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"Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance"
2003-09-30 until 2004-02-01
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA

The first-ever public presentation of 101 works from the impressive group of Italian illuminated manuscripts assembled by Robert Lehman (1891-1969), one of the foremost American collectors of his day, opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 30, 2003. Treasures of a Lost Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on view through February 1, 2004, features some of the finest examples of the illuminator’s art – many of them previously unknown even to scholars – produced in Italy from the 13th through the 16th century. Among the many important new discoveries presented in the exhibition is the only known illumination by the great Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Comparable only to the Cini Collection in Venice in its breadth and scope, the collection formed by Robert Lehman originally comprised some 145 pieces, representing all of the major schools of Italian manuscript production – Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia, Lombardy, and the Veneto. Spanning some three centuries of illumination, these works trace the art form’s development from the other-worldly, abstracting traditions of late-medieval painting to the conquest of space and form during the High Renaissance. In addition to examples by such celebrated painters as Duccio, Lorenzo Monaco, Cosimo Tura, Stefano da Verona, and Francesco di Giorgio, the collection includes major works by artists known primarily as illuminators, including Neri da Rimini, Belbello da Pavia, and Girolamo da Cremona. The selection of 99 single leaves and two bound volumes is drawn from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, as well as from a private collection.

Before the advent of printing, around the middle of the 15th century, books were not only written but decorated – often quite lavishly – by hand. The term "illumination" to describe these decorations was inspired by frequent use of gold and silver, in conjunction with colored paints, which literally made the page appear to "light up." The majority of works from the Lehman Collection represents one of the most spectacular types of illuminated manuscripts (and a specialty of Italian artists) – the oversize choir books, known as antiphonaries and graduals, that contain the sung parts of the mass. The principal form of decoration for these books was large initials, often several inches square, placed at the beginning of each hymn and used as a framing device for a narrative scene appropriate to the text. When carried out by artists of the highest caliber, as they so often were, the results were virtual masterpieces in miniature.

Nearly all of the examples on view are single leaves or cuttings of individual initials, the result of the 19th-century practice of mutilating manuscripts for their beautiful miniatures. The removal of such works from their original context creates especially daunting challenges for scholars, and this exhibition reflects important new research on the collection in matters of dating, attribution, and provenance.

Cosimo Tura
St. John the Baptist
in an Initial D (detail), ca. 1470-80

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