Southern California is a part of the country so richly populated with medieval and Renaissance manuscripts that I’m going to spend several weeks writing about this region, beginning this week in L.A. proper.
Let’s start at UCLA, an idyllic campus tucked away near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and the 405. The medieval and Renaissance manuscript collection is housed at the Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections and has recently been significantly enhanced by a major gift of manuscripts and paleographical specimens collected by book historians Richard and Mary Rouse. Many of the manuscripts have MARC records in the UCLA OPAC, although the online Finding Aid provides more comprehensive access to manuscripts acquired before 1991 (and is essentially an electronic version of the print catalogue compiled by Mirella Ferrari and edited by Richard Rouse). The manuscripts have not yet been digitized, but a selection of images from the Rouse collection is available in the archived site of a 2003 exhibition.
I should add, wearing my Acting-Executive-Director-of-the-Medieval-Academy-of-America hat, that the Academy’s annual meeting will take place at UCLA in April (information and registration here). In addition to dozens of excellent lectures, attendees will be treated to an exhibit of UCLA manuscripts curated by Richard Rouse and a sunset reception at our next stop, the Getty Center.
From UCLA, head north on Sepulveda into the Santa Monica Mountains. Halfway through the pass you will find the ground-level entrance to the spectacular Getty Center, an extraordinary facility perched on the mountaintop and reachable by tram or a pleasant uphill hike from the parking garage. I recommend staying long enough to watch the sun set over the Pacific.
When first founded, the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum did not include medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. In 1983, however, the Museum was offered one of the finest private collections in the world, selections from the massive and extraordinary collection of German chocolatier Peter Ludwig and his wife Irene. In one fell swoop, the Getty acquired a world-class collection. Since that time, the Getty has made selective and often jaw-dropping acquisitions such as the Stammheim Missal in 1997 and 2012’s purchase of a Flemish masterpiece illuminated by Lieven van Lathem.
As a repository of some of the greatest works of art produced during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Getty has established itself as a major center for manuscript studies, with important exhibits and symposia supplemented by a strong digital presence.
The guidebook “Masterpieces of the J. Paul Getty Museum: Illuminated Manuscripts” will give you a sense of the scope of the collection, and selected images from most of the Getty manuscripts are available online. The Getty Center has also become an international leader in public programming, with online video guides and exhibitions; some particularly notable examples here, here and here, although if you spend some time exploring the website you’ll find many more.
Even when surrounded by all of this splendor, though, my attention is always drawn to the fragments, the little wanderers that have been cut up and folded and pasted and recycled and finally rescued and repaired.
The Getty happens to own one of my favorites, this leaf from one of the great ninth-century Carolingian Bibles from Tours (remember when we visited Alcuin and Charlemagne, back in Indiana?). In the fifteenth century, the leaf was sliced into thin strips that were used as binding scrap. At a later date, the strips were carefully removed from the binding and put back together (a process somewhat akin to trying to recover a document you accidentally ran through a shredder). This little one is a true survivor.
After leaving the Getty, continue north on Sepulveda into the San Fernando Valley, then head east on the 101 (it is a particular quirk of southern California to prefix interstate numbers with a definite article!). Before we leave LA, we’ll make one last stop, at the Henry Huntington Library in Pasadena.
The Huntington is beautifully situated on 120 acres of woods and botanical gardens, and the library, founded in 1919 by industrialist Henry H. Huntington from his personal collection, represents one of the finest collections of American and British literature in the world. The manuscript collection is anchored by the Ellesmere Chaucer, an extremely important early fifteenth-century copy of The Canterbury Tales.
The Ellesmere is on permanent exhibit along with many other fine books and manuscripts. Explore the Library, meander around the gardens, then get back on the 101 and meet me next week in Riverside, where my friend and co-author Melissa Conway is waiting to introduce us to the collection in her care.