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Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Monday, July 18, 2016   (0 Comments)

Rarely seen, exquisite Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books make this a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books showcases over 65 Renaissance paintings hidden between the covers of rare books in Boston’s libraries and museums. The works–remarkable for their beauty and jewel-like colors–will be on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston from Sept. 22, 2016 through Jan. 16, 2017.

At the heart of the show is a remarkable trove of illuminated manuscripts from celebrated Renaissance libraries. Written, illustrated, and bound by the hands of leading artists for popes, princes, and scions of Italian dynasties, they were produced as one-of-a-kind luxury items. Complementing the painted manuscripts are books from the dawn of printing including Isabella Stewart Gardner’s own rare, first Florentine edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy illustrated by Botticelli and the first copy of this edition to enter an American collection. All of the books in the exhibition shed new light on Renaissance patrons, artists, scribes, and printers from an era when the art of bookmaking reached its pinnacle.

The Gardner’s show is part of an ambitious city-wide collaborative project entitled Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections, which is the largest ever exhibition of medieval and Renaissance books held in North America. The Gardner joins Harvard University’s Houghton Library and Boston College’s McMullen Museum as one of three venues which will simultaneously display 260 outstanding painted and printed books selected by a team of local experts from 18 Boston-area institutions.

Focusing on the Humanist Library, the Gardner’s exhibition reveals the key role of Renaissance scholar/book-hunters in the birth of the modern book in fifteenth-century Italy. The story unfolds in four sections: Study, Library, Chapel, and Press. Study introduces the concept of humanism, a cultural movement that took off in Florence around 1400. Humanists believed that by reviving classical antiquity, they would usher in a new age of peace, prosperity, culture and religion in Italy. They searched monastery libraries in Europe for forgotten ancient Greek and Roman texts, which they painstakingly copied by hand into a new type of book. Portable, legible and elaborately illustrated, humanist manuscripts are the forefathers of books we use to this day.

Library showcases relics from the magnificent libraries of Rome, Venice and other Italian states demonstrating how the humanist book aided the ruling class’s displays of learning, taste, and power. In Chapel, the exhibition highlights manuscripts used for public and private devotion, including giant choir-books made for the famous monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza and an impressive array of Books of Hours. The final section, Press, reveals how the arrival of the newly-invented printing press in Italy in the late 1460s transformed book production. The Venetian book trade rapidly disseminated its products to a Europe-wide public, incorporating broad margins, legible typeface and cleaner layouts that essentially remain unchanged to the present day.

For more information, see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's website.

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