Long characterized as the Dark Ages between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, the medieval period was in fact a great age of learning. The university is one of its most significant and enduring inventions.

The northern Italian city of Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe. The school traces its origins to the late eleventh century, when scholars began gathering in Bologna to engage in the recovery and study of ancient Roman law. Turning their knowledge into a commodity, the scholars soon started offering classes to students for a fee. Medicine, theology, and other subjects would later also be taught in Bologna to great acclaim, but law initially brought the city international renown as a center of higher learning. In the late thirteenth century, a time when Bologna was the fifth-largest city in Europe, the university attracted about two thousand students each year from all over the continent.

The academic environment gave rise to Bologna’s unique artistic culture. Professors enjoyed high social status and were buried in impressive stone tombs carved with classroom scenes. Most importantly, teachers and students created a tremendous demand for books. A surprising number of medieval Bolognese textbooks survive either whole or in part. In addition to colorful scenes enriched with gleaming gold, their pages often bear corrections and notes added by their original owners—evidence of the labor of learning.

This exhibition highlights Bologna’s key role in the history of education and art. It also explores the distinctive features of the university city: its brick buildings, soaring towers, expansive main piazza, and porticoed streets. Works of art made for churches, guilds, and popes as well as for the university are on view. The objects span the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and encompass painting, sculpture, and manuscript illumination.

Featured object

Master of 1411 (active late 14th–early 15th centuries)
Register of the Cloth Merchants’ Guild: Frontispiece, The Market in Piazza di Porta Ravegnana, 1411
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna, MS 641, fol. 1r

This full-page miniature from a register of Bologna’s cloth merchants’ guild is today the most famous depiction of medieval Bologna. Painted by an anonymous artist, it provides a bird’s-eye view of the marketplace located near the city center in the piazza of Porta Ravegnana, where merchants sold a variety of wares from wooden stalls. In the foreground, customers can be seen inspecting merchandise and trying on clothing. Near the chapel located in the middle of the market, household goods are offered for sale, including a wooden commode, pots, and a rake. This market took place in the shadow of the Garisenda and Asinelli Towers.

Learning the Law in Medieval Bologna

Bologna’s university had no formal instructional or administrative buildings before the mid-sixteenth century. Until then, classes were taught by professors in houses or churches. Books, not buildings, served as the heart of the medieval university.

On view here are examples of some of the principal textbooks used by law professors and students. Both Roman and canon law were taught in Bologna. Roman law deals with civil matters, such as contracts, crimes, and property rights. Canon law is the rules of the Catholic Church and pertains to subjects such as clerical life and marriage. In the classroom, professors and students read, interpreted, and debated ponderous Latin legal texts, which they were ultimately expected to memorize.

The study of law was open exclusively to men in the Middle Ages (perhaps the only exception being some daughters of law professors who were taught at home by their fathers). Law students were usually in their twenties or early thirties. In Bologna they organized themselves into two nations: the universitas cismontanorum, comprising students from Italy, and the universitas ultramontanorum, comprising students from north of the Alps. These student associations dictated the academic calendar, how lectures were conducted, and when professors’ fees were paid. Because Roman and canon law were recognized throughout Europe, students could practice their legal skills anywhere on the continent after they completed their courses in Bologna. They found employment as judges, notaries, or administrators in the service of secular rulers or the Church. Many medieval bishops, cardinals, and popes were trained in law.

Roman Law Texts

Emperor Justinian I (ca. 482–565; reigned 527–65) is a key figure in the history of jurisprudence. After ascending the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), he appointed a commission to assemble a complete collection of past and present Roman laws—a compilation known as the Corpus iuris civilis (Body of Civil Law). It consists of the Digestum, Codex, Institutiones, and Novellae.

During the early medieval period, Roman law fell into disuse in western Europe, but it was rediscovered in the eleventh century in Italy and admired for its usefulness. Bologna became the major center of scholars engaged in the recovery and systematic study of Roman law. Justinian’s texts—copied into hundreds of manuscripts—were used by medieval professors and students of civil law.

