Manuscript Road Trip: An Italian Calf among Nebraska Cattle

There simply aren’t very many medieval manuscripts in Nebraska. But we’re going to stay on I-80 until we find them all.

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The 1938 de Ricci Census lists only four manuscripts in a single public collection in Nebraska, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Those manuscripts still belong to the university: two books of hours, a theological miscellany from the thirteenth century, and a mid-fifteenth-century copy of Sallust. But de Ricci missed a fairly significant group of manuscripts, the collection of Byron Reed that was bequeathed to the City of Omaha in 1891 and is now on deposit at the Durham Museum in Omaha as the Byron Reed Collection.Blog map

It’s worth remembering that this road trip I’m on is mostly virtual; many of the collections I’m writing about I have only visited via the internet. Part of the point of this exercise is to explore how digital humanities is making its way into the world of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in North America: who is cataloguing and imaging what, with what metadata and into which interfaces. A few of the manuscripts at the University of Nebraska have MARC records (here and here), but there are no online images. As for the Byron Reed collection in Omaha, I have indeed actually been there and know these manuscripts well. I traveled to Omaha about fifteen years ago to catalogue the collection for the Museum, and although I didn’t have a digital camera at the time, I do have detailed notes and will do my best to describe some of the manuscripts without the benefit of images.

It is probably no coincidence that Byron Reed’s story is similar to that of Davenport, Iowa’s C. A. Ficke, about whom I wrote last week: wealthy nineteenth-century businessman leaves his collection to the city in perpetuity. Byron Reed was born in Darien, NY in 1829. He moved to Omaha in 1855, the year the city was founded, and established himself as an important owner and developer of real estate in the city and throughout the state (the Byron Reed Company still thrives as a real estate brokerage in Omaha). As a collector, Reed’s primary interest was numismatics, and his coin and currency collection – focusing on the history of U.S currency – is still regarded as one of the most esteemed in the United States. The collection includes the exceedingly rare 1804 U.S. silver dollar. I know absolutely nothing about numismatics, but if you’re interested, here‘s an interesting piece about the 1804 coin.

The Durham Western Heritage Museum (photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism)

The Durham Museum (photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism)

The Durham Museum (Courtesy of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The Durham Museum (Courtesy of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Reed bequeathed the entire collection of coins, currency and documents to the City of Omaha via the public library in 1891, and it is currently on deposit and display at the Durham Museum (formerly known as the Durham Western Heritage Museum). The Museum is housed in a former art deco train station (a work of art in and of itself), and is a terrific introduction to pioneer life in the American Midwest. The City sold some items from the Reed collection at Christie’s on 8 October 1996 to raise funds for the Museum. Among the items de-accessioned were several medieval manuscripts that didn’t fit the Museum’s collection mandate (Galvagno Flamma’s world chronicle, a Psalter/Breviary, and the Rule of St. Clare, among others). The Flamma chronicle was offered again at Sotheby’s on 1 December 1998 (lot 86), but its current location – along with the other de-accessioned items – is unknown. The Durham Museum retained most of the coins and currency as well as documents with the signatures of the French kings Charles VI, Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francis I, among others. One medieval manuscript was kept with the collection, a large mid-fifteenth-century choirbook from Italy, possibly Milan.

The manuscript is a choirbook that preserves the sung portions of Mass, that is, a gradual. It was part of a larger set of books such as were commonly made for cathedral use in the fifteenth century. This book includes the liturgy from the day after Easter through the 24th Sunday after Pentecost; there would have been at least one other “temporale” volume, preserving the liturgy from Advent through Easter, in addition to several volumes that preserved the liturgy for the feasts of the Saints in calendrical order beginning with St. Andrew on 30 November (today’s date, coinciding roughly with the beginning of Advent). The choir would have needed a similar set for use during the divine office, that is, a set of antiphonals, and probably a multi-volume ferial Psalter, among other books. George A. Leavitt, who sold this manuscript in 1886, offered in that sale an antiphonal of similar dimensions with the same provenance that might have come from the same set of choirbooks. Its current location is unknown.

