This is the story of the manuscript that was, until 12:30 PM this afternoon, known as Boston Public Library MS f Med. 203. It is a late fourteenth-century collection of statutes governing a Venetian confraternity, a type of manuscript known as a “mariegola.” Today, it was formally returned to the Republic of Italy by the United States Government.
At the outset, I want to thank Lyle Humphrey (North Carolina Museum of Art) for sharing her own work on the mariegola with me and for a very congenial and productive collaboration on this project over the last several years. (n.b. portions of this post appeared in print in the December 2012 Newsletter of the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies)
First, some background. In Renaissance Venice, confraternities and workmen’s guilds played a fundamental role in religious, social and civic life. These groups promoted religious life but were independent of the church and offered an alternative form of service for church members who did not want to commit themselves to the strict behaviors of monastic or convent life. Perhaps the most celebrated incarnation of the Venetian confraternity was the scuola dei battuti (literally the gathering “of the beaten”), whose organizing principle was to atone for the sins of humanity by engaging in periodic, public self-flagellation. These lay societies celebrated religious feasts, funerals, and other special days by putting on white hooded processional robes and marching through the streets of Venice scourging themselves.
The Scuola della Valverde, also known as the Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia, was one such organization. Founded in 1308 on Valverde, an island on the north shore of Venice, the original fourteenth-century church and meetinghouse were replaced in the fifteenth century and updated again in the seventeenth, such that only remnants of the original buildings survive today. Some of the medieval artwork from the compound survives as well, such as the fifteenth-century tympanum that stood above the door to the confraternity house and is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (above).
In this sculptured relief, the Blessed Virgin Mary stands, the infant Jesus on her chest, metaphorically sheltering a group of confraternity brethren beneath her outstretched cloak. The Virgin is their protectress and intercessor. Behind her is the Tree of Jesse, a symbolic representation of the family tree tracing Jesus’ descent from King David (Jesse’s son) in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that the messiah would come from the line of Jesse.
Although artwork such as the tympanum reminded the brothers of the spiritual foundations of the confraternity, like any organization, the Scuola needed earthly rules and regulations in order to run smoothly. The book laying out the rules of a confraternity such as this was called a mariegola, a word whose origin is not entirely understood but that may be a conflation of “Mary” and “regola” (rules). Mariegole texts and decoration have much to tell us about the spiritual, moral, aesthetic, and professional concerns of confraternity members, who represented a large, diverse segment of the Venetian populace. Handwritten in the local vernacular – that is, the 14th-century Venetian dialect of Italian – and lavishly illuminated, mariegola manuscripts were treasured by their patrons.
As part of my work cataloguing the more than 250 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts belonging to the Boston Public Library back in 2010-2012, I encountered a beautifully illuminated fourteenth-century manuscript that had been tentatively identified as a mariegola used by the Scuola della misericordia on Valverde, although there was no physical evidence to confirm this identification. At the time, it was known as manuscript f Med. 203. The manuscript comprises three sections that may or may not have been originally bound together: the original late fourteenth-century mariegola; additions up to the year 1505; and a blank register intended as a place for the brethren to sign their names.
The first section is of greatest interest. Most of the twenty-six illuminated initials in this section contain busts of saints, priests, or confraternity members, who are sometimes shown gazing toward and pointing to the statute they illustrate. Some contain images that refer directly to the rules that they introduce, such as the one on folio 8v (at right) of a Saint holding a votive candle that illustrates the chapter governing the use of candles in confraternity ritual.
The initial on folio 6, a hooded man holding a small sack, illustrates the chapter governing the storage of the confraternity’s gold and other treasure. On folio 20v, a brother delivers a small sack to an invalid, demonstrating the requirement that brothers should bring aid to the sick. The most fascinating initials, however, are those on folios 7v and 32v (at left) that illustrate not the chapter they accompany but the general commandment of self-mortification. Each brother wears the traditional white robe of the battuti with an opening in the back exposing flesh that is already bloodied from the scourge.
