Before Isabella Stewart Gardner was an art collector, she was a passionate collector of books. Her collection includes over two thousand books that she arranged throughout her museum. It is fitting, then, that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is one of the institutions participating in the citywide project Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections, which is the largest-ever exhibition of medieval and Renaissance books to be shown in North America.
Harvard University’s Houghton Library will show Manuscripts from Church and Cloister through Dec 10, while Boston College’s McMullen Museum will exhibit Manuscripts for Pleasure and Piety through Dec 11. The Gardner Museum’s exhibition, on view through Jan 16, is called Italian Renaissance Books, and it is a stunning, once-in-a-generation chance to take a peek inside these scarcely seen books, some of which have never been on display to the public before now. It had been in development for 16 years.
Italian Renaissance Books kicks off with, and introduces visitors to, the concept of humanism, which took hold in Florence around 1400. In short, humanists wanted to restore glory to Florence through literature. They began to hand-copy ancient texts into a then-revolutionary portable book, which also featured ornate hand-drawn illustrations. The books that we read today are direct descendants of their innovations.
The exhibition, which is curated beautifully, is divided into four sections: “Study,” “Library,” “Chapel,” and “Press.” Beneath glass, the open books allow for a rare glimpse inside these treasures, which, following the end of the exhibition, will likely remain out of view for another generation.
Among the highlights of the show are Gardner’s four copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy. On display is an illuminated manuscript from the early 1400s showing unfathomably gorgeous and vividly colored marginalia, illuminated in tempera paint and gold. Also on display is a 1481 edition of the book that features engravings by Botticelli. Amazingly, this is the first copy of The Divine Comedy to enter the United States. (Less than 10 years later, Gardner would acquire The Tragedy of Lucretia, the first piece of art by Botticelli to find its way into America.)
Another remarkable feat here is the discovery of a prayer book that belonged to the controversial Pope Julius III, which had long been thought to be lost. The book was discovered by curator Dr. Anne-Marie Eze as she combed through Boston libraries in preparation of this exhibition, which she described to me as a “career-defining moment.”
Downstairs, in the museum’s Vatichino gallery, a complimentary exhibition called Beyond Words: Gardner’s Literary World celebrates Gardner’s love for books and writers and reminds us of her singular vision, one that still so flawlessly serves as the beating heart of Boston’s arts community. On display is a letter from Charles Dickens, a manuscript by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a first edition of The Scarlet Letter, and a letter sent to Gardner from Bram Stoker.
Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books requires a bit more work from the viewer than most museum exhibitions, but it is well worth reading each and every label to truly comprehend the significance of the works on display. It’s taken an entire generation for most of these books to make their way into the light, and it’s entirely possible that this is our one and only chance to get to see them. Don’t miss it.
BEYOND WORDS: ITALIAN RENAISSANCE BOOKS. THROUGH 1.16 AT THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM, 25 EVANS WAY, BOSTON. WWW.GARDNERMUSEUM.ORG