Exuberantly Decorated and Illuminated with Miniatures by Francesco di Antonio del Chierico


(Italy [Florence], ca. 1470). 125 x 85 mm. (5 x 3 1/4"). 246 unnumbered leaves, COMPLETE; single column, 11 lines, in an elegant gothic rotunda script. Contents: Calendar (f. 1r); Hours of the Virgin, "secundum consuetudinem Romane curie," with Matins (f. 13r), Lauds (f. 27v), Prime (f. 46r), Terce (f. 52v), Sext (f. 59v), None (f. 65v), Vespers (f. 71v), and Compline (f. 83v); Office of the Dead (f. 113r); Seven Penitential Psalms (f. 189r); Litany (f. 208r); Hours of the Cross (f. 223r); 15 Gradual Psalms (f. 229r).

Very pretty 18th century red morocco, elegantly gilt, covers bordered by plain and decorative rules enclosing a panel with large central floral spray, two birds perched on its leaves, this surrounded by tiny gilt circles and two more birds in flight and framed by gracefully twining foliage; smooth spine divided into panels by triple gilt fillets, the panels with floral sprig centerpiece and volute cornerpieces, gilt titling, turn-ins densely gilt, marbled endpapers, all edges gilt. Rubrics in red, numerous one-line initials in red or blue, frequent two-line initials in blue with delicate red penwork or burnished gold with blue penwork, six three- or four-line illuminated initials in blue, green, pink, magenta, and burnished gold, one large (35 x 45 mm.) illuminated initial in colors and gold from which emanates a full floral border with many gold bezants, hairline vines, and a putto, FOUR LARGE HISTORIATED INITIALS beginning the Hours of the Virgin (depicting the Madonna and Child), Office of the Dead (a scythe-wielding skeleton), Office of the Holy Cross (the Man of Sorrows), and the Seven Penitential Psalms (David with his harp), ALL WITH EXCEPTIONALLY ELABORATE FLORAL BORDERS FEATURING MEDALLION PORTRAITS, PUTTI, AND MUCH BURNISHED GOLD. Front pastedown with engraved bookplate of Marie-Louise-Élisabeth d'Orléans, Duchesse de Berry (1695-1719); first page with ink stamp of "Monseigr. le Prince de Condé, Gouv. de Bourgogne et Bresse"; last page with ink stamp of École Royale Militaire de Soreze; second page and last page with unidentified armorial stamp of a bishop; two other unidentified ink stamps. One-inch crack at head of rear joint, general minor rubbing to spine and edges, but the binding entirely sound, still quite lustrous, and generally well preserved; trimmed close, with very slight loss at fore edge of full borders (and trivial loss at top and bottom), script somewhat faded on half a dozen pages, occasional minor thumbing, otherwise A BEAUTIFUL WORK INTERNALLY, the vellum fresh and bright, the colors vivid, and the paint and glistening gold intact.

The production of a highly desirable artist favored by European royalty, this work boasts an abundance of noble associations, with a small but dazzling decorative program to match. The delicate pink-tinged molding of the figures, the presence of decorative putti and birds, and the exuberant borders make this the unmistakable work of Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (1433-84), a precociously talented illuminator and goldsmith working in Florence during the height of its golden age. Chierico received major commissions from the time he was in his early twenties, counting among his patrons Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo de' Medici, as well as Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, who constructed one of the greatest libraries of the Italian Renaissance (complete with its own scriptorium). With the help and connections of the bookseller Vespasian Bisticci, Chierico's fame spread quickly throughout Italy and into neighboring countries. Other known patrons included the King of Naples (Alfonso of Aragon), King Mattias Corvinus of Hungary, and King Louis XI of France, among others. Thus, it is hardly surprising that while the script, decorative patterns, and illustrations all indicate that this Book of Hours was executed in Florence, the rest of its known provenance is French. Although this work contains no obvious clues that might indicate the identity of the original patron, other markings reveal its distinguished ownership history, beginning in the early 18th century. The first known owner, the (especially fertile) Duchesse de Berry, was born at Versailles and lived a short but scandalous life, having incurred no fewer than six pregnancies by various men at the time of her death at 23 (Voltaire was famously imprisoned for talking about her transgressions in the presence of a police informant). Later, our manuscript fell into the possession of Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé (1736-1818), a staunch supporter of the monarchy who barely escaped the Reign of Terror and the fate of his less fortunate Bourbon relatives. Even without the knowledge of its lofty provenance or the reputation of the artist, one can plainly see the high level of aesthetic achievement here in the impeccable application of paint in the intricate borders, the beautifully convincing depiction of human and angelic bodies, and the faultless balance in design and color. Installed in some of the most prestigious collections in the world (the British Library, the Getty, the Walters, etc.), Chierico's work continues to be vigorously collected.

Keywords: Book of Hours