Cataloguer’s conundrum: Can anyone identify this 14th century Italian motif?

***For a full update on this conundrum, see this post from 12 March 2012.***

The motif (three hills topped by a cross with two olive branches) found at the foot of the first folio of an Italian 14th century copy of of the Pseudo-Augustinian "Sermones ad Fratres in Eremo".

This is the first folio of a beautiful, mid 14th century manuscript of the Pseudo-Augustinian ‘Sermones ad Fratres in Eremo’ (msBR65.A9S2), which has been in the possession of the Library since at least the mid-19th century, and perhaps earlier.

An image of the motif in context to the first folio, with an illuminated 'F' featuring the image of a bishop with a staff and mitre.

We are hoping that someone might recognise the distinctive motif at the foot of the folio, which is also referenced within the fine decoration of some of the initials throughout the manuscript: three hills topped by a cross with two olive branches. We have been told that it is unique to a monastery of Olivetan monks in the Milan area, however, this seems unlikely, as the only known Olivetan monastery near Milan was not dedicated until 1470. To date we have not been able either to substantiate this or to positively identify a likely house. It is undoubtedly Italian, and probably northern. There is also a largely obliterated medieval inscription on the final folio which reads (according to N.R. Ker and A.J. Piper): “Iste liber est Conuentus fratrum /sanctorum Nicholai et […]/ Oliueti […] prope […]”, which could refer to L’abbazia olivetana di San Nicola near Rodengo-Saiano in Lombardia.

Detail of a decorated initial 'A' (f. 11v) featuring the same motif found on the first folio.

The canting arms of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, inlaid in marble on the floor of the courtyard (from http://www.heraldica.org).

St. Bernard Tolomei, founder of the Olivetans, is commonly depicted with this same motif, and we have recently found this image (left), at Heraldica.org, which depicts the arms of Monte Oliveto Maggiore inlaid in marble on the floor of the courtyard of the monastery. This motif is almost an exact match to that found in our manuscript, however, was this motif general to all Olivetan monasteries or specific to Monte Oliveto Maggiore? Also, has this motif been recorded in other manuscripts, in a similar style?

We are particularly interested to locate the provenance this manuscript more definitely, since we have recently acquired a later (late 15th or 16th century) manuscript from a house in Brescia which, although more crude, displays some similarities in decorative style (and which we will describe more fully in a future blog post). A more detailed comparison could be fruitful, especially if we can place where this Pseudo-Augustinian manuscript was produced. Any further information will be greatly appreciated.

NR

***UPDATE 14:30 11/01/2012***

Here are two more images of some of the other pen-decorated initials found in this manuscript, featuring the motif of the Olivetans. We are hoping that this type of decoration is specific to one scriptorium or decorator and that we can locate where this manuscript was produced. If you’ve seen anything like this in any other manuscripts, please let us know!

Leaf 4r.

Leaves 9v and 10v.

15 responses to “Cataloguer’s conundrum: Can anyone identify this 14th century Italian motif?

  1. Daryl,
    It is certainly the Monte Oliveto Maggiore, the Heimatkloster of the Olivetians. Like other religious orders in the late middle ages, the Olivetians seem to have been much interested in their foundations, and keen to advertise them (cf. the Carthusians and the Grande Chartreuse).
    JL

  2. It is presumably a shorthand representation of the Mount of Olives itself: the cross represents the Eleona church built by Helena. Eusebius says, ‘ And further, the mother of the emperor raised a stately structure on the Mount of Olives also, in memory of his ascent to heaven who is the Saviour of mankind, erecting a sacred church and temple on the very summit of the mount. And indeed authentic history informs us that in this very cave the Saviour imparted his secret revelations to his disciples.’

  3. It might also be worth noting that the triple mountain (without the olives or cross) is the badge of the Monte dei Paschi bank of Siena, founded 1472

  4. My opinion is the ms. could come from the cloister of Ss. Niccolò and Cataldo near Lecce (now History Department of the University of Lecce).

    Since the inscription on the final folio which reads “Iste liber est Conuentus fratrum /sanctorum Nicholai et […]/ Oliueti […] prope […]”, it cannot be referred to a cloister dedicated to s. Nicola (or Niccolò) alone. Still more unlikely the abbey of S. Nicola – it is an abbey – not a cloister, and, dedicated to s. Mary (maybe the idea of a cloister near Milan was referred to the Rodengo Saiano). The “prope” might indicate it was indeed near Lecce.

    It is true that the cloister passed to the Olivetans in the 15th century, but it is also true that the coat of arms of the Olivetans comes from the Benedictine order – and they are, in fact, a congregation of the Benedictine order. See http://www.araldicavaticana.com/zordini__monastici.htm, in particular
    http://www.araldicavaticana.com/zmonastici02.htm – Congr. Benedettina Olivetana (second row on the right) and compare with the other Benedictine coat of arms.

    Hope it helps.

    Flavia

  5. Thanks for the beautiful images. The person to contact for questions of style and provenance of fourteenth century Italian manuscripts is Prof. Robert Gibbs of the University of Glasgow, Robert.Gibbs@glasgow.ac.uk.

  6. One of the most common watermarks in Italian paper was precisely a cross on three mountains of these proportions. A study of an analysis of the symbols of watermarks could help.

    • I have examples of the watermark variants in several blank paper sheets. First half 15th c to first qtr 16th c if anyone would like to study. The three mounts is also a variant watermark found in Davinci mss.

  7. This just in from Jonathan J.G. Alexander (NYU, Roxburghe Club):
    “The symbol you sent is that of the Olivetan Order who had many houses in Italy. The illumination you send of St Augustine is attributable in my opinion to the “Master of the Vitae Imperatorum” a well-known illuminator working in Milan in the second quarter of the 15c. … I see the ms. was acquired in 1842. The French troops in Italy in the 1790’s looted the libraries in Lombardy and probably that is how the ms. came to you. A recent publication of the Gradual by the so-called Olivetan Master (a related illuminator of similar date) by Milvia Bollati published for Sam Fogg, the dealer in London who owned it, by Paul Holberton publishing, will give you some literature on the Olivetans especially Santa Maria di Baggio, Milan.”

  8. MONTI APPEAR ALSO ON THE COAT OF ARMS OF THE DEL MONTE FAMILY. SEE, FOR EXAMPLE, THE ESCUTCHEON OF JULIUS III IN THE MID SIXTEENTH CENTURY (AN PRESUMABLY ALSO EARLIER MEMBERS OF THE FAMILY).

    NINE MONTI SUPPORT EACH OF THE TWO CROSSES FLANKING THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO THE CHURCH OF SAN SALVATORE AL MONTE IN FLORENCE (A SHORT DISTANCE BELOW SAN MINIATO AL MONTE).

    THIS IS NOT INTENDED TO CONTRADICT ANYTHING THAT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED BY EARLIER RESPONDENTS.

    GRAHAM SMITH

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