Featured object

Bolognese illuminator
Justinian I, Infortiatum with glossa ordinaria of Accursius: Book 29, the writing of a soldier’s will, 1280–90
Tempera and ink on parchment
Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department, Lewis E 244, fol. 76r

Small scenes known as miniatures became more common in Bolognese texts in the second half of the thirteenth century. They break up dense pages of script and facilitate the rapid consultation of the text. By visualizing the law, they may have also helped medieval students remember it. In this manuscript of the Infortiatum—the second part of Justinian I’s Digestum—a miniature marks the beginning of each chapter. Usually one column wide in this period, these scenes present figures in stagelike settings against blue or gold backgrounds. This example is framed by an architectural interior divided into three bays; it shows a juridical act in progress—the writing of a soldier’s will. Emperor Justinian is represented as the largest figure to emphasize his importance. Wearing a crown, he sits on a throne with two cushions and holds a law book, to which he points. At his feet, a scribe sits on a single cushion on the floor and writes with a quill on parchment. The man standing immediately before him is the soldier dictating his will.

Canon Law Texts

Written between 1140 and 1150, Gratian’s Decretum was the foundational canon law textbook of the Middle Ages. Little is known about Gratian (died before 1159), except that he was a legal scholar who spent part of his life in Bologna. His Decretum was a useful classroom tool that taught students how to interpret and apply legal concepts to specific situations. It also helped establish canon law as an academic discipline.

Medieval popes and ecclesiastical councils issued many new laws for the Church. In 1234 Pope Gregory IX (ca. 1145–1241; reigned 1224–41) ordered the compilation of all the Church laws promulgated since the Decretum. This work is known as the Decretales or Liber extra. In 1298 Pope Boniface VIII (ca. 1230–1303; reigned 1294–1303) issued another compilation called the Liber sextus. These popes dispatched their collections of Church law to Bologna and Paris with the command that they should be taught in the universities and used in courts.

Another important medieval canon law text is the Novella (1338), a commentary on the Liber extra and Liber sextus, by the renowned Bolognese canon law professor Giovanni d’Andrea (ca. 1270–1348). He also wrote a famous treatise on marriage.

Featured object

Circle of the Master of Gerona (active late 13th century)
Gratian, Decretum with glossa ordinaria by Johannes Teutonicus of Halberstadt, revised by Bartholomew of Brescia: Frontispiece, De poenitentia, late 13th century
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
Princeton University Library, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Garrett MS 97, fol. 267r

This miniature serves as of the finest of all thirteenth-century Bolognese Decretum manuscripts. It was created within the university system of book production, which parceled out the work of copying the text among multiple scribes. The task of ornamenting the book was similarly shared by several illuminators. Most of its miniatures are by the Gregory-Gratian Shop, a rotating stable of five or more illuminators who specialized in legal illuminations and also painted the nearby scenes from Glencairn. Thirteen miniatures, including this one, are by a different artist working in a more sophisticated style inspired by Byzantine art. This is the frontispiece for De poenitentia, Gratian’s treatise on penance included in the Decretum. It shows a bishop preaching to an audience of standing men and seated women. Inside an initial H immediately below is a related scene of a woman confessing to a Franciscan friar. Preaching and the sacrament of confession went hand in hand during this period.

The Coming of the Friars to the University City

During the thirteenth century, new religious orders focusing on poverty and preaching emerged within the Catholic Church. They were called mendicants because they relied on donations; their male members were known as friars, or brothers. Unlike traditional monks, who retreated to the countryside, friars usually lived in cities. The most famous of the mendicant orders are the Dominicans, founded by Saint Dominic (1170–1221), and the Franciscans, founded by Saint Francis (1181/2–1226).

Bologna became one of the most important centers in Europe for the mendicant orders. While the first friars to visit the city were the Franciscans in 1211, the earliest to settle there permanently were the Dominicans in 1218. Especially learned, the Dominicans were attracted to the city by its university, and they contributed to the demand for books. In 1221 Saint Dominic died and was buried in Bologna. His followers transformed an existing church into a major pilgrimage shrine called San Domenico to house his tomb. The four other mendicant orders—the Augustinian Hermits, Carmelites, Franciscans, and Servites—also came to Bologna in the thirteenth century and erected large churches with adjoining friaries. Within the walls of their foundations, they each established a school of theology. There were many mendicant nunneries in Bologna too.

