Illuminated Faces: Author Portraits in the Hunterian Library (Part Two)

A guest blog post by Shauna Haynes, Renaissance Art MLitt work placement student

Following on from my initial exploration of author portraits in the Hunterian Library, my second blog focuses on some other features of the Quintus Curtius: History of Alexander the Great. Books III.-XI (MS Hunter 47) manuscript and another manuscript, Livy’s Decas Tertia (MS Hunter 370) – an account of the Second Punic Wars, that was not included in my foyer display exhibition, but was too remarkable not to share.

When I first started my research on the Quintus Curtius manuscript, the damaged coat of arms found in this book was something I was curious to explore further. Leaving the original owner a mystery, much of the scholarship on this manuscript links its ownership to Cardinal Giovanni of Aragon (1456–1485), son of King Ferdinand I of Aragon (1423-1494).

Top: Coat of arms of Cardinal Giovanni of Aragon (in the lower margin of folio a2r) in Quaestiones in quattuor libros sententiarum (Venice: 1477) Sp Coll Hunterian By.2.3
Bottom: Coat of arms of the arms of the Aragonese Kings of Naples in Quintus Curtius: History of Alexander the Great, Books III.-XI (Venice/Padua?: c. 1480) MS Hunter 47 (T.2.5)

In the catalogue of manuscripts by John Young and P.H. Aitken, it is noted that the coat of arms present in MS Hunter 47 is ’defaced utterly,’ as if to say that human intervention was the cause of the loss. In J.J.G. Alexander’s article on illuminated books from Northern Italy, he proposed that even though the coat of arms was missing, the presence of a crown, not a cardinal’s hat, points this manuscript’s ownership not to Giovanni, but to the Aragonese Kings of Naples – most likely King Ferdinand I – citing surviving examples in Madrid and Budapest.

I decided to investigate the missing coat of arms further with the help of Ela Wiklo, Preservation Manager at Archives and Special Collections. We took a closer look with a microscopic lens and found remnants of blue, red, gold and black pigment – colours that were traditional elements of the Aragonese coat of arms. From this, we could gather that this was probably the coat of arms of the Aragonese Kings of Naples and that perhaps this manuscript was inherited from Ferdinand to Giovanni, hence the presence of the crown, and not the cardinal hat. Incidentally, under the microscope, there was no evidence of scraping or use of tools to remove the arms deliberately; it is more likely that the ‘defacement’ has occurred over time as a result of pigment degradation.

Detail of coat of arms under microscope, Quintus Curtius: History of Alexander the Great, Books III.-XI (Venice/Padua?: c. 1480) MS Hunter 47 (T.2.5)

One of the problems with displaying books, in general, is that you can only show one opening at a time and so some of the other beautiful initials in this book remain hidden. Here are some examples, each rendered in vivid colour and intricate foliage decoration.

Frontispiece, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, 1401-1501, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 8016, folio 1r.*

The artist – identified by some scholars like J.J G. Alexander, as Gaspare Romano or Gaspare da Padova, as he is sometimes known – had a keen interest in making not only the initials seem 3-dimensional, but also the figures found within his designs. One comparable example is Latin 8016, a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, located in the National Library of France in Paris. Coincidentally, this copy was also in the library of Cardinal Giovanni of Aragon, so it seems Gaspare Romano provided illuminations for other books in the Aragonese libraries

Another remarkable manuscript in the Hunterian Library is a copy of Livy’s Third Decade, MS Hunter 370. I was struck by how incredibly narrative the historiated initials were: they are not just static images reflecting the text, as it the case with initials of this type, but dynamic in their own right.

Opening page, Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ferr. 562, folio 1r. **

The University of Glasgow’s copy is one of the more elaborate and lavishly decorated versions of such a text. It is a rarity to have such vivid illustrations accompanying Livy; as scholar Albinia de la Mare has observed ‘he [Livy] was generally considered in Italy as a serious author, not to be treated as a picture book’. A more standard decorative scheme for this text may be found in the Vatican’s Library Ferr. 562 (see image right): despite its marginal floral borders and seven inhabited initials, there is nothing too extravagant to distract from the text.

Each section of MS Hunter 370 opens with an impressive initial depicting an event in that chapter. The artist has been identified as the Master of the Vitae Imperatorum – one of the foremost miniaturists working in Milan in the first half of the 15th Century. What is striking about these initials is that the scenes within contain a distinctive compositional narrative, in a way enhancing the text it was illustrating. The illuminator’s great technical abilities demonstrate themselves in various ways and are on par with his contemporaries working in the traditional mediums.  One example of this is the capacity to show multiple points of view, especially in the combat scenes, evident in the ‘D’ initial that opens the fifth book (see image below). In his rendering of the defeat of the Scipio brothers at Syracuse, he shows the battle from multiple angles and makes excellent use of the architecture of the letter. The differentiation in armour between the two armies, as well as a keen interest in the modelling of the figures and horses, bring the text to life in a way that is lacking in the other versions of this work.

D initial, defeat of the Scipio brothers at Syracuse, Livy, Decas Tertia, Italy: 1450, MS Hunter 370 (V.1.7)

As I complete my work placement in Special Collections, I look back at all of the remarkable items I was able to engage with and contemplate to curate the display exhibition continuing the celebration of the Hunterian Library – this is on show in the foyer of Special Collections on level 12 of the library until mid June. I was especially excited at the various ways in which I could engage the public with this area of art history that is sometimes considered not interesting. I look forward to taking the skills and knowledge I have grown here in this placement onwards to my dissertation. Many thanks to Julie Gardham for her excellent stewardship and mentoring, Debra Strickland for the opportunity to engage with this material, and all of the staff of Archives and Special Collections.


Alexander, J.J.G. ‘Some Notes on Veneto-Paduan Illuminated Books of the Renaissance.’ Arte Veneta, v. 23 (1969) pp. 17-18.

A. C. de la Mare, ‘Florentine manuscripts of Livy in the Fifteenth Century, in ed. T. A .Dorey: Livy (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1971) pp. 187 and 195.

Thorpe, Nigel, ed. The Glory of the Page (London: Harvey Miller Ltd, 1987), 139.

Photo credits (non University of Glasgow Special Collections items)

* Image courtesy of / Bibliothèque nationale de France (

** Image copyright Ó Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (,/0/native.jpg)

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Special Collections

Tags: , , ,

1 reply

  1. these are stunning in their detail and beauty

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