Most mariegole are not illustrated so thoroughly. But they do all have one thing in common: every known mariegola began with an elaborate, full-page painting related to the philosophy and work of the confraternity. There is no elaborately gilt full-page frontispiece in the BPL mariegola. The dark shadows on the verso of the blank flyleaf (below left) are mirror-image offsets of gold leaf, proving that there once was a frontispiece that has since gone missing. Frontispieces such as this are often removed from mariegole manuscripts to be sold as works of art in their own right, and there are many such frontispieces to be found in galleries, museums, and private collections around the world. In 1905, a mariegola frontispiece said to be from the Valverde scuola was reproduced by Pompeo Molmenti in his book, La storia di Venezia nella vita privata; there can be no doubt that it is the missing frontispiece:
Not only are the offsets on the Boston Public Library flyleaf a perfect match for the gold in the miniature, but the icongraphy of the Virgin Mary in the initial is identical to the imagery in the Scuola’s later tympanum (above). In addition, the missing frontispiece names the Scuola and gives the date of the manuscript in Roman numerals in a cartouche at the top: MCCCLXXXXII. This discovery confirmed that the BPL manuscript was without doubt a mariegola from the Valverde scuola written in 1392.
When dealing with medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, one rule to keep in mind is that scribes almost always arranged their sheets of parchment such that the often dark, yellowish “hair side” of the parchment faced the corresponding side of the next sheet, as opposed to facing the lighter, smoother “flesh side.” This aesthetic consideration, designed to create a consistently-colored and –textured opening across facing pages, is a very useful feature for studying manuscripts, because when one opens a book and sees hair side facing flesh side, it can be assumed that something is amiss, and that a leaf has been added or is missing.
As it was configured when I first encountered it, the BPL mariegola was full of hair-side-facing-flesh-side openings. In addition, many leaves had gilt offsets that did not match their facing pages. Looking closely, however, it was possible to identify pairs of illuminated leaves and their matching offsets that were separated by as many as twenty-five leaves. Even so, there remained several leaves without a matching facing leaf. Not only was the manuscript misbound, but it was also incomplete.
Combining the process of matching offsets with other codicological evidence, I was able to reconstruct much of the original order of the leaves. But with limited Italian language skills, and certainly no training in fourteenth-century Venetian, I was unable to re-sequence leaves that had no gilt initials and had reached a dead end. As it turns out, as I was working on the codicological puzzle that is the BPL mariegola, a scholar named Lyle Humphrey was solving its textual mysteries as part of her doctoral dissertation. In a marathon brainstorming phone conversation one night, we managed, by combining my codicological data with her textual clues, to completely reconstruct the mariegola’s original codicological structure. By the time we were done, we calculated that, in addition to the missing frontispiece, there were eleven leaves still unaccounted for. That explains the BPL leaves that had no offset – they were originally facing leaves that were now missing. Four of those missing leaves formerly belonged to the Toledo Museum of Art (with thanks to Scott Gwara for their identification) and have since been repatriated; another was sold at Christie’s Auction House and then by London dealer Sam Fogg in 1994 and remains untraced.
As thrilling as those discoveries were, the four Toledo leaves revealed yet another issue to be resolved. The rubrics in the BPL manuscript include chapter titles only, but no chapter numbers. The Toledo leaves, on the other hand, do include chapter numbers, numbers that have been scraped away from the BPL leaves. Examination of the scraped sections under ultraviolet light revealed that the perpetrator of this abuse not only took a blade to the ink, he actually used some kind of cleanser to completely remove every trace of the original chapter numbers, making the erasures impossible to read.
All was not lost, however. Additional ultraviolet exposure led to the discovery of seventeenth-century foliation in the extreme upper right corner of each leaf, now written over by modern pencil but partially legible. The numbers were legible enough, in fact, to allow us to confirm that our proposed reconstruction was correct:
Original quire structure, giving current (i.e. misbound) folio numbers and incorporating the missing leaves, those formerly belonging to the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), and one sold by Sam Fogg (now untraced)
After all this, we knew quite a lot about this manuscript. We knew it was written in 1392 at the Venetian Scuola de Santa Maria della Misericordia di Valverde; we knew it originally had an elaborate illuminated frontispiece; we knew the original order of the pages and had identified some of the missing leaves. Others of the missing leaves were reproduced in part in a publication of 1886, so at least we had some record of them. But we still hadn’t answered one of the most important and interesting questions one can ask about a pre-modern European manuscript in an American collection: how did it get there? How did this manuscript get from 14th-century Venice to 21st-Century Boston?