With the support of the city and the laity, these orders commissioned sacred books, including bibles, choirbooks, and missals, and other works of art, such as altarpieces, crucifixes, and frescoes. Images helped these new religious orders express their identity and beliefs. They also used art to persuade, arouse emotions, and stimulate and maintain daily devotions.

Featured objects

Bolognese illuminator
Abbey Bible: General Prologue, Christ with Saint Jerome (in initial F) and Saints Dominic and Francis (in lower margin), ca. 1250–62
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS 107, fol. 1r

Bibles were among the earliest Bolognese books to be richly decorated, and many of them were made for mendicant friars. In the Abbey Bible (named after Major John Roland Abbey, its owner from 1965 until 1969), splendid illuminations can be found on almost every page. Internal evidence suggests that the manuscript was commissioned by Teodorico Borgognoni (1205–1298), a Dominican friar, medical doctor, and bibliophile who lived most of his life in Bologna. Dominican and Franciscan friars populate its pages. In mirror images in the lower margin of this folio, Saints Dominic and Francis hand their respective rules to their followers.

Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes (active 1260s–70s)
The Mourning Madonna and The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist, ca. 1270/1275
Tempera and gold on panel
National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.13–14

Large crucifixes painted on panel showing Christ suffering, rather than triumphant, on the cross became a standard feature of mendicant churches in Italy in the mid-thirteenth century. Facing the congregation, they typically hung above the center of the tramezzo—a screen separating the high altar and choir from the rest of the church. The Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes is an artist who painted many examples of these crucifixes for the Franciscan order, beginning in Assisi and then traveling to Emilia-Romagna, the region of Italy that includes Bologna.

These two panels are fragments of the great crucifix made for San Francesco in Bologna, the major Franciscan church in the city. The Virgin and Saint John originally flanked the body of Christ and, with their profound expressions of grief, dramatized his death. The large central section of the crucifix, which has a small figure of Saint Francis at Christ’s feet, survives in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna and is represented here by a photograph of actual size. It also includes a figure of the early Christian saint Helena, which was likely added in the fourteenth century when the crucifix was moved from the tramezzo to a side chapel in the church. The figure of God the Father that originally topped the crucifix has been lost since 1939.

The First and Second Styles of Bolognese Manuscript Illumination

In the thirteenth century, two different styles prevailed in Bolognese illumination. The First Style, which emerged slightly earlier, is characterized by a limited range of colors, primarily blue, green, and orangish red. Settings and figures are simple. The First Style appears to have been developed with speed of execution in mind. The more sophisticated Second Style was inspired by courtly Byzantine art. Colors are luminous, including light and dark blue, lavender, and red. Figures are elongated and move gracefully. Facial modeling is more complex, with a green underlayer that adds warmth. This style appears to have been initially created for highly sophisticated patrons whose principal concern was quality. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the Second Style became more sought-after than the First.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante appears to reference this shift in taste in Bolognese manuscript illumination. The long narrative poem is set in the afterlife and, as Dante journeys through purgatory, he recognizes Oderisi da Gubbio, an illuminator guilty of the sin of pride:

Oh,” I cried out, “are you not Oderisi,
glory of Gubbio, glory of that art
they call illumination now in Paris?”
“Brother,” he said, “the pages painted by
the brush of Franco Bolognese smile
more brightly: all the glory now is his;
mine, but a part.

Oderisi is documented in Bologna in the mid-thirteenth century. From the central Italian town of Gubbio, he was one of many foreign illuminators drawn to Bologna because of its flourishing book industry. As Oderisi laments to Dante, he was eclipsed by a more talented native artist, Franco Bolognese. While works by the two illuminators in Dante’s tale have not been securely traced, it seems highly probable that Oderisi da Gubbio worked in the First Style and Franco Bolognese in the more highly esteemed Second Style.

Featured objects

Master of Bagnacavallo (active third quarter of the 13th century)
Cutting from a choirbook (antiphonary): The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (in initial S) and The Beheading of Saint Paul (in initial S), ca. 1278
Tempera and ink on parchment
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Bradish Johnson Carroll, 1926, 26.159.1–2

The Master of Bagnacavallo is a First Style illuminator who fulfilled commissions for new churches in the Romagna region east of Bologna. He is named after a set of choirbooks for the major Franciscan church in the town of Bagnacavallo. These two cuttings come from choirbooks that the artist illuminated for Imola Cathedral (completed in 1271). He often sets his scenes before a blue background punctuated by a bursting star motif. The artist renders faces using a single curving line extending from the forehead to the chin. For flesh tones, he simply leaves the parchment bare—a shortcut also used by other First Style illuminators.

