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Reviewed by:
  • Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, and: Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance
  • Amy Ione
Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe by Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. 640 pp., illus. ISBN 0-89236-703-2 (trade); ISBN 0-89236-704-0 (paper). Exhibition at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, 17 June-7 September 2003, <>; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 25 November 2003-22 February 2004, <>.
Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance by Pia Palladino. Yale/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003. 204 pp., illus. ISBN 0-300-09879-0. Exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 23 February-4 May 2003; the San Francisco Museums of Fine Art, 7 June-31 August 2003; the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), 30 September 2003-1 February 2004.

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Many explain the proliferation of images in our world today in terms of a trajectory originating with the invention of photography in the early 19th century, a technology that offered a means to dependably fix once-transient images. The thrust of this view is that static representations slowly morphed from the monotones of 19th-century photography into colorful film, video and eventually digital productions. Others, perhaps postmodern visual culture theorists, see the visual montage of our lives and speak about how this assortment implicitly influences popular culture, advertising, politics, etc. A third view, less widely discussed, compares the text/image integration of today with examples that existed prior to the invention of movable type. This view highlights the degree to which the visual/textual relationship changed when the popular hand-made books gave way to less expensive editions of the printing press. Indeed, despite the evident beauty of the luxurious illuminated manuscripts of earlier epochs and their equally fine bindings, these splendid books were replaced by printed publications that were largely monochromatic. As a result, up until late in the 20th century, the literature for all topics (including art) was weighted toward what could be inexpensively conveyed in a black-and-white format.

Two recent shows, "Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe" and "Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance," allow us to engage with these exquisite illustrations. Both exhibitions and their accompanying catalogs expose the beauty of the works. We also can directly see why the term "illumination" is an apt one: it refers to the frequent use of gold and silver embellishment, in conjunction with colored paints, which literally makes the page appear to "light up." Their appeal, moreover, is not simply one of first impressions. A careful viewer, particularly one aided by a magnifying glass, is quickly drawn to look closely at the lavish details, the numerous ways the illuminators developed a mastery of light and space in the miniatures, and the conventions of manuscript painting in all its glory. Visiting these shows is an indescribable treat. On the one hand, engagement with the objects (and accompanying catalogs) aids greatly in building an understanding of their functions, production and history. In addition, since the closed books have had little exposure to environmental elements, their colors remain rich, fresh and well preserved.

Walking through "Illuminating the Renaissance" at the Getty exhibition, which closed on 8 September 2003, I was keenly aware of the degree to which the show and the catalog complement each other while offering unique perspectives. The actual objects provide an experience that printed reproductions can never duplicate. As the Getty advertising points out, the more than 130 dazzling manuscripts, drawings, and paintings from 49 lenders worldwide (including the British Library, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) offer the first comprehensive look at the greatest epoch in Flemish manuscript illumination. Covering the period between 1470 and 1560, the exhibit shows how illuminators transformed the appearance of the illustrated page with a new naturalism that...


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