A medieval manuscript describes the wonders of the world

Tales of foreign places, medieval folklore and travels around the world – it sounds magical, doesn’t it?

Getty’s last manuscript, The wonders of the world bookoffers a fascinating insight into the mindset of medieval Europeans about distant peoples and places.

Produced in France between around 1465 and 1470 by the Boccaccio Master of Geneva (a courtesy name given to an otherwise anonymous artist), the manuscript offers examples of “exotic” peoples and their customs from around the world, capturing the notions medieval Europeans. on the difference and the perception of foreigners.

To find out more, I spoke with Larisa Grollemond, assistant curator in the Manuscripts Department of the recent acquisition.

Valerie Tate: Tell me about the manuscript, what is it about?

Larissa Grollmond: The wonders of the world book (sometimes also known as Natural History Secrets) weaves together tales of places both near and far from its place of composition in France that are based on ancient sources, medieval folklore and the supposed travels of eyewitnesses. Originally compiled by an anonymous author around 1380, the text exists in only four known copies, all heavily illuminated. The first section devoted to 56 geographical locations is listed in alphabetical order, ranging from Arabia, China, India, Judea, Provence, Ululand and many places in between, giving the text an air of encyclopedic detachment and scientific authority. However, his compelling but often fictitious descriptions were intended both to entice readers with a sense of “exoticism” and to repel them by reinforcing their own sense of civilized superiority. Accompanying images – one per location but filled with narrative detail – visually transformed each description into contemporary terms that appealed to its medieval audience. A second, shorter section of the manuscript, illuminated with exquisite tiny historiated initials, describes the wonders of mankind and the natural world.

VT: What do we know about the history of this manuscript?

LG: We know the names of the various owners of the manuscript over the centuries since its creation, but unfortunately we still do not know for whom it was originally made. The Getty manuscript is one of a closely related group of four copies produced in France in the 15th century. One of them, now in the Morgan Library in New York, is a virtual twin of this manuscript, with the same set of illuminations by the same artist (the Getty manuscript lacks what would have been the first section and its miniatures associated). The Getty copy appears to have been made somewhat later and has a full suite of exquisite historiated initials for the second section of the manuscript which is missing from the Morgan copy.

VT: What is special about the artist’s technique and style?

LG: The illuminations are finely painted in a technique sometimes called “coloured grisaille”, characterized by soft, flowing lines and translucent layered washes of color. Multiple scenes often appear in a single illumination, with the artist depicting facts about the location alongside stories and fantastical creatures.

All of this artist’s images are attentive to narrative detail – careful attention to subtle drapery shading, individualized facial features, meticulously detailed and lush landscapes, and supple, elegant figures – enhanced by flashes of brilliant color. The technique of colored drawing allows for lively, dynamic and flowing compositions that complement the sense of a swirling series of visits to the legendary locations of the known world.

VT: What is interesting about adding this manuscript to our collection?

LG: The wonders of the world book unlike any other object in the collection and aligns with our priorities by combining artistic merit with a global perspective that expands our ability to tell new stories in the gallery.

The acquisition of this manuscript not only strengthens our representation of 15th century French illumination, one of the great periods of French art, but also represents a new type of manuscript in the collection. We don’t have other works that focus on global depictions instead of religious, historical, and mythological illumination.

The images in the manuscript, in their exploration of ‘strangeness’, also expand our ability to explore medieval European notions of difference and the perception of strangers. The manuscript demonstrates the long origins of xenophobia in terms not only of geography but also of race and religion. The further the places on the list get from northern France, the wackier the stories get.

Although many of the stories, especially those relating to Europe, would have been easily disproved, the aim was to convey the idea that trade and travel would necessarily involve interesting, if not frightening, travel. It really underlines the idea that anything not in Europe or its immediate vicinity would be perceived as foreign. This gives us a sense of a medieval worldview that is both broader than expected but also narrower in its overall design. The images reaffirm a perception of the larger world that was already there, confirming the reader/viewer’s comfort with familiar surroundings but also titillating the mind’s eye. This manuscript gives us a glimpse of the perspective of 15th century Europeans vis-à-vis the rest of the world, when Europe was on the edge of global knowledge on an unprecedented scale.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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