Master of Gerona (active late 13th century)
Choirbook (gradual): King David Praying to God (in initial A), late 13th century
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
The University of Scranton, Weinberg Memorial Library, Special Collections, fol. 1r

The Master of Gerona is named after his most impressive manuscript, a profusely and magnificently illuminated bible now in Gerona, Spain. The bible was likely commissioned in the 1280s by the French cardinal Jean Cholet (died 1293). Working in the Second Style, the Master of Gerona became a leading illuminator in Bologna at the end of the thirteenth century. He operated a large workshop capable of completing extensively illuminated books of the highest quality, including choirbooks for the mendicant orders. His repertoire of images included a distinctive figure of King David wrapped in highly stylized, flowing grayish-blue drapery. David’s deep kneeling pose evokes of pyrokinesis, a common mode of prayer represented in the Byzantine art that inspired the Second Style. This virtuoso artist very well could have been Franco Bolognese, the illuminator who reigned supreme in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Padua and Bologna

Many other universities sprang up across Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Often they were established when a group of teachers and students picked up and left their original university after a dispute with local authorities. This is precisely what happened in 1222, when students from Bologna migrated to Padua in northeastern Italy. Groups of them also left in 1259, 1273, and 1306, and each time some parchment makers, booksellers, and illuminators followed them to Padua in search of business. The last move was especially consequential since it came as the Florentine painter Giotto (ca. 1267–1337) was putting the finishing touches on his revolutionary Arena Chapel frescoes in Padua. Inspired by his example, Bolognese illuminators began using earthier colors and weightier figures and setting scenes in a tangible world. One of the first to do so was Nerio, whose career spanned the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. His engaging compositions, found primarily in legal manuscripts and choirbooks, laid the foundation for a new style of Bolognese illumination after 1300.

In this period, churches in Bologna commissioned many choirbooks. The most magnificent series was a new set made for San Domenico. The project engaged a team of six illuminators during the years 1307 to 1336. They likely worked in a scriptorium—a designated room for copying and decorating manuscripts—established by the Dominicans at their friary. In both large initials and medallions in the lower margins, these artists inserted lively narratives in the pioneering style rooted in Giotto’s frescoes. Works by two of the Masters of the San Domenico Choirbooks are on view in this gallery: the Seneca Master and the Master of B 18. Both illuminators also ornamented many other books for the Dominican order.

Featured objects

Nerio (active late 13th and early 14th centuries)
Cutting from a choirbook (antiphonary): Easter Scenes: The Three Maries at the Tomb with the Angel of the Resurrection, and The Resurrected Christ Appearing to the Three Maries (in initial A), ca. 1315
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 12.56.1

This vibrant initial has been excised from a choirbook made for Augustinian friars. Two scenes are set within a letter A, which begins the chant Angelus Domini descendit de celo (An angel of the Lord descended from heaven) sung on Easter Sunday. Above the letter’s crossbar, the Three Maries have arrived at Christ’s tomb to anoint his body, only to discover it missing. As they peer into the empty sarcophagus, the angel announces that Christ has risen from the dead. The top of the letter, like the tomb, has been blown open. Below the crossbar, the trio of holy women encounter Christ and kneel before him. A masterful storyteller, Nerio creates a sense of drama, movement, and setting, defying the small format of the letter.

Master of B 18 (active 1320s–40s)
Calendar: October and November, 1324–28
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), 1912, MS M.511, fols. 5v–6r

Open here to pages for the months of October and November, this calendar has probably been excised from a missal, a book used by a priest during Mass. The feast days listed indicate that the manuscript was made for Dominican use between 1324 and 1328. In these same years, the Master of B 18 was also working for the Dominican order on the San Domenico choirbooks, and these pages are similarly ornamented with red, blue, and pink acanthus leaves framing three sides of the text and roundels in the lower margin. These roundels depict seasons and zodiac signs. For October, men fill casks and taste wine. There is also a black scorpion (Scorpio). For November, a man sows seeds and a centaur shoots a bow and arrow (Sagittarius). These rural scenes reflect a new interest in representing the natural world in Bolognese illumination.

