The Italian Renaissance Bible of the Fregosi family: Part I

Guest blog by Polina Govorukhina, an MLitt Art History student in the University of Glasgow

Hello, I am Polina Govorukhina, an MLitt Art History student from the University of Glasgow. I specialize in the art of the Renaissance. As a Work Placement project, I investigated MS Gen 1060, a manuscript conserved in Archives & Special Collections (ASC) at the University of Glasgow.

This is a manuscript Bible, consisting of one volume of the Old Testament from Genesis to Ecclesiasticus. It was probably produced at the beginning of the 1490s for the Fregosi family of Genoa.[1] It is of impressive dimensions, measuring: 430 x 306 mm. The manuscript is structured in two-columns of text written in black ink with rubricated headings. The script consists of spiky letterforms – a clear gothic, textura type hand, typical of manuscript Bibles of this date (Figure 1).

Figure 1: a clear gothic, textura type hand, typical of manuscript Bibles of this date

The manuscript is lavishly illuminated with scenes from the Old Testament. There are nine illustrated pages in total, of which five are incomplete. The presumed artist of its decoration is Michele da Genova. He was a north Italian artist active in the 15-16th centuries. This Bible is considered to be his major work.[2] Da Genova is believed to have executed the decoration of the frames, the miniatures and the historiated initials. Their style displays similar iconography. This includes detailed compositions exemplifying a profound perspective, elaborate patterns designed with acanthus leaves and varied gems, antique style candelabras and vases and a bright naturalistic colour palette. The decoration of the margins indicates aesthetics towards grotesque decoration in the form of candelabras that incorporate peopled acanthus and arabesque ornament. The style of da Genova is characterized by the influence of the famous Italian Renaissance artist Mantegna (1431-1506); his art is renowned for its balanced compositions and a soft palette expressed in the aesthetics towards naturalism. It also has a strong reference towards antiquity evident in elaborated architectural settings and an inclination towards elegant and sophisticated forms.[3] All these features are incorporated in the illustrations by da Genova within MS Gen 1060 (Figure 2).

Figure 2: manuscript is lavishly illuminated with scenes from the Old Testament, viewed through the visualiser camera in ASC.

Folio 1r: Saint Jerome’s Preface

For example, folio 1r demonstrates a naturalistic approach and the illusion of perspective, achieved by the artist through careful observations. It includes elaborate leaf patterns intertwined in golden all’antica candelabras. The sculptural forms and the prominent texture of the depicted objects indicate the features of classical antiquity significant of Mantegna’s style.

The folio includes a historiated initial F(rater), in which Saint Jerome is inscribed. A historiated initial is an enlarged letter within the text which incorporates the story described within the section. Saint Jerome is depicted writing to Frater (Brother from Latin) Ambrosius, which indicates the start of Saint Jerome’s general preface to the Old Testament.[4] The initial is represented in front of an ochre background. It consists of elevated acanthus leaves of varied colours of green, red, blue and ochre. The two extensive horizontal leaf scrolls seem to be flourishing from the vertical polychrome candelabra forming the sophisticated letter ‘F’.

Figure 3: historiated initial F(rater), in which Saint Jerome is inscribed.

There are two empty spaces within the second column of the text. These spaces were left blank for smaller ‘decorated intials ‘ to be inserted to flag up the start of sections; in addition to adding a decorative feature to the folio, these initials were intended to help the reader to navigate the text. Such initial spaces are evident throughout the whole manuscript. This might indicate that multiple artists were involved in the process of the manuscript’s creation: the scribe would write the text, then the main artist would execute the miniatures along with historiated letters and elaborate border decoration, then the smaller decorated letters would be accomplished by another artist.[5]

Figure 4: two empty spaces within the second column of the text.

The text and the historiated initial are encased in an elaborate frame. It is executed in red with many golden leaf patterns and blossoms. Each side of the frame incorporates an elegant golden candelabra executed in all’antica tradition. This is an artistic term that translates from Italian as ‘in the manner of the ancients’. It links to the tradition during the Renaissance to reference the style and principles of classical art, especially of Ancient Rome. The main focus would be on classical Roman architecture, characterised by the use of antique ornament, classical orders and symmetry.[6] The candelabras further develop into the precious gems and pearls that echo the symmetrical brooches on the top of a frame. They are finely incorporated in the pattern of golden leaves including the two-coloured alla’antica style cameo. In the centre lower margin is the Fregosi family black and white coat of arms with a white ribbon. Originally it included the motto of the family ‘per non fallir’ (from Italian ‘not to fail’) inscribed in black (although this is not quite visible now).[7]

Figure 5: In the centre lower margin is the Fregosi family black and white coat of arms with a white ribbon.

The Fregosi family coat of arms confirm their patronage of the manuscript. The specific member of the family is not identified. However, some scholars agree with a proposal by Anna de Floriani that the manuscript was made for Paolo Fregosi (1427-1498), an important political and religious figure in Genoa at the time.[8] It has also been suggested that one of the two kneeling soldiers depicted in folio 50r in blue armour might be the patron of the manuscript. If so, then Paolo Fregosi (Doge from 1462), will have to be excluded as a possible patron of the manuscript since he would surely have been illustrated with the insignia of religious and civil power, as well as with the attributes of warlike virtue, as de Floriani counter argues.[9]

In general, the custom of depicting the patron within an artwork was quite common at the time and would link to commemorating him through art. Further to this suggestion, my supervisor Julie Gardham and I discussed the resemblance of the man in blue armour from 50r with a kneeling young man also in blue depicted on the left in folio 4r. In order to study the figures properly I reflected the folio 50r image via technical devices. Thus, the physical resemblance of the two men is very noticeable – their haircuts and hair colour, facial features such as big wide opened eyes, and slightly elongated nose. The man in folio 4r is younger which is convenient – perhaps as the story proceeds to folio 50r he grows older. The second depiction is mirrored in order to study the figures properly. These men do seem to have some similar features in addition to their alike haircuts.

Figure 6: the physical resemblance of the two men is very noticeable – their haircuts and hair colour, facial features such as big wide opened eyes, and slightly elongated nose.

This blog will be continued in the part II, join us there to see more!


[1] Gianluca Zanelli, ‘Michele da Genova’, Treccani: Dizionario degli Italiani, Vol. 74 (2010).

[2] Anna de Floriani, ‘Michele da Genova, Miniatore: le Tappe di uno Sviluppo’ in Sisto IV e Giulio II mecenati e promotori di cultura, a cura di Silvia Bottaro, Anna Dagnino, Giovanna R. Terminiello, (Savona: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi. 1985).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Neil Ripley Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969–1992).

[5] Alexander Jonathan James Graham, Medieval illuminators and their methods of work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), Chapter 2.

[6] The National Gallery Glossary, ‘All’antica’, The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/allantica [accessed 20th March 2021].

[7] Neil Ripley Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, 4 vols.

[8] de Floriani, ‘Michele da Genova, Miniatore: le Tappe di uno Sviluppo’.

[9] Ibid.



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: