Ferrara Storia, Costumi e Tradizioni, v. I, Il Po, la Cattedrale, la Corte dalle Origini al 1598 (Bologna: Edizioni ALFA), 123-124.

[2] Ibid., 123. L'entrata di Borso in Roma per la singolar sua magnificenza empie di maraviglia lo stesso Popolo Romano, avvezzo per altro grandi spettacoli."

[3] Charles Michael Rosenberg. Art in Ferrara during the Reign of Borso d’Este (1450-1471): A Study in Court Patronage (Thesis, University of Michigan, 1974), 147.

[4] Ibid., 137. Payments made to Gregorio Guasparino for binding the Bible are recorded in the Camera Ducale beginning in October, 1461. For a detailed analysis of the dimensions, probarties and content of the manuscript, see Ernesto Milano et al., Biblioteca Estense, Modena (Florence: Nardi, 1987).

[5] Ibid., 147.

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