Throughout the Middle Ages, books of hours held individuality for many reasons, not the least of which was their customizability. When patrons commissioned a book of hours to be created, they had choices to make, many of which were determined by the amount of money they had to spend on the item; as is the way of things, the more money patrons had, the more exquisite the books could be. Arguably one of the most extravagant –– some might even say ostentatious –– book of of this sort ever commissioned was the late 15th century Book of Hours of Lorenzo De’ Medici, currently holding the shelfmark, MS Ashburnham 1874.
Also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent (Lorenzo il Magnifico), De’ Medici was known as a statesman of Florentine and as a large supporter of the arts; during the Italian Renaissance, he had such names as Leonardo Da Vinci and a young Michelangelo under his sponsorship and protection. He is suggested to have been the single biggest contributor to the Florentine art scene, though the amount of money that he spent amassing his collection of ancient texts, as well as some bad loans and overall poor business practices, eventually led to a partial collapse of the Medici family bank.
Prior to this, however, in 1485, he commissioned the famous book of hours for one of his daughters, Luisa De’ Medici, when she was betrothed to Giovanni il Popolano at around eight years old. The girl died young, however, only living for another three years after the book was completed.
The first and probably the most striking thing about this manuscript is its incredibly ornate binding, pictured above. The whole cover is bound in pure silk indigo velvet, and it includes clasps and framed corners of silver-gilt, sometimes known by the French term, vermeil, or silver plated with gold. Each board holds a large lapis lazuli in the center as well as four very light pink quartz stones on the corner plates. What cannot truly be determined from the above image, however is the scale of this manuscript. With dimensions that are only approximately 15x10cm, each page of the Book of Hours of Lorenzo De’ Medici is only about as big as a postcard. And there are nearly 500 of them, which makes this book, realistically, a teeny-tiny monster.
The calligraphy and illumination in this book of hours was done by Francesco Rosselli, a prominent artist of the time. Rosselli used a Humanist minuscule script, which was a fairly recent development at the time that this manuscript was created. The Humanist script, which was in many ways inspired by the Carolingian style, was designed as a reaction to the Gothic scripts that predominated book production across Europe for several centuries prior. Part of the appeal was its user-friendly nature in that it was fairly easy to both read and write –– more so than the Gothic at least, which was more complicated and outdated than 15th century Italians desired.
The above image is a perfect representation not only of the true beauty of the Humanist script, but of the extravagance of this text itself. There is no doubt that it was copied by a true master of calligraphy; the lettering is incredibly consistent and legible, in part due to the spacing between words and the emphasis placed on punctuation and capitalization. As for its aesthetic appeal, it is clear that Rosselli put much thought into the color scheme of the manuscript, matching the indigo and gold ink of the body text to the illuminated initials as well as the velvet binding.
The script, however, dulls in comparison to the nine full-page illustrations, each bordered by an ornate system of decorative floral arrangements, such as in the one pictured below.
The illumination has almost a hypnotic allure; there seem to be an infinite number of hidden faces within the swirling depictions of festoons and garlands framing the image of Christ on the cross. Whereas many manuscripts tend to use a limited number of thematic colors, this single image from the Book of Hours of Lorenzo De’ Medici can be seen to have at least three different shades of yellow. This is possibly indicative of a choice to use paint on these illustrations rather than ink as was sometimes done on less ornate works of art.
Also notable in this image is the historiated initial “D,” which, rather than beginning a line, as is usual with such initial, finishes the word, “Dominela,” on the vertical right border of the illustration. This image is also noticeably darker than the rest of this page, not only in color, but in content as well, as it depicts Christ as more sallow and gaunt than he normally is. This helps to further the sense of innovative artistry that is represented within this codex.
Today, the original MS Ashburnham 1874 is being held at la Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy; however, it appears to be a classic among bibliophiles worldwide. Replications can be purchased online from sources such as the Brothers Ziereis Rare Books for around €6,300 (or about $6,900).
At the time of its creation, the Book of Hours of Lorenzo De’ Medici was arguably one of the most outstanding and artistically impeccable manuscripts ever made. From the luxurious, and maybe even ostentatious velvet binding to the impossibly intricate illuminations within, this codex is a masterpiece of Francesco Rosselli and a testament to the overpowering nature of the art of the Italian Renaissance.