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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Illuminating the Dark Ages

A recently-awarded NEH planning grant will help display and digitize Boston-area medieval manuscripts

  Jeffery Hamburger

Jeffrey Hamburger shows one of Houghton Library's large medieval manuscripts during a recent filming for his upcoming HarvardX course on the history of the book. (Photo by Jeff Emanuel, HarvardX)

By Beth Giudicessi, HCL Communications

April 28, 2014 – If a single illuminated manuscript can give a glimpse of the art, literature, religion and history of Western culture during the Middle Ages, imagine what nearly 4,000 – the number of such manuscripts held in the Boston area – might do.

Those 4,000 manuscripts are the focus of an exhibit being prepared by Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture Jeffrey Hamburger and Houghton Library Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts William Stoneman. Hamburger and Stoneman are the recipients of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to fund planning for an exhibition, catalog, website, international conference and special collections consortium of schools, museums and libraries on illuminated manuscripts dating from the 9th to the 16th century.

"The motivation for doing this exhibition is the very simple fact that there's a larger concentration of medieval and renaissance painting tucked away at libraries and other collections in the Boston area that remains little known or entirely unknown than anywhere in North America," said Hamburger.

The exhibit, "Pages from the Past: Illuminated Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in Boston-area Collections," will open in the fall of 2016 in three Boston venues: Harvard's Houghton Library, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art. In the upcoming months, Hamburger and Stoneman will work with partners at those institutions and at the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, Brandeis, MIT, Tufts, Northeastern and Wellesley to finalize a list of ca. 200 manuscripts to display. Of them, the majority will come from Houghton Library, whose collection includes works in Latin, Greek and most of the vernacular languages of Europe.

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"One of our goals is to circulate a list of featured materials to area faculty so they can begin to consider what will be on exhibition in the fall of 2016 and how it could be used in a related course," said Stoneman.

The McMullen Museum will feature Gothic illuminations, Houghton Library will display the area's earliest monastic materials, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum plans to recreate its own Renaissance studiolo. Each exhibit site will display a range of material including works by such well-known artists as Jean Bourdichon, Niccolò da Bologna and Simon Bening, manuscripts in various formats, such as scrolls, and books for various audiences, whether monks, nuns, clerics, humanists, scholars, lawyers, doctors, engineers or lay people. One section will demonstrate the process of medieval book-making.

"There's going to be a very substantial section devoted to Books of Hours, not only because they're the kind of book that looms large in popular imagination, but because there are so many examples in area collections," said Hamburger. "I think it's fair to say that Houghton library has 50 on its own. Books of hours are very important for the history of art because they can be localized and dated with relative ease. By virtue of their numbers they provide a virtual continuous record of painting from the late 13th to the early 16th century. In fact, Books of Hours provide us an art-historical map as well as records of piety and patronage—let alone artistic accomplishment."

The display will also emphasize how this wide variety of material reached Boston-area collections, some of which arrived very early in the nineteenth-century.

"One of our goals is to remind Boston-area faculty and their students of the local opportunities to use primary sources in their teaching and learning," said Stoneman. "I'm hoping a proposed Boston-area Special Collections Consortium will take off and take on a life of its own in other areas with overlapping collections."

In addition to Hamburger's and Stoneman's grant, two other library-related projects received funding during the NEH's March awarding.

Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology Peter Der Manuelian will continue his Giza Project, a collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts and ten institutions across the United States, Europe and Egypt, to consolidate excavation photos, diaries, drawings, plans and publications and to integrate archeological data from a century of expeditions to the Giza Pyramids and 23 sites along the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan. Once the project is complete, the group will launch a revised Giza Project website for the public, which will represent 170,000 digital files and numerous images from Harvard's Fine Arts Library's historic glass lantern slide collection and portfolios illustrated with original engravings of Egyptian monuments and artifacts.

Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History Afsaneh Najmabadi will make available and expand a digital archive of primary source materials related to the social and cultural history of women during Iran's Qajar dynasty. The project includes personal documents, marriage contracts, travelogues, calligraphies and content from the Fine Arts Library's Ali Khan Vali photograph album, much of which is available online.