Cambridge Illuminations

26 July to 11 December 2005
At Cambridge University Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum




The Humanistic Manuscript

At the University Library

Antonio Erizzo, Procurator for the Sestieri of San Marco, Castello and Cannaregio, Venice, in the first initial of his Oath and Commission. Possibly Verona or Venice, c. 1470-c. 1480. CUL MS Add. 4121, f. 5r.

In Italy in the early fifteenth century a revolution took place in the script and decoration of the manuscript book, first in Florence, and very soon after in the rest of the peninsula. It involved the rediscovery of classical texts, the revival of ancient literature as a central element of the curriculum, the reform of Latin spelling, and a new style of writing, called by its contemporaries littera antica and known to us today as ‘humanistic script’.

The new type of book received a new style of decoration. At first, it was limited to the white-vine scrolls meandering around birds, butterflies, and chubby little boys, the ubiquitous putti. But by the mid-fifteenth century, illuminators were experimenting with three-dimensional images corresponding to the antiquarian passions of Humanist scholars and collectors. Ancient inscriptions, jewels, and archaeological finds inspired the illusionistic monumental frontispieces and architectural title pages, one of the most lasting contributions of the Humanistic manuscript to book design.