Painted Renaissance volumes on view at Yale’s Beinecke Library

A series of antique books with fore edges painted by artist Cesare Vellecio in the 1850s.
The artist Cesare Vellecio painted the fore edges of these volumes in the 1580s at the behest of the Pillion family, whose estate in Belluno, Italy, housed a rich assortment of collections, including a lavish library. Vellecio, a distant cousin of Titian, decorated 172 volumes in all.

A dozen volumes on display at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library are shelved side-by-side with their fore edges, not their spines, facing out. It is not a case of curatorial malpractice — far from it. Those exposed fore edges form a gallery of miniature paintings from the Renaissance era — portraits of the volumes’ celebrated authors or scenes that suggest their subject matter.

The books were part of a lavish library that belonged to the Pillone family, who owned a large estate in Belluno, Italy, north of Venice. In the 1580s, Odorico Pillone, a prominent jurist, commissioned the artist Cesare Vecellio, a distant cousin of the Renaissance master Titian, to decorate a selection of the family’s books. Vecellio painted the fore edges of 172 volumes — all printed books — that included works by leading lights of classical thought, Christian theology, and Renaissance humanism.

The Pillone volumes are featured in “Bibliomania; or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance,” an exhibition on view at the library through April 21. The show traces the obsessions and exploits of book lovers over the centuries through four case studies, including the story of the Pillone library.

Andrew S. Brown, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and book historian, curated the portion on the library, “Habits Ancient and Modern: Surface and Depth in the Pillone Library Volumes.” The exhibit suggests that the transformation of the individual texts into a single, aesthetic object — one of Renaissance Italy’s most significant collections of miniature paintings — prompts people to engage with the books differently. It infuses them with an added layer of meaning, Brown said.    

These books show us a connection between these highly intellectual humanist texts and something that we often think of as frivolous — book adornment or decoration,” he said. “I want the exhibit to show how things like decoration and painting add a deep and interesting layer of meaning to these already prestigious texts.”

The first mention of the Pillone library in the historical record comes from Vecellio himself, who describes it in “The Clothing [or ‘Habits’], Ancient and Modern, of Various Parts of the World,” an encyclopedia of global fashion he published in 1590. 

He goes on a tangent in a passage on Venetian fashion in which he mentions that Casteldardo, the name of the Pillone estate, features collections of military relics, natural philosophical objects, cabinets of curiosities, and a library of amazing books that have been decorated in this extraordinary way,” Brown said.  “What he doesn’t mention is that he is the one who painted the books.”

Vecellio describes the Pillone family’s various collections as a “Noah’s Ark” of wonders that people traveled from all over to see, Brown said.

Shelving books with the fore edges out was common practice in 16th-century Italy. A possible explanation for this is that the spines were left blank and did not feature book titles or other information, Brown said.

The books were shelved together to create a visual display striking enough to compete for attention with the rest of the family’s collections, he explained.

The library remained with the Pillone family until the 1860s when a descendant of the family sold it to a Venetian bookseller, who sold it to Sir Thomas Brooke, an English textile magnate and prominent book collector.

Brooke purchased 169 volumes, so three books have dropped out of history at that point,” Brown said. “He built a special bookcase at his estate to display the library.”

The books remained with Brooke’s estate into the 1950s when his heirs sold the collection to a French bookseller named Pierre Berès, whose 2008 obituary in The New York Times described him as “the king of French booksellers.” From there, the library was dispersed to cultural-heritage institutions and private collectors.

Yale acquired 13 of the library’s volumes in 2017. Twelve have painted fore edges, and the other is part of a small subset of the library that received less-fancy decoration. A travelogue by a diplomat of the Holy Roman Empire stationed in present-day Russia, the book is bound in cheap, soft vellum and is decorated with a black-ink drawing on its cover, rather than painted fore edges. It is displayed on a shelf above the painted volumes.  

Brown suggested that this volume was denied a more lavish treatment because it was a contemporary account that lacked the intellectual gravitas of a celebrated classical thinker.

The painted volumes are important classical texts,” he said. “This one is the sort of book that you might pick up for fun as opposed to getting your vegetables by reading Cicero or Seneca.”

The Roman politician Cicero raises a finger as if making a point in this portrait decorating the fore edge of a collection of his rhetorical works.

The Roman politician Cicero raises
a finger as if making a point in this
portrait decorating the fore
edge of a collection of his rhetorical
works.

The 12 painted volumes, displayed together, offer a sense of the visual spectacle that awaited visitors to the Pillone estate.

A partial copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa theologica” and a collection of 4,000 Greek and Roman proverbs compiled by Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus bookend the row. The fore edges of both feature portraits of the respective authors seated at their writing desks bent over a text. The painting of Erasmus echoes a famous portrait of the scholar by Hans Holbein the Younger, depicting the humanist in a black robe and scholar’s cap.  

The fore-edge portraits demonstrate Vecellio’s fascination with clothing, Brown noted.

Vecellio produced books of lacework patterns for women to design their own clothing,” he said. “He is someone who is keenly interested in clothes not only as fashion, but in what they can tell us about the particularities of a time or place. In his encyclopedia, he is as interested in the clothes of Norwegian peasants as he is in the dress of Turkish noblewomen. I think we can see that attention to materiality and textile in all of these portraits.”

A copy of rhetorical works by Cicero is adorned with a portrait of the Roman politician and philosopher dressed in an ermine fur cape and red cloak, his index finger extended as if emphasizing a point.

It is anachronistic,” Brown said of Cicero’s ensemble. “So much is being suggested about Cicero here. That’s not Roman dress, but it resembles the garb of the doge of Venice. It suggests something of the majesty that we associate with Cicero.”

A copy of the works of Seneca the Younger depicts the rhetorician in conversation with the Roman emperor Nero, whom he tutored. 

Vecellio had to adjust his artistic vision according to the space each volume provided. A simple landscape with obelisks and busts adorns a slender volume containing a Latin translation of the first six books of “Bibliotheca historica” by the Greek historian Diodorus Sicilus. (It is one of the most heavily annotated of the collection’s 13 volumes, Brown noted.)

A 1496 compilation of the letters of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, shows the theologian poring over a text in the wilderness. He is in the process of stripping off the red robes and hat of a cardinal, which is anachronistic, as the office of cardinal did not exist in Jerome’s lifetime.

The Pillone library contained several works by Jerome, and Vecellio depicted the saint in various postures and stages of undress, Brown said.

You can imagine that, taken together, Vecellio’s paintings would force viewers to look beyond the surface of a single book — beyond editions published in different countries and centuries — to think deeply about the arc of Jerome’s life and work,” Brown said. 

Video: Andrew S. Brown on fore edge paintings in ‘Bibliomania’ at the Beinecke Library

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548