Friday, January 28, 2011

Lost Manuscripts of The Sistine Chapel: From Rome To Toledo To Dallas

By Nancy Mattoon

Image From The Votive Missal Of Urban VIII.
( All Images Courtesy of Meadows Museum.)

The phrase "looted art" has been most closely associated with Hitler's systematic seizure of Europe's cultural treasures--from both institutions and individuals--to enhance the glory of The Third Reich. But historically, the model Hitler followed was that of Napoleon. Upon conquering much of Italy, the Frenchman boasted: "We will now have all that is beautiful in Italy except for a few objects in Turin and Naples." Many of these stolen works of art became the basis for the collection in the Louvre Museum. And not only paintings and sculptures were looted by the army of Napoleon: rare books and manuscripts, many of which were easy to carry and conceal, became a favorite target of French soldiers.

Sadly, another aspect of rare books which made them attractive to looters was the fact that they could be torn apart and trafficked page by page. This was especially true of illuminated manuscripts, which were often sold as single leaves, containing beautiful miniature paintings and elaborate historiated initials. Fortunately, there is sometimes a historical figure who safeguards such treasures before they can be destroyed by mercenary soldiers. Such a man was the Spanish Archbishop of Toledo Cardinal Francisco Antonio de Lorenzana y Buitron (1722- 1804). A magnificent collection of works which he salvaged from the looted Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel are now on display in the United States for the first, and quite probably, only time.

The forty codices which Lorenzana spirited away to his homeland of Spain in 1798 are now the cornerstone of an exhibition at the Meadows Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The Lost Manuscripts From The Sistine Chapel: An Epic Journey From Toledo To Rome. Previously on view at the National Library of Spain, the presentation opened in Dallas on January 23, 2010. The exhibition features a broad range of liturgical writings used by the Catholic Church, ranging in date as far back as the 11th century, including benedictionals, blessings, breviaries, epistolaries, evangelistaries, missals, and preparations for mass. But more artistically important than the text of the books are their magnificent calligraphy and elaborate decorative elements. Each codex is a one-of-a-kind work of fine art, entirely handwritten and illustrated, and colored with pigments made of gold, silver, and precious stones like malachite and lapis lazuli.

Frieze with Cardinalitial Coat of Arms
of Cardinal Antoniotto Pallavicini
and Initial T (Te igitur) with the Pietá.

The exhibit is the fruit of more than a decade of research by Italian scholar, and co-curator of the show, Elena De Laurentiis. It began with what she calls, "A moment of great surprise," when she happened upon a photograph of books from the collection of the Biblioteca Capitular de Toledo, which improbably bore the Barberini seal, the emblem of the Italian family of Urban VIII, who was pope from 1623-44. She wondered how books which belonged in the inner sanctum of the Vatican wound up in a Spanish cathedral, and became determined to find out who was behind their mysterious journey. De Laurentiis found that Lorenzana had presented the works to the cathedral in Toledo "in order to save them," and had included a handwritten note detailing their provenance. While 26 of the books remained in the cathedral's library for nearly two centuries, 11 eventually went to a regional library in Toledo and three went to the National Library of Spain.

The Crucifixion, c. 1495-99.
By a Follower of Pietro Vannuccci,
called “Perugino.” (Italian, 1446-1524)
Folio of the Pontifical of Cardinal Pietro Barbo.

The illuminated manuscripts in the exhibition are especially splendid for two reasons. First, the books were originally commissioned for the Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel, which means they were part of a sacred collection accessible only to the Popes, and a few privileged emissaries. These volumes for the elite of the church hierarchy were far more lavishly constructed and illustrated than codices meant for lower level clerics. And second, they are in almost mint condition due the the fact that they were virtually forgotten about, and hence, untouched during the 200 years they remained in the libraries of Spain.

Mark Roglan, director of the Meadows Museum, says of the codices now on display, "These were the most private books read by the popes and cardinals at very special ceremonies. There are some codices here that Michelangelo would have heard or read from... Many of the codices are in perfect condition, and they have provided unprecedented insight into one of the most vibrant historical time periods at the Vatican. This is a very exciting discovery, and allows us to reconstruct one of the most important and valued pieces of papal heritage."

Antonio Maria Antonozzi (Italian, Active 1633-62),
Frontispiece of the Pope Urban VIII, c. 1634.

Folio of the Missal of Pope Urban VIII

with the Mass of Easter Sunday.

Thus far, the Vatican has shown no interest in recovering these magnificent volumes that, while saved from certain destruction by Lorenzana, are clearly the rightful property of the Holy See. The exhibit continues through April 23, 2010, at which time the codices will be returned to the three archives in Spain where they are held away from public view.


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