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  • Learning Through Images in the Italian Renaissance: Illustrated Manuscripts and Education in Quattrocento Florence by Federico Botana
  • Emanuele Lugli

Manuscript studies, Italian Renaissance

Federico Botana. Learning Through Images in the Italian Renaissance: Illustrated Manuscripts and Education in Quattrocento Florence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 340 pp. Hardback, $100; eBook, $80. ISBN: 9781108856898.

In Learning Through Images in the Italian Renaissance, Federico Botana focuses on four vernacular works much read in fifteenth- century Florence: the Fior di Virtù, a Sienese translation of Aesop’s fables, Goro Dati’s La Sfera, and libri d’abaco, compilations of mathematical problems. Scholars have associated the popularity of these works with their educational purposes, and Botana supports this link by gathering the available evidence and discussing how young Florentines learned through them the basics of good citizenship and trade. The Fior taught the virtues worth pursuing in both personal and civic relations. Aesop’s fables—in which animals have human anxieties and demeanors—offered cautionary tales and standards of social life. Dati’s poem made complex views about the cosmos available to those who could not read Latin, merging them with practical information on navigation, such as distances between Mediterranean harbors. Finally, the libri d’abaco taught the proportional theorems that were at the very core of commerce and artisanal making.

All the manuscripts that Botana discusses, including quite a few that do not fall within the four typologies outlined above, include illustrations. Large and whimsical and full of unusual details, the drawings constitute the most surprising features of these didactic manuals. They also represent [End Page 378] the focus of this study. Images were crucial to fifteenth- century education, Botana reflects, because they facilitated the assimilation of abstract principles and memorization. Their quality could vary—Botana regards ink doodles on the same level as tinted cycles unfolding on multiple registers— but what makes them stand out is the attention with which their makers, often the manuscript owners themselves, engaged with the texts, which is what sets them apart from professionals’ “lavish yet formulaic illuminations” (132). By taking his time to describe this rich visual material, and reproducing over one hundred leaves from these seldom- photographed manuscripts, Botana hopes to make it accessible to scholars operating outside the niche fields in which those works have been discussed (227).

Still, this is a book for specialists. While Botana provides some contextual information at the beginning of each chapter, translates all the Italian words, and summarizes the content of his four main case studies, Learning Through Images in the Italian Renaissance requires a certain familiarity with the history and topography of Florence, not to mention codicology. As per tradition, Botana sticks to referring to manuscripts as abbreviations even when the encounter of BRF 1711, BRF 1763, and BRF 1774 on the same line thwarts readability (see, for instance, p. 138). More importantly, in his search for medieval sources, Botana often plunges the readers into lists of medieval texts that may be frustrating for those who do not have a firm grasp of that literature. The appeal to specialism comes across clearly in Botana’s reliance on his readers’ knowledge of academic expressions, such as Michael Baxandall’s period eye, as well as scholarship, like Lina Bolzoni’s The Web of Images, and especially Mary Carruthers’s works on memory and meditation since those texts provide much of the book’s interpretative framework. Botana’s material corroborates the conclusions of these studies as he shows how images facilitated the mental absorption of complex concepts (188–89), created experiences that did not need to happen in real life (155–56), and provided moments of delight (179–81). It is nonetheless interesting to see how some of the points that Carruthers made for medieval culture are also applicable to fifteenth- century Florence, as Botana demonstrates in his third chapter, when he looks at Pietro Bonaccorsi’s description of the functioning of the brain in his Libro quadragesimale. Like many scholars [End Page 379] occupied with the history of mnemotechnic processes, Botana reveals a curiosity about contemporary neurosciences, whose findings he occasionally cites to legitimize, and even approve of, fifteenth- century practices and...


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pp. 378-380
Launched on MUSE
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