Narrative Painting in Early Fourteenth-Century Bologna

About 1320, the Franciscans of Bologna hired Francesco da Rimini to paint frescoes in their church of San Francesco and its adjoining friary, including a cycle of scenes from the lives of Christ and Saint Francis in the refectory. The artist came from Rimini, a small city seventy-five miles southeast of Bologna that had a flourishing school of painting in the first half of the fourteenth century. Riminese painters were highly sought-after in the region, especially among mendicant patrons wanting altarpieces, choirbooks, crucifixes, and murals for their churches. While in Bologna, Francesco is believed to have trained several young Bolognese artists in the art of painting. In the decades that followed, these and other Bolognese painters fulfilled commissions both in and outside the city.

Some resourceful and versatile Bolognese artists worked as both painters and illuminators. The relationship between these two mediums in a city where there was such a high demand for manuscripts is intriguing. In both painting and illumination of this period, there is a strong interest in conveying dramatic, action-packed narratives, often with figures grouped into crowds. The colors, which include a prominent use of green, pink, and red, are similar. There is also some shared subject matter, such as martyrdom scenes, which were unusually popular in Bologna. This may be explained in part by the presence of numerous relics of many early Christian martyrs in the city’s churches, including Saint Petronius. The university setting may have also been important. As clear illustrations of injustice, depictions of martyrdom probably had special resonance in a city dedicated to legal studies.

Featured objects

Master of the Bologna Polyptychs (active ca. 1320–40)
Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, from Stories of Christ and Saint John the Evangelist, ca. 1320
Tempera and gold on panel
North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, GL.60.17.12

This panel represents Christ’s conversion of Mary Magdalene and includes Saint John the Evangelist, again dressed in pink, as a witness. According to the Gospel of Luke, a Pharisee invited Christ to dine in his house, but failed to greet him with a kiss or give him water for his feet or oil for his head—all customary signs of hospitality. During the meal, a woman came to anoint Christ’s feet with perfume and her tears, which she wiped away with her hair. When the Pharisee saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—a sinner” (Luke 7:36–39). Medieval hagiographers identify the Pharisee as Simon and the woman as Mary Magdalene. The painter of this scene shows Christ at the head of the dinner table with the Magdalene cradling his feet, humbly performing her act of love. The Evangelist’s pious reaction contrasts with Simon’s skepticism. While reprimanding Simon, Christ forgives the Magdalene’s sins, and she becomes his follower.

Master of Saint James at the Battle of Clavijo (active ca. 1315–30)
Saint Catherine of Alexandria Freed from the Wheel, from Stories of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1330
Tempera, gold, and mosaic gold on panel
North Carolina Museum of Art, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, GL.60.17.14

Violence and last-minute divine intervention are juxtaposed in this carefully choreographed scene. In the lower left, Saint Catherine is on the verge of being executed for her beliefs. While soldiers stand guard, she kneels before her instrument of torture: a flaming wheel studded with saws and nails. An angel dressed in an exquisite pink cape comes to her rescue by striking the wheel with such force that it shatters and kills four thousand pagans—the heap of contorted bodies in the lower right.

Bologna between Avignon and Rome

One of the most fascinating chapters in medieval Bolognese art and history is the seven-year period from 1327 to 1334 when the city was governed by Cardinal Bertrand du Pouget (1280–1352), a nephew of Pope John XXII (1244–1334; reigned 1316–34). Both men were French. Since 1309, the papacy had been based in Avignon, France, but John XXII wanted to return to Rome and devised a plan to use Bologna as an intermediary step into Italy. With the permission of the Bolognese, the pope installed Bertrand as their ruler in 1327. Three years later, Bertrand ordered construction to begin on the Rocca di Galleria—an enormous, fortified palace intended to house the papal court near the Porta Galleria, Bologna’s northern gate.

To create a suitably lavish environment for celebrating Mass within the papal palace, Bertrand built a large chapel and around 1332 summoned the Florentine painter Giotto to create a fresco cycle and the Pisan sculptor Giovanni di Balduccio to carve a marble high altarpiece. As in the Vatican Palace in Rome, there was probably also a small chapel for the pope’s private masses. Giotto’s Virgin and Child Enthroned is believed to have decorated its altar.

