Consilioque manuque (Scholarship and Dexterity)

View from the Fortrezza at Castiglione del Lago

It’s June 1 and, unfortunately, my 2012 Summer Vacation is already a thing of the past.   This year’s two week hiatus from most work was a “Busman’s Holiday” of sorts.  My only son has declared his intent to become an art historian and so instead of dragging a reluctant teenager to museums and historic sites, my husband and I found ourselves resting on stone benches or leaning against an available pilaster or parapet while Nick slowly viewed collections and peppered me with questions I was singularly unprepared to answer having not taught Art History 101 in more than 20 years.

25 churches, two palaces, one fortress, Hadrian’s Villa Complex, five museums (including the Uffizi & the National Museums of Umbria),  and four special exhibitions later I am happy to sit quietly at my desk and try to process what I’ve seen over the past few weeks.  Exploring cultural heritage sites in Italy, especially those slightly off the beaten track, is always an adventure.

Church of San Francesco, Volterra

Detail of Fresco by Cenni di Francesco, Church of San Francesco, Volterra



Inside the plain exterior of the  simple 13th century Franciscan church in Volterra we happened upon a tiny side chapel.  In the matter of a moment we had stepped from the cold austere nave into a brightly colored jewel–not much bigger than the living room of a small house–the Oratorio della Croce del Giorno–the small chapel of the Cross of the Day.

The walls are covered with early 15th century frescoes illustrating episodes from Jacopo de Varagine’s  The Invention of the True Cross painted by Florentine artist, Cenni di Francesco summoned to Volterra to do the job.  People, and animals, and stage-set architecture fill the space and the visitor whirls like a Dervish trying to take it all in.  The visitor is visually transported back to the world of the late middle ages. The pale pinks, deep reds and greens, and the sky blues–faded now–intensify the sense of light and activity.

Despite the fact that by 1410, when these frescoes were commissioned, they would have seemed both old-fashioned and conservative in style to Renaissance urban hipsters visiting from Florence,  to the 21st century viewer, coming into the cool chapel, escaping the heat of a warm May afternoon, they are an unexpected treat.

Consilioque manuque (Scholarship and Dexterity): Surgery in the Manuscripts of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana”

Consilioque manuque. Surgery in the Manuscripts of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana”

Another unexpected treat was the special exhibition we unexpectedly ran across when visiting Michelango’s Laurentian Library attached to the Church of San Lorenzo.  The last time I saw Michelangelo’s great preposterously wonderful entrance to the library I was a college student traveling with a few friends who were more interested in markets than monuments.  The Laurentian Library, commissioned by Medici Pope Clement the VII in 1523 ,  now has devoted gallery space where they mount small thematic exhibitions focused on manuscripts from the collection, supplemented with a few objects borrowed from other collections.

Exhibition Space: “Consilioque manuque. Surgery in the Manuscripts of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

Aside from the notable objects in this exhibition including a “4th-century papyrus with a fragment of Soranus’ De morbis muliebribus, the manuscript with the collection of Nicetas’ surgical texts, compiled in Constantinople and purchased for the library by Lorenzo the Magnificent, Avicenna’s Canon medicinae, richly illuminated in Ferrara in the mid-15th century, and the French manuscript of the Chirurgia magna by Lanfranc of Milan,” what was most impressive was the thoughtful and successful use of technology in the small space.

At the right is a photograph I took with a very old digital camera in a room darkened to preserve the  manuscripts. What you can’t see in the photograph is the audio element; excerpts from Orff’s Carmina Burana are used as the soundtrack for visitors to view these often-grim exhibits.   What you can just make out at the far left of the photograph is one of the translucent displays onto which illustrations from the mostly-textual manuscripts are projected.  The didactic panel in front of the woman with the braid at the right is actually a screen with two columns of scrolling text (Italian on the left, English on the right) which provides brief  contextual information (I counted 250 words or less on most of these panels).  The large font size made the text (bold red on a white background) easy to read and I found the scrolling actually helped me to focus.

This probably isn’t an exhibition I would otherwise have gone out of the way to see but I’m so glad we stumbled across it.  The entire time we were there the  two small rooms of the exhibition were packed with people looking, reading, and clearly absorbed in what they were seeing.  Perhaps they were all doctors and surgeons, or manuscript collectors, or perhaps, like the Witchey family, they were simply visitors to Florence pleased to find an engaging exhibition to while away the hours until it is time to head to Caffe Rivoire for one last apertif before a perfect dinner on the last evening of a very satisfying summer vacation.

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