For many, the temptation to look, unobserved, into other people’s houses is irresistible. Medieval and Renaissance Interiors in Illuminated Manuscripts allows readers to indulge that enthusiasm historically. Designed as an introduction to domestic interiors (mainly of high status) from the 14th to the 16th century, the book’s informative illustrations are selected from illuminated manuscripts, with an emphasis on Flemish and French material. Captions are admirably full in terms of commentary and pressmark, date and folio references—scholarly information all too often omitted or relegated to the back of a volume.
Illustrations from British Library manuscripts predominate, many of them well known, but a number of unfamiliar delights show the wonders of early 16th-century Polish manuscript illumination. A mural painter, in hat and loose-fitting shift, sits on a chest balanced upon a table, hard at work in a secular interior in the Kraków Statutes of the Painters (Biblioteka Jagiellorìska MS 16). An initial from the Pontifical Erazma Ciolka (Princes Czartoryski Foundation, RKPS 1212) shows the Birth of the Virgin in a comfortable ground-floor room with tiled floor and barred windows, furnished with a sturdy wooden bed, cradle, wall cupboard and a table and chest set with fine metalwork vessels.
The persistent lack of specific room functions in the period dictates the structure of the text. The opening chapters focus on the materials and designs associated with elements of the architectural shell—doors and windows, walls, floors and ceilings—followed by chapters on the furniture and fittings necessary to provide warm, light and hygienic living and sleeping spaces. A final section explores conspicuous displays of wealth associated with luxury dining, and rooms used by the most affluent of patrons as studies or “treasuries”.
The relatively scanty survival of wall and panel paintings that depict Gothic and Renaissance domestic interiors justifies illuminated manuscripts as the source for illustrations, but to what extent can they be trusted? Do they always reflect material reality? Since most manuscript painting is small-scale, precise interpretation is often difficult, and artistic licence has surely been at work in some instances. No extant artefact indicates that the elaborate metal fountain depicted in the God of Love’s garden in Engelbert of Nassau’s late 15th-century Roman de la Rose (British Library, Harley MS 4425) is anything other than a construct of the illuminator’s imagination.
Where surviving evidence allows, useful extant comparative examples are cited that are contemporary with those depicted in the manuscripts. These suggest that much can be taken at face value, but no comparative material is illustrated, thereby depriving the reader of useful corroborative assurance. Certain details could also be more rigorously interpreted in relation to extant objects; the transparent covered-cup, in the early 16th-century Grimani Breviary feasting scene (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana cod. lat. I, 99), is more likely to have been made from rock crystal than glass. Occasionally comparative evidence is cited inaccurately—the Sistine Chapel tapestries based on Raphael’s cartoons are not lost; they survive in the Vatican Museum and other weavings. And some recurrent manuscript evidence begs explanation. Why were high-status bed hangings and covers so often depicted in glorious scarlet? Answer: to tell viewers that the owner of the bed could afford the most expensive dye-stuffs.
All that said, this handsome volume sheds much needed light on late Medieval and Renaissance interiors for the general reader, and should promote further scholarly interest in this field.
• Sally Dormer is an independent Medieval art historian. She is the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Early Medieval Year course
Medieval and Renaissance Interiors in Illuminated Manuscripts
British Library Publishing, 160pp, £25 (hb)