Pope John XXII ultimately never came to reside in this sumptuous palace. He decided to remain in Avignon. In 1334 the Bolognese revolted against Bertrand, who fled with his entourage to Florence before returning to France. The Rocca di Galleria was sacked and destroyed. While Giotto’s fresco has been lost without a trace, both his altarpiece and some of Giovanni di Balduccio’s sculptures survive. These artworks by two famous Tuscan artists were evidently revered by Bolognese artists, who absorbed their lessons in the 1330s and 1340s. They had the most immediate impact on an anonymous painter known as Pseudo-Dalmasio, who probably served as Giotto’s assistant during his time in Bologna and later worked in Florence.

Featured objects

Giovanni di Balduccio (1300–1360)
Virgin and Child, ca. 1332–34
Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Elizabeth P. Kirby Fund, 37.140

Carved from a fine white block of Carrara marble, this statuette of the Virgin and Child originally stood at the center of Giovanni di Balduccio’s altarpiece made for the large chapel of the Rocca di Galleria. The Virgin, crowned as queen, smiles at her son, who pulls at her veil. This playful depiction recalls French medieval sculptures of the same subject, which likely reflects the wishes of the French patron, Cardinal Bertrand du Pouget acting on behalf of Pope John XXII.

Pseudo-Dalmasio (active second quarter of the 14th century)
Virgin and Child with a Dog, ca. 1330–35
Tempera and gold on panel
Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, cat. 3

Since the Middle Ages, the Dominicans have been nicknamed domini canes—watchdogs of the Lord—and this panel, which shows Christ’s arm wrapped around a small dog, was likely made for a member of that order. The artist based his regal figure of the Virgin, with her rounded chin, chiseled nose, and grayish skin, on Giovanni di Balduccio’s sculpted Virgin nearby.

Sumptuous Pages: Bolognese Illumination from the 1320s to 1340s

Bolognese manuscript illumination reached its greatest peak in the three decades immediately preceding the plague of 1348. Although many different types of manuscripts were made in the city during these years, including secular texts such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, the especially high quantity and quality of lawbooks stand out. The lectures delivered at the university by the charismatic canon law professor Giovanni d’Andrea and the new texts and commentaries that he wrote created a dynamic environment that seems to have helped reinvigorate legal illumination too.

The Master of 1328, Nerio’s pupil and a lead illuminator of the San Domenico choirbooks, proved to be especially creative and innovative. His ambitious legal miniatures possess the monumentality and complexity of fresco cycles and are often framed like paintings. Claiming more real estate on the page, his illuminations stretch beyond columns and into intertextual spaces. His expressive figures are set in scenes full of observations of the natural world. Humorous details, such as figures playfully interacting with the text, show that he aimed to please and delight sophisticated readers enmeshed in books and learning. 

The Master of 1328 is the presumed teacher of several talented illuminators who followed. They include the Hungarian Master, an anonymous artist named not for his nationality or workplace, but for the impressive manuscripts that he completed for Hungarian patrons. These commissions were likely facilitated by Hungarian clergy studying at Bologna’s university and demonstrate the wide-ranging fame of Bolognese illumination. Like the Master of 1328, the Hungarian Master must have had a large workshop to help him complete his profusely decorated codices. 

Featured objects

Master of 1328 (active 1320s–40s)
Leaf from Gregory IX, Decretales (Liber extra) with glossa ordinaria of Giovanni d’Andrea: Frontispiece for Prologue, Pope Gregory Receiving His Decretals from the Hand of His Compiler Raymond of Peñafort, ca. 1330
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, Purchased in 1927, MS M.716.1v

The Master of 1328 painted this elaborate page for the prologue of an especially ornate copy of Gregory IX’s Decretales. In a large miniature at the top, the pope receives his collection of laws as he sits in an elaborate throne. He is flanked above by cavorting putti and below by soldiers and lawyers on his right and cardinals and other ecclesiastics on his left. Beneath the throne, three scribes busily transcribe texts while scholars are equally absorbed in reading nearby. Farther down in the initial G is a classroom scene—a theme that reflects the importance of this text in the university curriculum. Inhabiting the area between the two texts is a man who uses all his might to hold up the miniature. At the bottom, peasants hunt in a wooded and rocky landscape where water flows and a bear, deer, lion, and rabbit roam. Through costume and the hierarchal placement of figures on the page, the Master of 1328 has created a microcosm of medieval society.

