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Book of the Month

January 2005

Bartolo da Sassoferrato

Lectura Super Infortiato

Sp Coll Hunterian Add f91

The new year begins by highlighting our major manuscript acquisition of 2004.  Although the library is not usually in the market for the purchase of medieval illuminated manuscripts, it was impossible to ignore the prospect of acquiring Lot 65 at a Sotheby's auction last June. This imposing manuscript, the first volume of a two volume copy of Bartolo da Sassoferrato's commentary of part of the Digest of Roman Law, had been identified as being the partner of our Hunterian manuscript 6, acquired by Dr William Hunter at some time in the 1760s or 70s. With generous assistance from the National Art Collection Fund, the National Fund for Acquisitions and The Friends of the National Libraries, we were able to buy this manuscript and reunite the two volumes for the first time in hundreds of years. Both manuscripts will take pride of place as the first items on exhibition in our new display case in the foyer of level 12, to be unveiled at the end of this month.

Opening page (folio 3r)

The compendium - or Digest - that codified Roman Law was made at the behest of the Christian emperor Justinian in the Sixth Century. Comprising 50 books in all, its central part (Books 24.3-38) was separated from early copies of the work, only to be rediscovered in the post-Carolingian period. This part became known as the Infortiatum, because a gloss attributed to 'Irnerio' (the most celebrated early legal scholar) said that the law had been strengthened by its rediscovery. It deals with the results of the dissolution of a marriage by divorce or death, including the recovery of the dowry, guardianship, wills and intestate succession. This apparently random division of the text may not be entirely accidental, for it unites those issues which involve every family in legal matters, whether divided by divorce or by death.

Detail of historiated initial from folio 191r

Our two volume manuscript is a copy of Bartolo da Sassoferrato's substantial commentary on the Infortiatum. In our version, the first volume (Sp Coll Hunterian Add. f91) covers Books 24-29, and the second volume (MS Hunter 6) Books 30-38. Bartolo is generally recognised as the greatest legal commentator and reformer of the Fourteenth Century and perhaps of the whole pre-Modern era. He was grotesquely immortalised as the Don Bartolo of The Marriage of Figaro. Unlike most earlier major legal teachers and commentators, after the normal period of study at Bologna Bartolo worked as a judge in Todi and Pisa from 1334-1339 and then taught in Pisa and Perugia. He died in 1357 at the relatively early age of 43. Although Perugia was a relatively small and minor law school that produced very few legal manuscripts, in the Fourteenth Century it was home for a succession of the most distinguished teachers of the age, Jacopo da Belvisio, Cino da Pistoia, Bartolo himself and his pupil, Baldo degli Ubaldi.
Our manuscripts were produced at the beginning of the Fifteenth Century. The first volume bears an incomplete date at the head of the whole text, '140. die 3 Januarii', probably 3 January, 1400. Both volumes bear the same, added, coat of arms, but this (presumably original) owner has not been identified. The first volume also bears an inscription recording that it was bequeathed to a religious house by Heinrich Kannengiesser, alderman of Cologne from 1489-1504; his will stipulated the division of his library between the Dominicans, Carthusians, the Crucifer friars and the Brethren of the Common Life at Weidenbach. The monastic shelfmark 'Jura xxxvii' is to be found on the same flyleaf as this inscription.

Detail of coat-of-arms

Folio 46r

Folio 78r

The works of the Commentators, as Bartolo's generation is called, are normally written in two columns rather than the four of the glossed texts themselves, though still with ample margins that allow for divisions in the text or added comments to be inserted.

Detail from folio 22v

They were often written on paper, a relatively new material. The dense hand-made papers of this period have proven to be well worthy of the trust placed in them, unlike more modern machine made paper, and remain a remarkably stable and solid support for the new texts. Our manuscript is written on firm white sheets that have resisted discolouration and show a series of watermarks that appear to be of Ferrarese origin. Nevertheless, an illuminated manuscript on paper remains something of a rarity from the period before printing.

Detail from folio 37v

Detail from folio 46r

It is written in a relatively formal bookhand closer to the Bolognese littera rotunda than most other paper manuscripts, but with many elaborate or even grotesque flourishes. Such grotesquery corresponds to a long tradition of irreverent decoration in legal manuscripts. The writing varies in regularity and may the work of more than one hand.

Detail from folio 78r

For the fourteenth century law manuscript there was a clear hierarchy to the illustrations of the finer copies. Where the Corpus volumes typically have whole-column narrative frontispieces to the individual books, in commentaries like our Bartolus there is usually only a modest, single half-length figure to introduce them. But for each of the two parts into which the university stationers divided our text, there is a sumptuous nearly half-page illumination. This is extended by foliate borders and a 'bas-de-page' prepared for the owner's shield; this was added later, but as Christopher de Hamel noted, probably for the original owner since it is repeated by the scribe on fol. 45r. This type of large frontispiece was planned for most legal manuscripts from around 1350 but was rarely executed. Our manuscript is therefore significant in having its full intended complement of decoration and illustration.