Let’s start at the beginning. We know that the manuscript was written in Venice for the use of the confraternity, in 1392. We also know that it was used continuously by the brothers until at least 1505, because section 2 includes entries up to that date. Soon after the final entry was made in 1505, the manuscript probably fell out of use to be replaced by one of the later surviving mariegolas. The brothers kept it as a treasured relic until Napoleon ordered the dissolution of all such religious organizations in 1803, at which point the confraternity’s books and manuscripts were transferred to the Archivio di Stato in Venice.
Two English-speaking scholars published descriptions of the manuscript in the nineteenth century, having studied it at the Archive: Edward Cheney wrote about the manuscript in 1867, and described the binding as “the original dark calf, ornamented with brass clasps and knobs.” Travel-writer John Ruskin, in a letter of 1877, described the initials as “of no great artistic merit; but fairly good, and of unusual interest in giving for the initial letter of every rule, a picture of the due performance of it.”
In 1879, the manuscript went on permanent display in the Archive’s Queen Margerita Hall. It was described in the catalogue of 1880 as a “Mariegola of the Scuola di S. Maria di Valverde della Misericordia; parchment codex from the fourteenth century.” The catalogue goes on to describe the missing frontispiece: “The first page is illustrated with prophets and other saints surrounding the image of Christ bound to a column with brothers bowing before him. A large initial shows the Virgin with the infant upon her chest, sheltering a group of brothers beneath her mantel. The 42 chapters are illustrated with figures of saints, people and animals; original binding of brown calf with brass.”
We’ve just learned several rather important facts. In 1880, the manuscript still had its frontispiece. In 1867 and again in 1880, the binding of the manuscript was described as the original binding of brown calfskin over wooden boards with brass cornerpieces, probably dating from the early sixteenth century, shortly after the final additions were made to the manuscript. Unfortunately, that isn’t what the binding looked like when I studied the manuscript back in 2012. Instead, it was bound in heavily-worn modern blue silk over pasteboard. These nineteenth-century descriptions tell us that the manuscript was in its original binding, with its frontispiece intact, until at least 1880.
The mariegola, in its original binding and sequence, continued to live in its exhibit case until World War II. In the late 1940s, the Archive’s exhibit was taken down for safekeeping, at which point several manuscripts – including the mariegola – disappeared. In the 1950s, a list of missing items was compiled and sent to the local police. The thieves were captured and incarcerated. But by then, the trail had grown cold and the manuscripts were presumed lost.
We simply don’t know for sure what happened next. What is clear is that when the manuscript resurfaced in the 1950s in the United States, the frontispiece was gone (having disappeared before 1905, when it was published as a detached single leaf); at least eleven leaves were missing; and the manuscript had been removed from its original binding, the leaves mis-ordered with the chapter numbers erased to hide the fact, and the remnant rebound in blue silk-covered boards. I can only speculate that this work was done by an unscrupulous bookdealer trying to hide the manuscript’s origins or at the very least to disguise the fact that the frontispiece and many other leaves were missing. In this woe-begotten state, the manuscript may have next come into the hands of a collector named Mieczyslaw Zagajski, whose bookplate is affixed inside the front cover.
Mieczyslaw Zagajski was a Warsaw industrialist and well-known collector of art and Judaica in Poland. Born in 1895, he began amassing his collection in the 1920s while still a student. Eventually he housed his massive collection of silver, textiles, books, manuscripts and paintings, in six rooms of his Warsaw house. After relocating to England in 1939 to join the Polish government in exile, he emigrated to New York in 1940 as a consul for the exiled Polish government. Zagajski’s collection in Warsaw was looted by the Nazis in his absence, so, like so many refugees, he started over in America. He Americanized his name to “Michael Zagayski” and began to rebuild his collection. It is during this period, in post-war New York, that Zagayski may have acquired the remnants of the Mariegola. Why would Zagayski, a reknowned collector of the finest Judaica, have been interested in a manuscript that had nothing Judaic about it? It could be that the colorful, gilt initials appealed to Zagayski’s aesthetic sensibilities, but without knowing the marketing tactics employed by our anonymous and unscrupulous bookdealer in offering the book to Zagayski, we can’t know for sure. We also don’t know exactly when and how the book left his ownership. Zagayski auctioned a large part of his rebuilt collection at Sotheby’s in 1964, but this manuscript was not among the offerings. It’s even possible that he never owned the manuscript at all, and that the bookplate was added by a bookdealer to provide a legitimate provenance. The only thing we DO know for certain is that the book passed through the hands of New York bookdealer Philip Duschnes (whom we have met before because of his business associations with Otto Ege) in 1955, when it was purchased in good faith by the Boston Public Library.
