At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a Rare Look at Early Books

Durant Gradual, Venice, about 1430. Manuscript: ink and colors, 69 x 42 cm (27 3/16 x 16 9/16 in.) Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, Special Collections. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Fowle Durant before 1935 (MS 2), ff. 224v-225

Boston is a city with its eyes firmly set on the future. With the Innovation District in the Seaport, the first of its kind in the United States, it is hurling toward tomorrow. But, Boston will always remain a site of rich history, built on the past. Beginning Sept. 22, Bostonians will have the chance to glimpse back into the past with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books. Part of a larger exhibition also hosted by Harvard’s Houghton Library and Boston College’s McMullen Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will showcase 65 rare Renaissance-era books, each illuminated with stunning and intricate paintings.

The planning for this exhibition began around 10 years ago when Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor from Harvard University, and Dr. Liam Stoneman, the curator of Houghton Library, began imagining a way to showcase the wealth of rare books and manuscripts located throughout Boston.

“Boston has a rich tradition of collecting rare books and manuscripts that goes back to the early 19th century,” said Nat Silver, the assistant curator of the Gardner museum’s collection. “At the heart of this project was the desire to show the public the great riches of Boston books and manuscripts for the first and only time. This has never been done before.”

Fueled by this desire to present the public with these specimens, Hamburger and Stoneman compiled a list of manuscripts that they hoped to include in the exhibit. As the list grew, the two men drew in the minds of other scholars in the area—Nancy Netzer and Lisa Davis of Boston College, and Anne-Marie Eze of the Gardner Museum—and the project gained more and more traction as the curators and scholars hunted for the ideal examples to showcase.

“[The curators] were looking for objects which had never been displayed before, objects of great rarity, very famous objects,” Silver said.

According to Silver, an early-16th-century prayer book illuminated by the famous French painter, Jean de la Chambre, is the perfect example of such an object. Already in the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection, the manuscript is especially rare since it is one of the only intact surviving examples of such a work.

Eventually the list spanned about 260 rare books and manuscripts from 19 different institutional lenders, with over 80 scholars from around the world contributing to research for the exhibit. And although organizing the collaboration between so many lenders and institutions proved complex, Silver revealed that many happy discoveries—such as the prayer books of Pope Julius III unearthed deep within the Harvard collection—were made along the way.

But with such a large number of examples to showcase, the curators decided that the exhibit would span three venues.

Each of the three venues will host a selection of thematically-organized books. For BC, Manuscripts for Pleasure and Piety, for Harvard University, Manuscripts for Church and Cloister, and for The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Humanist Library.  

Within the Gardner’s Humanist Library, the exhibit will be separated into four sections (Study, Library, Chapel, and Press) and focus on examples from 15th century Florence. From this venue alone, highlights will include enormous choir books from San Sisto, an essential Benedictine congregation during the Renaissance, an illuminated edition of the Labors of Hercules made for the Duke of Milan, and the first Florentine edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which dates from 1481.

Thanks to the shallow cases chosen by the curators, visitors of the exhibit will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to examine the stunning books closely, but with great care. Due to the delicate nature of the relics, most of the books in the exhibit are generally kept closed and under watch to preserve the artistic treasures they contain.

“This is really the sole opportunity that Boston will have to see these treasures that otherwise remain in libraries among them,” Silver said. “Most of these books have never been seen before, and an event like this is never going to happen again. This is really a unique and one-time-only opportunity to see the wealth of book-art from the greatest period in the history of manuscripts—so that is from the 11th and 12th century up to the 16th century—that Boston has to offer. And I think that the local community will be surprised by the wealth of artistic riches right beneath their fingertips.”

Featured Image by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

About Madeleine D'Angelo 111 Articles
Madeleine is the metro editor for The Heights. She is from Chevy Chase, MD, and would like to thank her mom and dad for reading down this far on the page. You can follow her on twitter @mads_805.