Italian Paleography


Chicago, Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 122
Battista Malatesta
Prayers to Saint Jerome
between ca.1450 and 1500

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This elegant roll manuscript was designed and created for a woman who held a special veneration for St. Jerome.  Simple illuminations decorate the top and left margins, and an historiated initial introduces its main text—a laudatory poem to St. Jerome in vernacular Italian.  This roll is made up of two membranes of approximately equal length, ivory rods support its top and bottom, and decorations are of a typical Florentine design featuring acanthus scrolls and figures of a bird and a moth in soft colors highlighted with gold accents.  The historiated initial “O” houses a haloed figure holding a rosary and stone.

The roll form facilitated ambulatory prayer, thus this manuscript served a practical purpose as a devotional device.  Its relatively small size suggests that the piece was fashioned for use by one person at a time, or by a very small group, whereby it was unrolled as the verses were recited; it was manageable, portable, and easily stored.  The ivory rods and string were likely added later to suspend the manuscript as a wall decoration.  Adjectival agreement in the text evidences a female owner; this roll could have served any of the many female religious associations that flourished in Tuscany in the second half of the fifteenth century.

The Newberry’s Italian roll connects with St. Jerome’s world in a nostalgic way, its novelty residing in its appeal as a faux artifact of the classical world.  The miniature rendering of the saint as penitent, the Confiteor coda, and its roll form are fitting complements to a poem that paints a portrait of the saint as a type of patristic uomo universale.

—Tonia Bernardi Triggiano


Gotica italiana, formale.

—Maddalena Signorini

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