The power of the image

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Officiolum di Francesco da Barberino (Tab.b.932-933)

The Tuscan poet and lawyer Francesco da Barberino(1264-1348) may not be as familiar today as his Florentine contemporaries Dante and Giotto, but he occupies a unique position at the intersection of poetry and painting in Italy at the dawn of the fourteenth century. He knew Dante – indeed the earliest reference to the still incomplete Divine Comedy is in one of Francesco’s works of c.1313. He also collaborated with Giotto, providing him with visual ideas for the Arena Chapel in Padua. Francesco’s cultural experience stretched beyond Italy: he travelled widely in France to the court of Philip the Fair in Paris and the papal curia in Avignon, acquiring a deep familiarity with Provencal poetry during five years of exile.

Francesco’s reputation has traditionally rested on two conduct books, the Documenti d’amore (or Lessons of Love, completed c.1315, see 701:2.c.5.13-16) and the Reggimento e costumi di donne (On the Customs and Manners of Women, completed c.1320, see 8740.d.91). The Documenti in particular is a multi-layered text, with a moral-allegorical Italian poem at its core accompanied by a Latin prose translation and supplemented further by an extensive and discursive Latin commentary, all elements authored by Francesco. The most extraordinary aspect of Francesco’s autograph manuscripts, however, is the key place accorded to images, especially to complex allegories formulated by the author himself to better articulate concepts which – he claimed – could not be fully understood by reading alone.

 In his role as a conscious iconographer, and through his acquaintance with the leading poets and painters of his day, Francesco is a pivotal figure for our understanding of the emergence of sophisticated allegorical imagery in the works of Giotto and his peers. Clear derivations from Francesco’s manuscript illuminations have been identified not only in the Arena Chapel but also in Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi. The text of the Documenti was completed in France, but the author recalled that many of its visual allegories had been developed for an earlier work, a book of Hours that he called his Officiolum and for which he had commissioned illuminations during a sojourn in Padua after his political exile from Florence in 1304. If Barberino did not already know Giotto in Florence he met him in Padua, where Francesco’s spell of exile coincided with the painter’s arrival in the city to paint the Arena Chapel in 1303-1305.

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 In the summer of 2003 a package wrapped in old newspaper was handed into a Roman auction house: it contained the long-lost autograph manuscript of the Officiolum. The book was small, only 140 x 105 mm, but its exceptional illuminations confirmed the claims that Francesco himself had made for it in his later works. The manuscript was subsequently sold to a private buyer at Christies in Rome in December that year. A short description and several of the key miniatures were published in 2005 by Christies’ expert Kay Sutton in The Burlington Magazine, but Francesco da Barberino’s earliest and most important work has otherwise remained inaccessible to scholars since its rediscovery. The publication of a facsimile of exacting quality by Salerno Editrice in 2015 is therefore of particular importance (see Tab.b.932-933). Its acquisition by Cambridge University Library will not only facilitate significant new research but will also add a new dimension to courses taught by the History of Art and Italian departments on Giotto and Dante, introducing Cambridge students to the extraordinary convergence of poetical and artistic ideas in Italy at the dawn of the fourteenth century.

 Guest author: Donal Cooper

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