Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books

Event Date: 
22 Sep 2016 to 16 Jan 2017

Exhibition to showcase Boston’s hidden Renaissance manuscripts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston MA.

On View: Sept. 22, 2016 to Jan. 16, 2017



Cristoforo Majorana, Penelope writing to Odysseus, in a late fifteenth-century Neapolitan copy of Ovid’s Heroides made for a member of the Aragon rulers of Naples. Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Typ 8, f. 2v.


BOSTON, MA (July 2016) – Rarely seen, exquisite Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books make this a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books showcases over 65 Renaissance paintings hidden between the covers of rare books in Boston’s libraries and museums. The works – remarkable for their beauty and jewel-like colors – will be on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston from Sept. 22 through Jan. 16, 2017.


At the heart of the show is a remarkable trove of illuminated manuscripts from celebrated Renaissance libraries. Written, illustrated, and bound by the hands of leading artists for popes, princes, and scions of Italian dynasties, they were produced as one-of-a-kind luxury items. Complementing the painted manuscripts are books from the dawn of printing including Isabella Stewart Gardner’s own rare, first Florentine edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy illustrated by Botticelli and the first copy of this edition to enter an American collection. All of the books in the exhibition shed new light on Renaissance patrons, artists, scribes, and printers from an era when the art of bookmaking reached its pinnacle. 


The Gardner’s show is part of an ambitious city-wide collaborative project entitled Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections, which is the largest ever exhibition of medieval and Renaissance books held in North America. The Gardner joins Harvard University’s Houghton Library and Boston College’s McMullen Museum as one of three venues which will simultaneously display 260 outstanding painted and printed books selected by a team of local experts from 18 Boston-area institutions. Lenders to the show include the Boston Public Library, Museum of Fine Arts, and Wellesley College among many others.


Gilded Age Bostonians such as Isabella Stewart Gardner brought most of these European treasures to America. They have scarcely been seen since, even by scholars. Dating from the 9th to 17th centuries, the books will be displayed thematically across the venues– the Humanist Library (Gardner), the Monastic Library (Houghton), and the Layman’s Library (McMullen). Their pages chart nearly a millennium in the history of European painting.


Focusing on the Humanist Library, the Gardner’s exhibition reveals the key role of Renaissance scholar/book-hunters in the birth of the modern book in fifteenth-century Italy. The story unfolds in four sections: Study, Library, Chapel and Press. Study introduces the concept of humanism, a cultural movement that took off in Florence around 1400. Humanists believed that by reviving classical antiquity, they would usher in a new age of peace, prosperity, culture and religion in Italy. They searched monastery libraries in Europe for forgotten ancient Greek and Roman texts, which they painstakingly copied by hand into a new type of book. Portable, legible and elaborately illustrated, humanist manuscripts are the forefathers of books we use to this day.


Library showcases relics from the magnificent libraries of Rome, Venice and other Italian states demonstrating how the humanist book aided the ruling class’s displays of learning, taste, and power. In Chapel, the exhibition highlights manuscripts used for public and private devotion, including giant choir-books made for the famous monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza and an impressive array of Books of Hours. The final section (Press) reveals how the arrival of the newly-invented printing press in Italy in the late 1460s transformed book production.  The Venetian book trade rapidly disseminated its products to a Europe-wide public, incorporating broad margins, legible typeface and cleaner layouts that essentially remain unchanged to the present day.


“Many years in the making, Beyond Words is a unique collaboration between the city’s most prestigious academic and cultural institutions. It pays homage to the extraordinary visual beauty of books in Renaissance Italy, to Isabella Stewart Gardner, and to other prominent Bostonians, who brought these treasures to their city,” said Dr. Christina Nielsen, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection. “The most lavish manuscripts featured in Beyond Words reveal paintings on every page, constituting miniature museums. We are excited to be part of this rare opportunity to reveal these hidden artworks to the public.”


The Gardner exhibition is organized by Drs. Anne-Marie Eze, former Associate Curator of the Collection, and Nathaniel Silver, Assistant Curator of the Collection.


The manuscripts assembled in all three Boston area exhibitions will be included in a single catalogue with contributions from 85 international scholars, edited by co-curators Jeffrey Hamburger, William P. Stoneman, Anne-Marie Eze, Lisa Fagin Davis and Nancy Netzer and published by the McMullen Museum.


Exhibition support is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This exhibition also is supported in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which receives support from the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as by the Boston Cultural Council, a local agency which is funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and administrated by the Mayor's Office of Arts and Culture. This exhibition is part of Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections, a three-venue collaborative exhibition with the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College and the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Media sponsor: The Boston Globe.