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Illuminating Visions of the Word

Two new exhibitions at the Getty showcase manuscripts from the Renaissance.

May 07, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Inch for inch, illuminated manuscripts probably pack a bigger punch than any other traditional art form. With exquisitely painted illustrations and elaborately written texts filling their pages, these handmade books are far more densely detailed and conceptually complicated than most artworks that dwarf them.

Consider "The Gualenghi-d'Este Hours," a richly illustrated prayer book created in 1469 to celebrate an aristocratic marriage in Ferrara, Italy. Bound in red leather and composed of 211 vellum leaves that measure a mere 4 1/4 inches by 3 1/8 inches, the chunky little book could be dropped into a small handbag or a large pocket, but it's the most important Italian Renaissance work in the J. Paul Getty Museum's distinguished holding of illuminated manuscripts.

The Getty acquired "The Gualenghi-d'Este Hours" in 1983, when its department of manuscripts was established with the purchase of 144 works from German collectors Irene and Peter Ludwig. During the last 17 years, the Getty's collection of manuscripts has doubled in size while gaining many rare and valuable pieces. Nonetheless, "The Gualenghi-d'Este Hours" still looms so large--figuratively speaking--that it has inspired a major publication and a pair of exhibitions, opening Tuesday at the museum.

The primary show, "The Gualenghi-d'Este Hours: Art and Devotion in Renaissance Ferrara," will present the 15th century manuscript with 23 related works borrowed from other museums. Concurrently, "Italian Manuscript Illumination" will display 20 Italian manuscripts, leaves and cuttings from the Getty's permanent collection. The exhibitions coincide with the publication of a monograph on "The Gualenghi-d'Este Hours" that reproduces the miniatures in their actual size and color.

The three-part event is the culmination of a lengthy research project carried out by Getty curator Kurt Barstow. A scholar of the Italian Renaissance, Barstow was drawn to manuscripts 10 years ago because the field was "under-studied and under-published," at least in comparison to Renaissance painting and sculpture. What's more, he said, illuminated manuscripts offer a history of painting that's generally in pristine condition because the artwork has had little exposure to light.

Leading a visitor into his department's reading room, Barstow donned white gloves, removed "The Gualenghi-d'Este Hours" from its slipcase, leafed through pages of handwritten text and stopped at tempera and gold illustrations. In the exhibition, the book will be open to a page depicting St. Gregory seated before an altar and gazing at a blaze of divine light that streaks through a niche. The 20 other miniatures will be reproduced in the gallery as back-lighted color transparencies.

"One of the recurrent things you see in Ferrarese art is an incredible illusionism and plasticism, at the same time as you see this amazing calligraphic line," Barstow said, pointing out an architectural setting for St. Gregory that appears to project from the page while other parts of the work are decorated with flat patterns. "You've got the 3-D stuff and the 2-D stuff," he said.

Most of the miniatures depict saints praying or in a state of ecstasy. "Saint Jerome in the Desert" portrays the holy man as a penitent hermit, kneeling before a crucifix and kissing Christ's feet during a period of isolation in the wilderness. In another work, "Saint Catherine of Alexandria," the saint rests one hand on a book, the other on a spiked wheel that represents the instrument used to torture her.

"Saint Bellinus With Andrea Gualengo, Orsina d'Este, and Family" provides a glimpse of the family for whom the manuscript was created, Barstow said. Gualengo (also called Gualenghi, like the book) was a diplomat at the court of Ferrara who won the right to marry into the noble d'Este family by negotiating an important treaty for it. His new wife was a daughter of Niccolo III d'Este, who ruled Ferrara from 1393 to 1441. She had been married twice before, but both husbands died. Two boys kneeling with the bridal couple are apparently offspring of one of the earlier marriages.

The book was created by two leading manuscript illuminators in 15th century Ferrara, Taddeo Crivelli and Guglielmo Giraldi. Crivelli, who worked exclusively for the Ferrarese court, was the principal artist. Giraldi painted three of the 21 full-page miniatures and one page containing a large illuminated letter.

Their styles differ markedly. Crivelli's work epitomizes the "over the top" artistry of Ferrara, Barstow said, referring to flurries of drapery and wildly gestural faux marble. Far more restrained and orderly, Giraldi painted relatively solid, measured compositions.

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