Picturing Medieval Venice

Art historian Helena Szépe’s prestigious ACLS Fellowship supports work on illuminated manuscripts.

 

By Barbara Melendez

USF News

 

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 2, 2011) – They’re more than pretty pictures as Helena Szépe continues to discover. Illustrations found in medieval and Renaissance documents reveal a great deal about society, and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) is helping her investigate further. 

 

“While researching my dissertation on the woodcut illustrations in a Venetian early printed book, I realized that the designers of the printed illustrations in that book continued to paint in manuscripts and even in printed books,” she said. “I became fascinated with the ways in which the new technology of print evolved from, but also coexisted, with manuscript production; and how artists of the book were involved in, and shaped, both technologies of communication.”


That’s how she started on her path, looking through precious volumes that contain elaborate imagery from the time when printed books were new and mainly the province of the wealthy. The associate professor of art history is currently researching a particular type of
early book, those that contain intricate portraits of Venice’s elite. This quest has inspired a book of her own and garnered her designation as an ACLS Fellow. The fellowship covers the period from July 1 through June 30, 2012. 

 

The ACLS fellowship is extremely competitive. Of 1,160 eligible applications from all humanities disciplines in 2010, only 64 – under 6 percent – were awarded fellowships. Szépe’s was awarded to complete and publish her research as a book and the award indicates the importance of her work as well as her standing in the field.

 

School of Art & Art History Director Wally Wilson noted with pride, “This prestigious ACLS Fellowship is to support research that advances the field of study and is in recognition of the proposed project, the scholarly record of the applicant and her career trajectory.  It is truly one of the most outstanding recognitions obtainable by a scholar in the arts, humanities and social sciences.”

 

Titled Privilege and Duty in the Serene Republic. Illuminated Manuscripts of Renaissance Venice, Szépe’s book expands understanding of the art of painting in early modern culture as well as explaining its societal role. 

 

“Venetian patricians came to have their portraits painted in the manuscripts which documented their accession to high offices of state,” Szépe said. "These manuscripts were kept in private family archives, to create a gallery of exemplary ancestors for future generations to emulate.”

 

To write her book, the art historian is constantly seeking examples of illuminated manuscripts from the 15th and 16th centuries, a period when the world center of the printing industry was located in Venice. She typically can barely wait to get her hands on every new find. When that isn’t possible, she doesn’t let it stop her. 

 

“I once examined a manuscript which I was not allowed to touch – an assistant stayed throughout my studies and turned the pages,” she said. 

 

But that was an unusual case.

 

“I have examined hundreds of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in libraries and museums all over Europe and the United States. I have a database of over 2,000 manuscripts forming the basis of my current research project. It is a real privilege to examine actual manuscripts because it is difficult to get a true sense of them through pictures, as they are media meant to be paged through.”

 

These books are not the kind found on everyone’s bookshelves. Their distribution was very limited and the number of remaining copies is even more so. In addition, there are probably as many interesting stories connected to where the volumes are located as there are books.

 

“Some of the libraries are architectural marvels and some of the librarians are great scholars, from whom I am always learning. I am always interested, too, in the different ways manuscripts are kept and preserved.

 

“Most of the manuscripts have been dispersed from the original family archives. But I have met many interesting collectors of manuscripts. As you might imagine, some of the libraries are magnificent. Collectors of manuscripts tend to be intellectuals who can read Latin, and are well versed in history. Most are very happy to give access to study of their manuscripts – to share their enthusiasm, show their treasures, and explain their motivations for collecting. I always feel especially honored by being allowed to meet with collectors and view their books.”

 

Szépe’s research overall delves into the role of manuscripts and printed books in the visual culture of Venice from the 14th through 16th centuries. She has published on the romance story Hypnerotomachia Polphili, an early example of printing with detailed illustrations, as well as on illuminated printed books in general. The ACLS Fellowship couldn’t be more timely or welcome.

 

“I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to devote a full year to writing, because it is difficult to complete an extensive project with the interruptions of teaching and administration, as much as I also enjoy such work, and as much as my research benefits from working with students and colleagues.”

 

Teaching Medieval and Renaissance art courses and seminars has put her in a role where she can have the kind of impact on students her teachers once had on her.    

 

“One of the most influential books I read in college was Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Renaissance Italy, which emphasizes how different Renaissance culture was from our own, but suggests ways in which we might attempt to see and appreciate paintings as people did in that time. I feel fortunate to have taken a seminar with him,” Szépe said of Baxandall. She has similar praise for the medievalists Linda Seidel and Robert Calkins, and Renaissance scholars Claudia Lazzaro and Esther Dotson, with whom Szépe studied. She also continues to learn from the international and extremely collegial community of scholars of manuscripts and Renaissance culture.

 

Szépe has curated exhibitions of manuscript illumination, and trained students in manuscript and early printed book scholarship and collections, for Special Collections of the USF Library.

 

Grants have been crucial to her research and Szépe has received several including a Getty Post-Doctoral Fellowship, a Gladys Krieble Delmas Grant, an American Philosophical Society Research Grant, Huntington and Houghton (Harvard University) Library Fellowships, and University of South Florida Research grants. While her current research and book-in-progress address the formulation of civic identity in Venetian manuscript illumination, there’s more to her curiosity.

 

“My interest in illuminated manuscripts is a part of my broader interest in the role of books – whether in manuscript or print – in visual culture, especially from the viewpoint of our current digital era. In other words, we automatically think of independent paintings as ‘art,’ but what are the roles of books as art?”

Such a question suits Szépe. She always loved going to museums. Trips to Europe as a child to visit family with her parents exposed her to “the layers of history recorded in art and architecture,” she said. “One can’t help but be overwhelmed by the rich concentration of art in many parts of Europe, and I was intrigued by the possible motivations for expending such resources and care into the creation of beautiful cities and art.”

 

And Venice is one of her favorite places in the world. 

 

“Venice is both a wonderful and difficult place to work,” Szépe said. “It is a beautiful city, with a wealth of resources, and one can walk or take public transit everywhere – the opposite of American car culture. The continual flooding is alarming, however. I do hope Venice can be saved from environmental disaster.”

At least the aspect of Venice Szépe is studying will preserve a precious portion of knowledge for posterity.

“As we continue to shift to primarily electronic communications media, it is increasingly valuable to analyze how earlier technologies, such as manuscripts, were employed to convey and preserve ideas. We can better consider to what extent our thoughts and interactions are both enhanced and constrained by new media.”

 

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.