November 7, 2016

Repatriation: 14th century illuminated manuscript


After reviewing photographic documentation provided by Italian authorities, the Cleveland Museum of Art has voluntarily transferred a 14th-century manuscript folio (leaf) from an Italian Antiphonary to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division for its eventual return to Tuscany. 

An antiphonary is a book intended for use by a liturgical choir.  This particular looted page was sliced out of a seven-page songbook that originally belonged to the Church of Saints Ippolito and Biagio of Castelfiorentino.  Its sister pages are preserved at the Museum of Santa Verdiana south west of Florence. The page is believed to have been removed from the antiphonary sometime between 1933 and 1952 when the work was purchased by the museum. 

The antifonary, measures 44.3 x 35.2 cm and is believed to have been created by an artist known as the Master of Dominican Effigies, an important illuminator whose exact name, until now, is unknown.  The illuminated parchment hymnal was produced sometime between 1335 and 1345.  The foglio page being returned has illustrations in ink and tempera and is embellished with gold leafing. 

According to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the foglio was attributed to another illustrator at the time of its purchase.  Curators at the museum became suspicious when a second attributable page from the same antiphonary came up for sale on the Swiss art market. US and Italian law enforcement authorities were notified and an investigation was initiated which has led to this eventual return. 

Collecting single leaves from Medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts while quite in vogue, are activities collectors should approach with a lot of caution and healthy doses of due diligence.  While there has been a historic tradition of biblioclasts, or book breakers — someone who breaks up books and manuscripts for the illustrations or illuminations, there are also way too many instances of more recent thefts commited by individuals with access to little used historic texts who have helped themselves to more than a page or two, creating collection histories to cover their tracks.  

Pier Luigi Cimma and Franca Gatto, two professors who participated in a 1990 inventory of Italian church archives were known to have cut pages from several manuscripts, most of which they sold to a bookseller in Turin, Italy. Thanks to the city of Monza's squad from the Nucleo dei Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, several of these were recovered from Sotheby’s in London. 

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