Detail of historiated initial from folio?

Detail of miniature from opening page (folio 3r)

For the opening of the text in the first volume, Justinian is shown as the author of the Digest surrounded by counsellors dressed as nobles and doctors of law, and with a young knight as guard. The knight's attire in particular typifies the 'International Gothic' phase of dress and its representation in art. The widow in black and her small son kneeling before Justinian are imploring the protection of the laws Justinian is about to enact: (Dig. 24-3: 'The Recovery of the Dowry on Dissolution of Marriage': POMPONIUS, Sabinus, book 15: "An action for dowry takes precedence at all times, for it is in the public interest for women to keep their dowries ... to produce offspring and replenish the state with their children").

This representation of Justinian issuing his compilation of Roman Law combines the placing of the classical author-portrait at the head of the text with the representation of authority appropriate to giving it force, the frontal design being more typical of the iconography of authority than authorship. Bartolus himself appears in the opening initial of his text in profile addressing it, dressed in a green cloak lined with red: these colours are typical of Bolognese fourteenth century illumination rather than of official academic or legal dress. The title-page is completed by a pair of foliate scrolls at the foot of the page, surrounded by little golden balls with protruding lines like seeds; these are typical of Bolognese illumination throughout this period, whereas plain gold balls or bezants characterise work of the early fourteenth century.

Detail of historiated initial from opening page (folio 3r)

Detail of opening page of volume 2 (folio 1r, MS Hunter 6)

The second volume opens at Book 30, 'On Legacies'. Its miniature depicts a dying man, wearing the miniver-lined red cap of a doctor of laws, dictating his last will and testament; he is attended by a physician, his widow (already dressed in black) and son, and other academics or nobles. The dress is characteristic of the period between 1390 and 1415. The married couple of the initial express the marital intimacy that is being broken by mortality; it is striking for its artistic reference to Giotto's Joachim and Anna meeting at the Golden Gate in the Arena Chapel, Padua, circa 1305, whose embracing figures were directly copied by our illuminator.  

The bust-length figures that introduce each book of the text follow the normal Bolognese pattern of secondary decoration, except that they are longer than normal and dressed in later fashions: the format is itself probably typical of Late Gothic design.


Equally typical are the illuminated initials for the secondary sub-headings, conventionalised foliage in pale pink and green with bright red reverse or knots, enlivened by pale blue, featuring prominently a particularly characteristic kidney-shaped leaf that distinguishes the artist's choice of motif slightly from the routine Bolognese idiom.

Detail of historiated  initial from folio 78r

Detail of decorated initial from folio 46r

The predominance of profiles in most initials is typical of the Giottoesque aspect of the illumination.


Detail of decorated initial from folio 78r

As might be expected of a paper manuscript, the quality of the painting is not quite of the highest level known from Bologna, but the principal illumination shows a knowledgeable and ambitious artist (or possibly two hands in a very similar idiom) with a generally very fine technique. This artist - not currently identified elsewhere - was clearly influenced by the finest Bolognese and Emilian artists of the late fourteenth century: Niccolò da Bologna and his nephew, Jacopo di Paolo, painter and illuminator, and perhaps the Modenese Serafino Serafini. The bold red and blue are typical of the former; the large mouths with frowning corners and squarish jaws are a feature of Niccolò's late work. The long necks, sharp features and angular movements and especially the crisply highlit angular folds of Justinian's imperial mantle in the first frontispiece are characteristic of Jacopo di Paolo. There may also be an assistant or two present, while the principal scribe appears to have had some artistic aspirations too, represented by numerous drawings in the margins; he probably added the coats of arms himself.


We do not know when or why the two volumes were originally separated. As already mentioned, the second volume belonged to William Hunter and came to Glasgow University in 1807 along with his other bequested collections. The first was acquired by H. P. Kraus from Art Ancien of Zurich in 1957 and sold to Dr Peter Ludwig of Aachen, in whose collection it was catalogued as Ludwig XIV.5 and sold with the rest of the collection to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1983. They in turn sold it with other Ludwig manuscripts to J. E. and E. J. Ferrell, Houston, Texas, who sent it to auction at Sotheby's, London, 22 June, 2004, lot. 65. The provenance of both between monastic ownership in the Fifteenth Century and these dates is a mystery. A final intrigue lies in the fact that both volumes are bound in similarly styled eighteenth century dark red morocco bindings. These do not match and are differently sized, but could possibly have been produced by the same bindery. Further research may reveal more.

Also of interest:

Some early printed version of Bartolo's commentaries: Venice, c.1470 Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.1.1; Venice, 1475 Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.1.4; Venice, 1476 Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.1.2; Venice, 1477 Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.1.3; Basel, 1562 Sp Coll Mu11-x.2



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Robert J. Gibbs, Department of History of Art January 2005