Thursday, March 8, 2012

Illuminating illuminated manuscripts...

The cool thing about London is that there is a "late night" a museum, if not two or more, every night - which gives me the opportunity to catch an exhibit sometimes.  On Tuesdays, it's the British Library that's open and I met up with a friend of mine to catch the exhibit on illuminated manuscripts.  Full disclosure, it probably wouldn't have been my first choice if left to my own devices, but just goes to show that sometimes it's good to get outside of your box. I had never been to to the British Library before, which is gorgeous and modern inside, and it's right next to St. Pancras station, which is gorgeous also and pretty much looks like it's the set for Harry Potter.

Weirdly, I happen to know a little bit about illuminated manuscripts (i.e. very old books that were hand written and have illustrations, usually with gold but not always, that's the illuminating part) because I took a class in medieval literature during my days of Berkeley's summer school where they have some pretty rare ones themselves.  However, that pales in comparison to what was on display - we thought the exhibit would involve looking at a few books and calling it a night - aftrer all, there aren't that many of them out there.  But one room lead to another and another, and it was clear that there were hundreds.  Then I overheard one of the docents say that this is picked from there collection of 10,000.  WOW.  Given that these books took years to write, by hand, and that many of them are 500, even 700 or more, years old that is pretty amazing.  Especially since, forget about movable type and the printing press, we don't even print most books on paper any more - these books truly are treasures.

The exhibit is extremely well annotated and seeing everything, as many of the manuscript connoisseurs were doing, wearing all sorts of tweeds and bifocals what exlclaiming things like "Sumptous!" and "Sultry!" in a way that only our British neighbors can while scribbling furious notes, could take hours.  Lots of little tidbits can be gleaned: like the illustration of a Renaissance c-section that seemed to involve no knife, no blood and no surgeon; or the fact that there is one illustration from 1493 that is the first topographically correct depiction of London (btw, you can recognize some of the landmarks today - if you illustrated DC from 1493, you would have a big fat swamp); the book made for an engagement of a royal prince, and within several pages the illustrations stop becuase he age 10...and he was already engaged...and that those really big books weren't made for reading to yourself,  they were made for reading out loud for entertainment.  Kind of like really big plasma TVs with a lot of gold leaf.

On display at the British Library until March 13.

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