Stella Panayotova on Illuminated Manuscripts and Incunabula in Cambridge

A contribution by

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Stella Panayotova
Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books
The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge


One of the world’s richest repositories for the study of illuminated manuscripts and incunabula, Cambridge owes its vast holdings to its collegiate nature. While only a few Colleges still preserve volumes that were on their medieval shelves, most benefited from the dispersal of great monastic libraries and the flowering of antiquarianism. Bibliophile and fine art collecting created under the roof of the Fitzwilliam Museum one of the largest treasuries of illuminated manuscripts to be found in any museum in the world.

The Cambridge Illuminations project brings together nearly 4000 illuminated manuscripts and incunabula in this five-part catalogue series. The seven volumes published so far include the illuminated manuscripts from the Frankish kingdoms, the Low Countries and Central Europe (2009), and from Italy and the Iberian Peninsula (2011). We also have the first volumes of the remaining three parts: English manuscripts (2013), French manuscripts (2015), and – the most recent arrival – Italian incunabula (2017).

Cover_FrontRanging from the sixth to the sixteenth century, from Italy to Ireland, the material includes Gospels of early Christian missionaries, imposing glossed Bible sets from monastic and cathedral libraries, university copies of Aristotle and law books, the works of Chaucer and Petrarch, humanistic editions of classical texts, Books of Hours of duchesses and merchants, enormous Choir books and their numerous fragments, Doges’ commissions and the ABC of a Renaissance princess.

Researching this wealth of material is a privilege, a joy and a challenge, which I am fortunate to share with my co-editors, Professor Nigel Morgan and Dr Suzanne Reynolds, with successive researchers, and with the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Research Scientist, Dr Paola Ricciardi. For every celebrated manuscript in Cambridge there are dozens that have never been studied and a few that were completely unknown until we found them hidden in boxes or behind cupboards.

New discoveries are also being made by the Fitzwilliam’s MINIARE project, which employs non-invasive analytical methods to identify the materials and techniques used by scribes and artists. These results, together with the Cambridge Illuminations project’s new findings, will appear in future volumes of the catalogue series. The combined scientific and manuscript research was presented in the catalogue of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s bicentenary exhibition, Colour, and will inform two new publications: the proceedings of the conference Manuscripts in the Making and a handbook on the scientific analyses of illuminated manuscripts.