Saturday 26 February 2022

More Italian Illuminations from the Stroganoff Collection

In the April 1910 auction catalogue of the Stroganoff Collection (discussed in a recent post here), most of the descriptions are too imprecise or generic to make recognition possible, e.g. lot 614, an unidentified 15th-century Florentine half-length bishop-saint:

"D. Ritaglio di corale; effige di Santo Vescovo a mezzo
busto. Arte F[i]orentina secolo xv."

A few others describe more distinctive features, however, and I have therefore been able to identify a couple, and can thus add some previously unknown, or at least forgotten, provenance to them.

Saturday 19 February 2022

The Wildenstein "Mission to the Apostles"

Many of the historiated initials illuminated by the Master of the Murano Gradual depict saints or subjects whose identity is not in doubt, because they have distinctive attributes; an example is St Stephen, who was stoned to death and is therefore shown with a stone and a bloody wound on his head.

Many others do not include such attributes, and their identity is therefore uncertain. In some cases this may be because the cuttings come from the Common of Saints, and are thus deliberately intended to represent a generic martyr / bishop / confessor, etc., rather than a specific one.

But the subject of one illumination, a detail of which is shown above, is more perplexing than any other. It is one of a dozen illuminations by the Master of the Murano Gradual in the Wildenstein Collection at the Musée Marmottan, Paris. It is puzzling partly because it is so important: at about 540×365mm (c.21×14 inches) it is by far the largest illumination, and perhaps the only miniature (as opposed to a historiated initial) from the entire corpus of cuttings and single leaves attributed to the artist, usually thought to come from a dismembered volume of the multi-volume of Gradual of San Mattia, Murano. [1]

Thursday 17 February 2022

Count Stroganoff and The Missal of the Tailors' Guild of Bologna

Five years ago I had reason to try to track down a copy of the 1910 auction catalogue of Count Grigory Sergeievich Stroganoff (blog post here). Thanks to Francesca Manzari, and especially to Philine Helas of the Bibliotheca Hertziana, which holds one of the few recorded copies, I was able to get images of the relevant pages.

The cuttings I was searching for do not appear to be in the 1910 catalogue, but another interesting illumination was.

Sunday 13 February 2022

A Spanish(?) Initial Dated 1505


The initial above sold at an auction in Barcelona last week. It is appealing, but I do not really know what to make of it. 

Saturday 5 February 2022

A Spanish Choirbook dated 1522

I usually do not pay much attention to 16th-century and later choirbooks, especially when their decoration is mediocre (as they usually are) but one caught my eye this week. It was sold at auction a few minutes ago [1].

Most of the 15 images online did not spark my interest, except the last.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Bill Fagg and Methodology

[This midweek post comes from a long and growing list in my drafts folder]

My first job after leaving university was at Christie's, South Kensington (more-or-less next door to the building in which I was born, as I later discovered), where I worked in the Tribal Art Department [1]. It was the only time that I put my knowledge of Tribal Art to any use, and it introduced me to the fascinating world of art auctions and dealers.

William "Bill" Fagg (1914-1992), the legendary Africanist, was the Department's Consultant and was often in the office, so I had the pleasure of getting to know him before he died.

While searching JSTOR for somethign else, I came across a letter published by him [2], in which he relates that when he first did fieldwork in Africa in 1949, he had no specific training for it. But, he continues,

"I would here like to mention a qualification which I have for fieldwork -- though some would consider it a millstone around my neck. I mean a love of minutiae, nurtured during my studies in classical palaeography at Cambridge under the great Sir Ellis Minns. This is tied up with a pursuit of irrelevancies, real or imagined."

Two things strike me about these comments. One is that -- as I learned after a bit of Googling -- he had trained as a Classicist ("taking prizes for Latin hexameters and Latin epigrams") before doing a second degree in Archaeology and Anthropology. 

The other is the characteristically self-deprecating way in which he refers to his "pursuit of irrelevancies". It seems to me that we cannot really know what are irrelevancies and what are not, unless we pursue them.

The head of the Department, Hermione Waterfield, wrote a posthumous appreciation of Bill, in which she recalled,

"In spite of his slow speech and apparent torpor, Bill Fagg was a stimulating companion with a huge capacity to surprise. He also had a capacity to exasperate with his dilatory attitude [...] He explained to me that much of his apparent procrastination was due to his approach to problems, which was to eliminate the obscure possibilities before pursuing the more obvious."

This sounds to be an effective, but very counter-intuitive, method for arriving at unexpected conclusions missed by previous students of any subject or object -- including manuscripts. Too many people accept an obvious solution to a problem, and as a result do not consider less obvious ones.

Those who knew him will recognise her closing sentences:

"He often hoped to influence collectors to his view, sometimes taking a contrary position to enforce a point he felt was misunderstood: he could be self-indulgent on occasion, giving way to flights of fancy, but in prose that was so well crafted he had to be forgiven. In the end all who knew him had to admit, often through clenched teeth, that he was a great man."


[1] "Tribal Art" may seem to be a perjoritive term now, but it described the cultural context in which most of the Department's art was created; alternate terms, such as "non-Western Art" and "World Art" have their own problems.

[2] African Arts, 19, no. 4 (August, 1986), p. 77.

For further biographical information, there is an obituary here.