Cortese Antiphonal


This exceptionally beautiful illuminated Venetian choir-book dating from the first half of the fifteenth century is an exquisite example of the skill of the master illuminator, Cristofore Cortese (active between the late 14th century and 1445), a renowned colourist and decorator.
Clustered around a lectern, groups of singers — normally friars or priests — depended on large, precious music books of this type to remind them of the words and melodies of the chant. An antiphonary is a book of responses and other chants to be sung during the various services of the liturgical day, such as Vespers and Compline, especially before and during the psalms. The texts are arranged as responses in a musical dialogue, either between a priest and a choir, or between two groups of singers. Following the convention of the time, the words of the chant are written in black, with the instructions about the liturgical calendar and ritual in red. The music is a classic example of Gregorian chant, in which the singers intone the words in unison, occasionally with a few voices following at a fixed harmonic interval above or below the melody. The rhythm follows the words to make the text as intelligible as possible, though a reverberant church acoustic could give the chant a mystical resonance. For words of special emphasis, a syllable may be elongated and ornamented by a ‘melisma’, or sequence of rising and falling notes, to add drama to the chant. Several examples of elaborate melismas are found in this antiphonary.
The Antiphonary, rediscovered in 1930, belonged to the church of San Salvador in the Merceria, one of Venice’s most historic and important churches, strategically located at the city’s ‘navel’ between San Marco and the Rialto. Between 1980 and 2000 the volume could be seen in the Museo Diocesano, located at the former abbey of S. Apollonia, just behind San Marco, but it has suffered badly from unsuitable environmental conditions and now urgently needs restoration to preserve the beguiling illuminations.
Nineteen elaborately decorated initials, as well as marginal ornament and occasional graceful figures embellish the manuscript. The strikingly imaginative decoration consists of vegetal motifs and flowers entwined with strange figures and beasts, such as the young boy blowing a trumpet astride a beast that appears to have a human face on its backside. The liberal use of valuable pigments such as gold leaf and ultramarine blue enhances the effect of richness. Sadly, however, some of the pigments are now worn, and more seriously, the gold leaf is lifting off the page because of the deterioration of the adhesive ‘bole’. The attached illustrations vividly convey the profusion of bright colours and skilfully executed decoration that make this an exceptionally fine example of an early fifteenth-century antiphonary. 

Conservation of the Antiphonal

The recent transfer of the codex to the new premises of the Archivio Storico Patriarcale in the former Seminario adjoining Santa Maria della Salute finally allowed conservation work to begin. In September 2016, the director of the Archivio Patriarcale, Don Diego Sartorelli, kindly invited two Venice in Peril Fund Trustees to see the results of the restoration, undertaken by specialist conservator Gaia Petrelli. The binding of the book presented huge challenges, because the book can longer be opened fully. The parchment sheets, stitched together and glued into the spine, have been rebound several times, but it was wisely decided to keep the book intact rather than to dismember it into separate sheets.
Enlarged photographic images of the illuminated initials during the restoration reveal the consummate skill of Cortese, as well as the expertise of the restorer. Active in both Bologna and Venice, the artist was not only a superb colourist, but also showed remarkable ability as a draughtsman. The fine hatching of the faces and hair, only visible in enlarged details, shows the subtlety of his modelling of forms. He used gold in a variety of ways, whether in liquid form, as a laminate, or as a powdery glitter on hair and draperies.
The delicacy and refinement of the ornament shows that Cortese knew the work of other illuminators, as far afield as Florence and Burgundy. The naturalistic plants and flowers grow from swirling tendrils, from which strange beasts emerge – such as the centaur with a leering face on its backside visible at the bottom of the first page (see illustration).

Because of the difficulty in opening the page-spreads of the manuscript, the Archivio Patriarcale hopes – if fairly modest funding can be found – to commission a set of digital high-resolution photographs. This would to allow visitors to see the whole volume, including the finest details of Cortese’s draughtsmanship. The digital copy would also make it easier for the curators to identify the missing pages, now dispersed in manuscript collections all over the world. 

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