This extensive, two-volume study is the third installment of the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in France, published by Harvey Miller. It joins Walter Cahn’s Romanesque Manuscripts: The Twelfth Century (1996) and Alison Stones’s Gothic Manuscripts: 1260-1320 (Part 1 and 2, 2013-2014) as an essential part of every manuscript scholar’s library. This publication is the first to provide a comprehensive guide to Renaissance illumination, so often relegated to a secondary place behind its medieval forebears, and to establish book illumination as a central medium in France during the sixteenth century.
The circumstances of this publication have been somewhat fraught since Orth passed away in 2002 with much of the final text and catalogue completed. In the intervening twelve years, much new research in the field has been conducted, and manuscripts have inevitably changed hands. As the editors, Christian Heck, Sandra Hindman, and Elly Miller, note in their foreword to the text, little change has been made to Orth’s original text except to update bibliography and present locations. Some of these changes have been incorporated into the catalogue entries themselves, while bibliography produced between 2002 and the present has been given its own separate section, following the catalogue entries in volume two. Despite these challenges in getting this study to press, this survey will undoubtedly be the foundation for many future studies and the first source of information for art historians and historians of the book interested in late medieval and Renaissance France.
The first volume begins with the Publisher’s Foreword detailing the conditions and challenges of completing Orth’s magisterial work, followed by short tributes to Orth and her career by her colleague at the Getty Museum, Thomas Kren, and her adviser at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, Colin Eisler. Volume one begins with the author’s Introduction, which details the conditions of manuscript production in sixteenth-century France: increased political and artistic contact with Italy, the religious turmoil of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the intellectual culture of French humanism. She also discusses issues specific to the history of the book: the complex and intertwined worlds of printing and illumination; the division of labor among libraires, scribes, and artists; artistic centers in courts and cities, such as Paris and Rouen; and the formation of large and impressive libraries among the royalty and upper nobility. A series of short essays in volume one provide crucial information on several aspects of sixteenth-century manuscript production and reception, each drawn from Orth’s career-long investigation of the period. Her discussions of Noël Bellemare and his followers and of the role of illuminated borders draw heavily on previously published articles, but here are revised and updated.
Volume two contains the bulk of the catalogue comprising 100 entries of manuscripts ranging in date from 1515, the ascension of the Renaissance prince François I through 1574. The scholarly apparatus of the catalogue is impressive. Each entry begins with technical information about the binding, collation, miniatures, text decoration, frames and border types, textual content, and script. Orth’s entries are characterized not only by a keen attention to the fundamentals of visual analysis and iconography, but they also contain a wealth of information about the book’s historical context and conditions of production, relating the book to relevant comparanda. The focus of the one hundred entries is emphatically Parisian and concentrates particularly on artists working for royalty and other influential court patrons, beginning with court painters Godefroy le Batave and the Master of Claude of France. A handful of entries are devoted to important artists based in Lyons (nos. 65-68) and Rouen (nos. 69-77), though the rest concentrate on Paris and its courtly connections. Within this concentration, the so-called “Bellemare Group,” one collective is named for a number of Parisian manuscript painters stylistically connected to Noël Bellmare, formerly known as the 1520s Hours Workshop.
Throughout the entries, Orth identifies the hands of individual illuminators, both named and anonymous, and one of her central contributions is dividing such artists into recognizable stylistic groups, which are generally tied to regional production, emphasizing the collaborative nature of many high-level court products. Another strength of the study is Orth’s ability to examine manuscripts in terms of style and iconography while also discussing the particular translation of the manuscript’s text, its place within the historical intellectual and artistic climate of the day. Orth explores in particular the various conditions of manuscript production in sixteenth-century France. Though by this time the illustrated printed book had gained a significant foothold in France, manuscript illumination became increasingly innovative, as patrons of means continued the native tradition of the hand-made versus the printed.
The study of manuscripts in the age of print necessitates a reexamination of traditional modes of inquiry. For example, as Orth notes, traditional liturgical evidence for Books of Hours in the age of print is no longer useful. Specifically, the Books of Hours attributed to the Bellemare Group are particularly difficult to assign to a specific patron and localization. Furthermore, the worlds of print and illumination increasingly overlapped and are entangled, as illuminated miniatures often present direct stylistic links to Hours printed by Geoffroy Tory and others (no. 47).
Though the nature of the survey format inherently limits Orth’s ability to communicate her extensive knowledge of the subject, in many cases her few pages of text collect essential information and provide new interpretations of manuscripts. Many manuscripts that Orth documents are well known to specialists of the period, but have never been so thoroughly catalogued as here. François I’s three volumes of François Demoulins’s Les Commentaires de la Guerre de Gallique,illuminated early in the king’s reign by Godefroy le Batave and Jean Clouet are a prime example (nos. 3-5). Materially and aesthetically impressive, they also attest to a political context in France in which the king stood to inherit the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire following the death of Emperor Maximilian I. Orth’s expertise on the work of Le Batave is evident here and in several other entries, and she completes the essential work of synthesizing previous scholarship while also advancing comparisons to other contemporary manuscripts, woodcuts, and printed books. At the other end of the century, for the stunning Book of Hours owned by Queen Catherine de Médicis (no. 100), Orth highlights the book’s role as a tool of dynastic memory for the royal family and also examines in detail the artistic context of the manuscripts many portrait miniatures, executed by such luminaries as Corneille de Lyon and Nicholas Hilliard, among many more by the workshop of François Clouet.
These two volumes, extensively illustrated with more than three hundred black and white figures, include many supplemental images of comparative works, plus fifty-five large-scale color plates. Orth’s careful consideration and cataloguing of frames and borders throughout the entries ensure that when manuscript pages are reproduced, they appear in their entirety and without cropping. One of this study’s great contributions to the future of the field is to contextualize each image within a larger matrix of many different media – manuscript illumination must be considered in relation to print culture, drawings produced at court, and tapestry and stained glass designs. Both the entries and illustrations emphasize the multifaceted interrelationships between patrons, dedicatees, artists, and media. To this end, Orth includes a wealth of helpful reference material that includes biographies of artists, scribes, authors, translators, patrons, and dedicatees. The study also appends a glossary of specialized terminology and indices of iconography, book types, and provenance.
Any scholar of French visual culture in the sixteenth century will reference this study with great frequency. These volumes address an extremely understudied topic, and will promote a wide variety of new explorations, particularly including artistic milieux outside the royal circle and Paris. As the culmination of Myra Orth’s body of perceptive, incisive, and thorough work on sixteenth-century French manuscript illumination, this study is an invaluable addition to our understanding of the early modern book and its vital cultural context.
The J. Paul Getty Museum