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Book of the Month

November 1999

Visions de Pétrarque

c. 1534

S.M.M. 2

The November choice is a sixteenth century manuscript on vellum which consists of twelve vivid watercolours illustrating the twelve stanzas which Clément Marot published in 1533 or 1534 under the title Visions de Pétrarque.
The emblematic visions are of a succession of idylls being destroyed by the forces of nature. Each of the six visions is illustrated by two watercolour pictures. The first of each pair depicts the idyllic scene described in the first half of each vision, and the second shows its annihilation.

In order, the visions depict a hind being caught by two hounds; a galleon being wrecked in a storm; a laurel tree being struck by lightning; a group of nymphs and muses being swallowed up in an earthquake; a phoenix pecking its heart out; and a beautiful woman being bitten by a snake.

The illustrated manuscript is transformed here almost into a picture book, responding magnificently to the inherent pictorialism of Petrarch's Canzone.

The Canzone were dedicated to exploring Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura; after the death of his beloved in 1348, the poems were suffused with a tone of lamentation and regret and reflected increasingly the fragility and transience of the world.

The poems in this volume imitate Petrarch's famous Canzone Standomi un giorni solo a la fenestra in which the poet sees from his window a succession of the world's vanities. Marot translated each of Petrarch's twelve line visions into his own twelve line decasyllabic stanzas. The manuscript divides the stanzas into two equal halves of six lines, and this text is placed on the page facing its pictorial counterpart. Shown here are the lines found opposite the picture of the ship above, before calamity strikes.

Clément Marot (1496?-1544) was court poet to Marguerite de Navarre and François I. One of the great French poets of the Renaissance, his output was large and varied, and ranged from epigrams and long allegorical poems to translations of the Psalms and secular authors such as Ovid, Virgil and Petrarch. He was one of the first French poets to attempt the Petrarchan sonnet form. His work was enormously influential amongst the Elizabethans in England, especially Edmund Spenser.

Orthogaphical and palaeographical evidence suggests that the manuscript dates from no later than 1550, and Michael Bath argues that its illustrations were the source for a set of woodcuts by an unknown artist which illustrate Van der Noot's Het theatre oft toonneel (better known as A theatre for worldlings).
Van der Noot's book first appeared in London in 1568/69 in three editions, in Dutch, English and French. The image displayed here for comparison (folio f2r from SM 794) is from a later German edition of 1572. Although the cuts economise by depicting the two parts of each vision within a single frame, an examination of the common details of the two sets of illustrations undoubtedly demonstrates their close relationship; the fact that the woodcuts in the printed book are mostly reversed suggests that they were probably copied from the manuscript. There is certainly a closer relationship between the paintings and the cuts than can be accounted for by the text alone: examining this vision of the woman, for example, note the parallels in the way her hand clutches a fold in her dress in the first figure, the angle of the head and arms of the second figure, and the position and swirl of cloud behind her head.
The manuscript comes from the collection of Sir William Stirling Maxwell but its provenance before it came into his hands is not known. It is suggested, however, that it was probably commissioned as an elegant gift.

For a detailed examination of the relationship between the manuscript and the woodcuts in Van Der Noot's Het theatre oft toonneel see Michael Bath's essay "Verse form and pictorial space in Van der Noot's Theatre for Worldlings" in ed. Karl Josef Höltgen, Peter M. Daley & Wolfgang Lottes Word and visual imagination: Studies in the interaction of English Literature and ther Visual Arts Erlangen: 1988

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Julie Coleman November 1999