La rinascita dell'iniziale figurata nella miniatura gotica e la sua circolazione tra Europa e Italia settentrionale

Author: Francesca Manzari

The Revival of the Figure Initial in Gothic Illumination and its Dissemination in Europe and Northern Italy

The entry Alfabeto figurato, published by Antonio Cadei in the Enciclopedia dell’Arte Medie­vale in 1991, has been the starting point for this study. In dealing with this subject, traditionally in the focus of art historians working on drawings and model-books, and only recently investigated also in the context of illuminated charters, Cadei connected the issues concerning figure alphabets with those of the figure initial itself, only rarely considered by historians of illumination within the context of book illustration.
Although the main lines of the alternating use and neglect of the figure initial during the Middle Ages had been traced since the 1970s, the specific formula adopted by Gothic illuminators in their re-adaptation of this characteristically Early Medieval and Romanesque type of initial had not been noticed. In Gothic illuminated books figure initials in fact mainly reappear as a conflation of the figure initial with the historiated initial, starting from the earliest known examples, in the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (ca 1325). Their later appearances in France, Germany and Bohemia are here reconsidered, with a particular focus on the early use of these letters in Northern Italy, both in Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, in the 1330s and 1340s. The dominant formula among Italian illuminators was undoubtedly the new combination of figu­re and historiated initial, as can be seen, for example, at the end of the century in the spectacular Visconti Book of Hours, by Giovannino de Grassi. The absence of the simple figure initial from the manuscripts illuminated by this artist can perhaps be taken as a signal that the two different figure alphabets now bound in Giovannino’s drawing book are indeed extraneous to his production and may be recognized as Central European models for presentation, circulating in Milan in the late 14th century and later assembled within the collection of drawings connected to the de Grassi workshop.