Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, ms. MA 592 (già Lambda 1.3), f. 117v, Rosa alba et rubra

What is an Illumination?

Although we know that illustrations also appeared on ancient papyrus rolls used by the Egyptians, the history of illumination begun with the introduction of parchment, which took place between the II and the IV century A.D. Parchment is sheep or goat hide that has been thoroughly treated and softened to make it possible to lay ink and color. This new material could absorb colored inks and watercolors more easily than papyrus did, since the plant fibers were less resistant.

The most ancient manuscripts we know of date from the IV and V century. The most famous are the Vatican Virgil and the Roman Virgil, two collections of works by Virgil made in the Roman Empire area. These two manuscripts are illustrated with images that use different styles to bring to life the stories told in those books.

During the early centuries of the Middle Ages magnificent illuminated manuscripts were made in monasteries – especially in Irish and English ones – and in courts. In fact, the most richly illuminated books were mostly commissioned by kings or noblemen. This is why the most beautiful manuscripts of this period are connected with the names of great kings, such as Charlemagne and his descendants, or the Ottonian dynasty, who commissioned Bibles and Gospels, as well as extremely beautiful collections of classical texts.

Illuminated manuscripts provide us with important tokens of an art that would otherwise be lost. In fact, the few paintings and frescoes that are left from this period are severely damaged. Thanks to the illuminated books left to us by Charlemagne, the Ottonian dynasty or the monasteries that were active during those centuries, we now have at least a partial understanding of what painting was like at that time.

As the centuries passed, more and more examples of this fine art were produced, and the number of illuminated books increased considerably from the XI century onwards. Some of the most notable include the "Atlantic Bibles" (Romanic age, 1050-1150), so called for the large format, and the exquisite prayer books made in France between 200 and 300 A.D. that display a very refined Gothic style. During this period, new profane texts spread, such as chivalric romances and the mythical tales of Troy, which were copied in elegant books and illuminated with scenes of duels and battles. In Italy, from the second quarter of the XIV century, the Divine Comedy enjoyed widespread circulation, and many lavishly illuminated manuscripts of this extraordinary poem were produced.

However, during the XV century new ways were sought to copy images faster. As a result xylography was born, a printing system based on wooden molds. New techniques were soon developed, such as intaglio, until in 1455 Gutenberg printed the first Bible obtained using movable type, thus revolutionizing the history of books.

The first printed books were still hand illustrated by excellent illuminators, who made some of the most outstanding examples of illuminated manuscripts. However, the sun was setting on illumination: soon the faster and more practical printed illustration was preferred to the hand made one.

The art of illumination, with its clear-cut temporal boundaries, is not the exclusive domain of illumination experts; since it is so important for understanding book production and the culture of its time, it is of great interest for all those who want a deeper insight into the Middle Ages.