By the time it was acquired by the Boston Public Library, no one knew it had been stolen from the Archivio di Stato, only that it might have originated at the Scuola on Valverde. And so it remained safely ensconced at the Library for more than fifty years, under the shelf mark MS f Med. 203.
Fast forward to 2012. After conducting my research and consulting with Lyle Humphrey, I knew we could prove that this was indeed one of the manuscripts that had gone missing from the Venetian Archivio di Stato in the late 1940s. I reported my findings to the Keeper of Manuscripts at the Boston Public Library, who immediately reached out to the Italian government with an offer to repatriate the manuscript. But repatriation, even when voluntary, is a complicated business, involving lawyers and treaties and multiple government agencies on both sides. After a lengthy and mandatory investigation by the United States Department of Homeland Security, an investigation to which I contributed as a consultant, the manuscript – along with several other items (including BPL MS pb Med. 147, a detached frontispiece from a different mariegola) – was returned to the Italian government in a repatriation ceremony that took place at the Boston Public Library on April 19, 2017.
The repatriation was a formal, choreographed affair (photos below), with speeches by a representative of the Italian government, the acting District Attorney, the regional head of Homeland Security (which oversees such investigations), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and the Boston Public Library’s Head of Special Collections, Beth Prindle. Official Certificates of Transfer were signed by officials of both countries, hands were shaken, and photos were taken. It is a bittersweet moment for those who have cared for this manuscript during the decades it spent in Boston, and also bittersweet for me, since I spent several years studying and handling and cataloguing this beautiful and fascinating book. It’s always hard to say goodbye to an old friend, but I’m proud to have a played a small part in sending this manuscript home.
The Repatriation ceremony (hover over or click each image for captions)
Cecchetti, B. La vita dei veneziani nel 1300 (Venice, 1885–1886. Reprint, Bologna: Arnaldo Forni, 1980), pp. 132–133, and tav. III figs. 5, 7; tav. IV figs. 10–13, 16–19, 21–24.
Cheney, E. “Remarks on the Illuminated Official Manuscripts of the Venetian Republic” in Philobiblon Society Miscellanies XI (1867–68), pp. 14-17.
Humphrey, Lyle. “The Illumination of Confraternity and Guild Statutes in Venice, ca. 1260-1500: Mariegola Production, Iconography, and Use,” Ph.D. dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, 2007, pp. 268-274 (“The 1392 Mariegola of the Scuola della Valverde”); Appendix A, pp. 290-298 (“Reconstruction of the 1392 Mariegola of the Scuola della Valverde); Appendix B, pp. 443-454, cat. 24.1-3; and plates 24.1, 24.2, 24.3a-q, 201, and 202.
Humphrey, Lyle. “The Lost 1392 Mariegola della Scuola di Santa Maria della Misericordia o della Valverde, Rediscovered,” in F. Toniolo and G. Toscano, eds., Miniatura. Lo sguardo e la parola (Studi in onore di Giordana Mariani Canova) (Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana, 2012), 163-169.
Humphrey, Lyle. La miniatura per le scuole e le arti veneziane: Mariegole dal 1260 al 1500, Collana di studi e ricerche sulla Cultura Popolare Veneta realizzata su iniziativa della Regione del Veneto (Costabissara, 2015), cat. 23.1-3.
Molmenti, Pompeo G., La storia di Venezia nella vita privata: Dalle origini alla caduta della Repubblica. 4th ed. 3 vols. Bergamo: Ed. Istituto Italiano di Arti Grafiche, 1905–1908.
Van Akin, B., Christmas Story: John Ruskin’s Venetian letters of 1876-1877 (Wilmington, 1990), p. 237 ff.