Hungarian Master (active ca. 1325–40) and workshop
Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible: General Prologue, Saint Jerome (in initial F) and Scenes from the Life of Christ (in lower margin), ca. 1335–40
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
Library of Congress, Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, MEDMS6, vol. 1, fol. 1r

This is the first of two volumes of the profusely illuminated Nekcsei-Lipócz Bible. It was likely created for Demeter Nekcsei (died 1338), the chief lord treasurer of King Charles I of Hungary and Croatia (1288–1342; reigned 1308–42), who hailed from the Capetian House of Anjou in France. This French connection may explain why both volumes were written in a Gothic script associated with France rather than the typical Bolognese script. For a Bolognese bible, this example is especially large and late in date, and everything about it indicates it was a custom commission. Nekcsei and his wife are believed to have gifted it to a church or monastery in Hungary.

 Art in Bologna after the Plague

In 1348 a frightening new pestilence arrived on the Italian mainland, devastating the population of many cities, including Bologna. Prior to the plague, Bologna had roughly forty-five thousand inhabitants; afterward, only about twenty-three thousand. The book industry suffered the loss of numerous individuals, including many scribes and almost all its leading illuminators. The law professor Giovanni d’Andrea was another one of the plague’s casualties.

Probably born in the 1320s, Nicolò di Giacomo di Nascimbene, called Nicolò da Bologna, had just finished training as an illuminator before the epidemic. As one of the only illuminators to survive, he would dominate the field unlike anyone before him until his death around 1403. Most commissions for choirbooks, guild registers, legal textbooks, and secular books of poetry went to him. He gathered around him other illuminators in the city to work as his collaborators. Nicolò’s position at the center of artistic life in Bologna is evident in his close relationships with other artists. The will of the painter Simone di Filippo, known as Simone dei Crocefissi, lists Nicolò as a witness—a sign that he was a trusted friend. Nicolò’s nephew Jacopo di Paolo most likely trained first as an illuminator with him and then as a painter with Simone. Nicolò is also the probable teacher of the Master of the Brussels Initials, a remarkable illuminator who spent part of his career in Paris, the only medieval European city with a larger market for books than Bologna.

Throughout much of the fourteenth century, Bologna was under authoritarian rule, often by outsiders such as Cardinal Bertrand du Pouget, but in 1376 an independent communal government was reestablished. The period witnessed a resurgence of interest in Bologna’s patron saint Petronius, who is often represented in art. In 1390 construction began on a new church to house his relics. Known as the Basilica of San Petronio, its facade dominates the south side of the Piazza Maggiore, the vast open civic space begun in the year 1200.

Featured objects

Nicolò di Giacomo di Nascimbene, called Nicolò da Bologna (documented 1349–1403)
Cutting from a choirbook (gradual): The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (in initial E), ca. 1394–1402
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Gift of George Blumenthal, by exchange, Elaine Rosenberg and Austin B. Chinn Gifts, and Bequest of Fannie F. Einstein, in memory of Emanuel Einstein, by exchange, 2007, 2007.236

The crossbar of the initial E separates the kneeling early Christian martyr Stephen from his tormenters hurling stones at his head. The burnished gold of this and other cuttings in this series is especially well-preserved. Each letter is painted a pale pink that forms an elegant contrast with the gold.

Nicolò di Giacomo di Nascimbene, called Nicolò da Bologna (documented 1349–1403)
Cutting from a choirbook (gradual): The Beheading of Saint Paul and the Miracle of Plautilla’s Veil (in initial S), ca. 1394–1402
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of Elizabeth J. Ferrell, MS 115 (2017.122.3), leaf 3

Within the undulating form of a letter S, Nicolò vividly narrates the story of Saint Paul’s beheading. The illuminator foregrounds a gruesome detail from the Golden Legend. A woman named Plautilla provided her veil to blindfold Paul, whose severed head bounced three times to create three springs known as the Aquae Salviae, or Healing Waters.

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