For hundreds of years, medieval manuscripts have been bought and sold, given as gifts and stolen, preserved and rearranged, loved and forgotten, hidden and displayed, cut into pieces, hung on walls, and glued into albums. They have survived wars, fires, floods, religious conflict, political tumult, the invention of printing and changes in taste. They have at times been valued for their beauty, for their spiritual significance, or simply for the strength of their parchment pages.
“Untold Stories: Collecting and Transforming Medieval Manuscripts,” on view through May 12 at the Getty Center, includes medieval books, leaves, and cuttings with a variety of rich stories to be told.
The exhibition is the product of a collaboration between outside scholar and former Getty graduate intern Abby Kornfeld; the Getty Museum’s Kristen Collins, associate curator of manuscripts; and Nancy Turner, manuscripts conservator.
The show offers a historical overview alongside a display of some of the Getty’s most treasured manuscripts. Each piece in the exhibition has its own life story, whether it journeyed through the mountains of Peru or graced the courts of kings.
Evidence of ownership in manuscripts, including bookplates, inscriptions, coats of arms, collectors’ marks, or notes tucked between the pages enable a reconstruction of the many hands through which these books passed. Catastrophic world events or even a simple change of ownership can obscure the origin of manuscripts, but diligent research can sometimes bring these tumultuous stories into view.
As was often the case throughout history, wars were a catalyst for the re-appropriation of manuscripts. This is demonstrated by the epic journey of the Getty’s famed Murúa manuscript, an illustrated history of the eminent line of Inca kings and their customs. The Spanish friar Murúa carried the manuscript throughout Peru before returning to Spain, where it became part of the royal collection, was seized as loot by Joseph Bonaparte and then finally surrendered to the Duke of Wellington, who brought the manuscript to England during the Napoleonic wars.
The 19th century ushered in a widespread fascination with the Middle Ages. As a response to the cultural and social instability of the late 1700s and early 1800s, this bygone era came to be idealized for its perceived unity, piety, romance and chivalry.
“The demand for illuminated manuscripts during the Gothic Revival led to a number of skilled and not-so-skilled forgeries,” notes Nancy Turner.
A particularly destructive practice took place in the 1800s alongside the renewed interest in medieval manuscripts, when illuminations were cut away from texts in order to mount the cuttings into albums or in frames for a better viewing experience.
One of the more recent and startling manuscript transformations is a lampshade on loan from Hearst Castle in San Simeon. A medieval choir book, probably Spanish in origin, supplied the raw materials for the lampshade. Media mogul and art collector William Randolph Hearst commissioned architect Julia Morgan to create it, and was closely involved in its design.
In 1540, one English commentator complained that cuttings from manuscripts were being used as rags to clean shoes and candlesticks, as greaseproof wallpaper, as jam-jar covers, as gun wadding, and for sale to grocers, soap sellers, and bookbinders.
“One of the reasons manuscripts have survived over the centuries is their portability—they’ve been rescued from burning buildings and carried off by monks who were evicted from their monasteries,” says Kristen Collins, the Getty’s associate curator of manuscripts. “Having entered the possession of the museum, the manuscripts will lead slightly less eventful lives, as they are exhibited for the public, studied by scholars, and kept safe for years to come.”
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