Choirbook, Byron Reed Collection, Durham Museum (Omaha, NB) (photo courtesy of the Durham Museum)

Choirbook, Byron Reed Collection, Durham Museum (Omaha, NB) (photo courtesy of the Durham Museum)

The binding of the Reed manuscript is quite notable, and is presumably why the codex appealed to Reed in the first place (the following is from my description of the manuscript): “Original binding of brown calf over boards, with copper edge-guards and corner-plates, the edge-guards framing the incised inner panel of brown calf, and bordered with embossed cord- and florette-stamps and tooling. Large copper decorative nail-heads along the board edges, central copper boss and outer corner guards stamped with Agnus Dei image, florettes, ‘IHS’ and two different Saints, signed respectively ‘MP’ and ‘SB’. Early sewing repairs to head and tail of spine. Two bronze latch-points on lower cover are preserved, lacks four clasps.” In other words, this manuscript is still in its original calf binding over thick wooden boards with decorative stamps and metal embellishments. Among my notes, I found details of the binding which I have scanned and mosaicked together rather crudely below:

Gradual binding (Detail), Durham Museum, Byron Reed Collection

Gradual binding (detail), Durham Museum, Byron Reed Collection

The manuscript has a fascinating provenance. Written in Italy in the mid-fifteenth century, it was owned early on by the powerful Trivulzio family of Milan, who by the eighteenth century had assembled an important library of books, manuscripts, and coins. Sold at auction by George A. Leavitt & Co. (Trivulzio sale, 1886, lot 32), with their label inside front cover. Bought by Byron Reed, with his description pasted to inner front cover identifying the manuscript as “A choir book of Gregorian chants at one time in a Cathedral at Milan. During the `Thirty Years War’ 1618 – 1648 it was stolen and brought to America. Mr. Reed purchased it of a dealer in New York a few years ago. Illuminated manuscript of the 15th century.” There is no evidence in the manuscript itself to support the assertion that it was ever housed in the Milan Cathedral or stolen in the seventeenth century, although the fact that the manuscript was owned by the Trivulzio family certainly places it in Milan. Leavitt & Co. may have had access to information about the manuscript that is now lost. If the manuscript had in fact been housed in Milan, the fact that it preserves the Roman liturgy, and not the expected Ambrosian rite, may indicate that it was part of a failed attempt to introduce the Roman rite to Milan in the mid-fifteenth century. It was probably the embossed binding that appealed to Reed, with its near-numismatic qualities. Upon Reed’s death in 1891, the manuscript was bequeathed to the Omaha Public Library along with the rest of his collection. The manuscript was exhibited at the Library until around 1970, when it was placed in storage. It is now on deposit and permanent exhibit at the Durham Museum. If you find yourself in Omaha, the Museum is worth a visit. If you find yourself in the Museum, stop by the Reed Collection and take a look at this spectacular binding, an Italian calf that has wandered far afield.

I have made it my stated goal to “visit” every state and territory to ferret out pre-1600 European manuscripts, even when they are few and far between. And so next week we will brave the Badlands of South Dakota.

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3 Comments

Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

3 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: An Italian Calf among Nebraska Cattle

  1. Melissa Conway

    Lisa, I think that this virtual road trip should be made into an actual road trip–perhaps as a summer trip sponsored by Cultural Heritage Alliance for students from all over the world. America’s Hidden Manuscript Treasures!

  2. This from Bill Stoneman, Houghton Library, Harvard University:

    Many thanks for highlighting all these manuscripts which deserve to be better known to the manuscript community that studies them. By your description of the manuscript still in Omaha and the links to the three that were de-accessioned through Christie’s in 1996 it is clear that Byron Reed acquired all four of these manuscripts at the Trivulzio sale in 1886 in New York or shortly thereafter. In his fascinating article “’The collectors are far more particular than you think:’ Selling Manuscripts to America,” (Manuscripta 51.1 (2007), 131-142, Richard A. Linenthal describes the sale of the Trivulzio manuscripts by the Milanese dealer Ulrico Hoepli through Leavitt as “only a modest success, but [it] can claim to be the first specialized sale of illuminated manuscripts held in America.” (133) Other manuscripts sold in this auction are now in the collections of American institutions, including Columbia, Yale and Harvard Universities, Connecticut College and the Pierpont Morgan Library, many acquired by private collectors and donated shortly thereafter to these institutions. Another Trivulzio manuscript travelled quickly back to Europe where it was acquired by William Morris, the founder of the Kelmscott Press, and is now in the collection of Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

  3. Barbara

    Fascinating blog!
    Just a quick note – NE, not NB, is the abbreviation for Nebraska.

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