MacLaren (2009 Congress)

Shelley MacLaren
(Western Michigan University)
“Veiling the Truth:  Francesco da Barberino’s Book of Hours”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2009)
Session on “Margins of Error:  On the Self-Correcting Medieval Manuscript”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Jeff Massey
2009 Congress

[Published on our first website on 17 May 2012]

Francesco da Barberino (1264–1348), the Tuscan lawyer, poet, and designer of images, had a Book of Hours made for his own use between 1304 and 1309.  Recently discovered and now in a private collection, this lavishly decorated officiolum includes images of the Infancy and the Passion.  More significantly, alongside these devotional images, it also includes Francesco’s own designs.  They comprise personifications of the Hours of the Day/Ages of Man, Death, Renown, Hope and Mercy, and a pictorial allegory depicting a struggle between a scholar and a beast.  Francesco had previously used some of these designs in other contexts, as with his design for a fresco in the bishop’s palace in Treviso.  Others he was to reuse later, for instance in his conduct book, the Documenti d’Amore.

Francesco’s images proclaim their own fictional status.  They do not appear in the physical margins of the manuscript, but must be considered as marginal because of both their contrast with the biblical images and their place in the authoritative hierarchy of the manuscript.  These manifestly fictional images frame the prayers and biblical images of the Book of Hours.  As poetic fictions designed by the owner of the book, the added images serve to make the book Francesco’s own, much as a donor portrait might in another Book of Hours.

The images both represent Francesco’s previous imaginative experience and prompt future meditation, inflecting devotional experience of the manuscript according to his design.  In this Book of Hours, Francesco’s inventions mediate between the reader/viewer and the manuscript’s devotional contents, thereby claiming an important role for poetic and pictorial fictions in communicating the promise of eternal life.