- L’atelier de Christine de Pizan by Inès Villela-Petit
By Inès Villela-Petit. Paris: BNF Editions, 2020.
L’atelier de Christine de Pizan (The Workshop of Christine de Pizan) is a captivating study of how the early fifteenth-century court poet, moralist, royal biographer, and political theorist realized her ideas in the material books she produced in her own workshop. The author, Inès Villela-Petit, is an archivist at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and in this book she follows up on the findings that she, Gilbert Ouy, and Christine Reno set forth in their groundbreaking Album Christine de Pizan (2012). That earlier book revealed that Christine, a prolific author of over forty texts to her credit, additionally headed a scriptorium devoted exclusively to publishing these texts. She transcribed or corrected by her own hand each of the fifty-odd surviving manuscript copies, with an equal number of autographs no longer extant. In this new study, Villela-Petit depicts Christine’s atelier at the height of her career (1400–1414), Contrary to our modern ideas of a workshop, it functioned as a collaboration among Christine and at least two other scribes, a dozen illuminators, a dozen ornamental decorators, and various suppliers of artisanal materials. Although members of her team did not usually operate from the same fixed location, nor were they employed exclusively by her, all worked under her close supervision. Christine’s extraordinary skill in planning and directing every step of her books’ complex execution was complemented by her participation in the nitty-gritty of their fabrication.
L’atelier de Christine de Pizan traces the author-bookmaker’s physical realization of her manuscripts from the purchase of primary materials such as pens, ink, and parchment to her presentation of the finished product to her royal patrons. Chapter 1, “L’atelier,” considers the fifteen-odd author portraits that invariably show Christine working alone in her study surrounded by her books. Villela-Petit likens these to the author’s “signature” as the seulete (seulete suis et seulete vueil estre) and to the famous dedication portrait of King Charles V’s commissioned translation of John of Salisbury’s Policraticus. With these verbal and visual echoes, Christine suggested not only that her books constituted the products of her solitary introspection and sustained labor but, more importantly, were the material means of asserting her authority to carry on the work of her family’s generous patron. [End Page 346]
Chapter 2, “Les matériaux,” focuses on the “parchment, ink, and pens” from which Christine fashioned her books. Two of her autographs preserved on paper provide insights into her creative processes. One is a hastily composed draft of her Moral Proverbs, which served as a model for her later, masterfully transcribed and decorated iterations on parchment. An even more fascinating revelation is how Christine reinvested the time-honored metaphor of the Ovidian heroine’s tear-streaked letters with the vivid emotions aroused in her by France’s imminent civil war. The paper is spotted with the mark of the large teardrops that Christine actually shed while writing her letter, which she smeared as she tried to wipe them away. For Christine the actual material support of her writings was not inert. It carried the mark of its human maker. The effect produced by the sight of her teardrops is especially powerful because it appears to have been unintended. But Christine was not above consciously exploiting the potential of her materials to express her emotions as the manuscript’s human fashioner. This is clear in chapter 3, “La mise-en-page,” which brings out her care in designing page layout to influence the meaning and persuasiveness of her words.
Chapter 4, “La main,” deals with Christine’s scribal hand, referred to as “hand X,” the hand she used as the principal copyist of her texts and that frequently exhibits calligraphic virtuosity. Villela-Petit, an expert in identifying scribal hands, makes what for me was another of her great discoveries: that “hand P,” her workshop’s second most important scribal hand, was the hand of Christine’s son, Jean de Castel...