Fifteenth-century illustrated books in the library of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco - Part I


Fifteenth-century illustrated books in the library of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco - Part I

Part I - Introduction

Among the more than 200 copies of incunable editions held by the library of the Monastery of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco only fifteen are illustrated with woodcuts, though two editions are held in two copies -the Etymologiae of Isidorus of Seville printed in Venice in 1483 and the Sermones de tempore et sanctis by St Vincent Ferrer printed again in Venice in 1496 – making a total of 17 copies.

But when we think of how the books in the monastery were originally used - for individual reading and study - it is not surprising that there are so few illustrated editions (7% of the total).

The period when these fifteen editions were produced was a crucial one in the history of illustrated books since it marked the transition between the production of manuscripts with illuminations or drawings done by hand and books printed with mobile type where images were carved on woodblocks which were inserted into the forme along the type.

From a technical point of view this transition was far from immediate.  The period between 1465 and 1480 saw various phases of experiment and trying out solutions on the part of printers all over Europe.

At the outset printed books, just like manuscripts, continued to be decorated manually by illuminators and other artists.  Indeed, often the same illuminators and artists and the same workshops worked on both printed books and manuscripts.

Although few in number, incunables decorated with drawings and miniatures can be found in the collections in Subiaco. One example of a copy with drawings is Francesco Zabarella’s Lectura super Clementinis, printed in Rome in 1477 by Giorgio Lauer (VI.A.7).  The title-page is decorated with a representation of the three ‘states’ of medieval society: the clergy, the nobility (shown in military costume) and the third state shown holding farming implements.  Above each of the categories there is a scroll declaring the activity which characterises them according to the saying ‘Tu suplex ora: tu protege: tuque labora’ (‘You must pray, you must protect, and you must work’).  At the top and in the middle the Emperor on his throne is depicted.  The rest of the title-page is decorated with a broad frame of fruit, flowers and animals starting from the decorated initial ‘N’.  The frame works its way down the left-hand margin and then the bottom margin.  Various animals are shown including at the bottom a hunting scene with men shooting with bows.  Throughout the rest of the volume there are decorated initials with ornamental patterns and drawings above all of animals and human faces; the multi-coloured ‘Q’ (red, orange, green, blue, yellow) and various animals on [f4v] is particularly striking.  The style of design is Italian while the quality of the drawings and decoration is good though not of professional standard; they were most probably done by the monks who needed to read the book.


Francesco Zabarella, Lectura super Clementinis [Roma: 1477] (VI.A.7), the decorated title-page

Another example of an incunable decorated by hand in the Subiaco collections is the first volume of the edition of St Jerome’s Epistolae printed in Rome by Arnoldus Pannartz in 1476 (VI.A.14).  The half-finished decoration of the title-page in this copy gives us a glimpse into the various stages of the illuminator’s work:  the artist has drawn in pen the initial, the decorative frame in the upper left-hand corner of the page and a coat-of-arms within a laurel wreath in the centre of the lower margin, an indication that the copy was being prepared for a specific purchaser or dedicatee.  The miniature inside the initial lettet ‘M” is also unfinished; the letter itself has been gilded but all the colours of the white-vine stem decoration apart from blue. The lozenge-shaped coat-of-arms in blue and silver, perhaps belonging to the Castellani, a noble Roman family, is in the lower margin with a decorative garland which has only partly been gilded, probably at the same time as the initial was.  Underneath the coat-of-arms the upper edges of an inscription can be made out; the rest has been lost because the page has been trimmed. 


San Girolamo, Epistolae [Roma: 1476] (VI.A.14), title-page with coat of arms

The advent of printed books posed a challenge for miniaturists, above all in terms of the timing of production.  Copying out a manuscript of average length took a number of weeks, which left ample time for a miniaturist to carry out his work.  A printed book frequently required only a few days and in order to make the most of the commercial opportunity of this speed of production the decoration needed to be done as quickly.

It was in order to speed up this process that images started to be produced according to set models which were copied in series in the various workshops; see, for example, the initial ‘M’ in fig. 2.

When the forme of type was prepared for printing blank spaces were left between one portion of the text and another with the idea of filling these with drawing and miniatures.  Gradually printers started to produce woodblocks of images, often based on drawings by professional miniaturists, which were then used to print the illustrations in these blank spaces.  Initially therefore the printing of the images took place after the text had been printed, working one copy at a time, and the images printed from the woodblocks were often then coloured by hand.

Eventually printers developed the technical skills whereby they could insert type and woodblocks in the same forme so that text and illustrations could be printed together. 


Thomas Ochsenbrunner, Priscorum heroum stemmata [Roma: 1494] (II.D.2), illustrated title-page