From albumen to digital: reproducing the Grimani Breviary over one-and-a-half centuries

An early portfolio of albumen prints from 1862 and a magnificent digital replica from 2009 illustrate the development of photographic reproduction of a celebrated manuscript, the Grimani Breviary, over nearly 150 years.  

The Grimani Breviary, named after the prominent Venetian cardinal who once owned it, Domenico Grimani (1461-1523), is considered one of the most complex and magnificent examples of Renaissance Flemish manuscript illumination. Produced around the second decade of the 16th century for a still unknown patron, it was purchased by Grimani at the latest by 1520, and was left according to his will eventually to the Republic of Venice. It is now held at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana of Venice (Breviarium secundum consuetudinem Romanae curiae, cod. Lat., I, 99). The manuscript is composed of 836 folios (1,672 pages), including 110 full-page miniatures; in fact, nearly every page is lavishly decorated with an extremely rich variety of themes and ornaments. Access to this extraordinary codex has always been limited to all but specialists due to its fragile state of conservation, and despite its importance the Grimani Breviary is still relatively unknown and little studied.   

One of the earliest works to use photography to widen public and scholarly access to such famous illuminated manuscripts was the Facsimile delle miniature contenute nel Breviario Grimani conservato nella Biblioteca di S. Marco, published in 1862 in Venice. This early edition included a text volume of 300 pages in Italian by Francesco Zanotto, with French translation, and an album of 112 mounted albumen prints, reproducing only the full-page miniatures, made from negatives by photographer Antonio Fortunato Perini (1830-1879). Perini began his professional activity in the 1850s in Venice, where he had a studio near S. Marco, as well as in Verona. His fame was due in part to the views he took of Venice, Padua, and Verona, but above all to the reproductions of the Grimani Breviary. Perini exhibited his photographs of the Breviary at the second London Exhibition in 1862, and again at the Exposition universelle in Paris (1867) and in Vienna (1873), winning official accolades in each of the last two fairs.

The Berenson Library now owns the 1862 photograph album, which it acquired (without the text volume) in 2010 through the bequest of Elizabeth MacGillivray Voli and the generosity of Houghton Library. Recently it underwent conservation treatment and is now available for consultation. (See the HOLLIS record here.

 In the century and a half since this very early facsimile appeared, advances in technology have made it possible to produce extremely accurate replicas of illuminated manuscripts, and the new edition of the Grimani Breviary published by Salerno Editrice in 2009 is a magnificent example. It reproduces the massive codex in its entirety and with meticulous attention to every detail, fully rendering the breathtaking beauty of the original. More than just an object of beauty in its own right, however, the near perfect duplicate broadens access to this extraordinary artifact and for the first time permits close and prolonged analysis by students and scholars benefiting from a reproduction of the highest possible quality.

The Berenson Library acquired he Salerno facsimile in 2012. (See the HOLLIS records for the commentary volume and the facsimile.) While a couple dozen libraries in America and Europe own the 1862 Perini album, and even fewer hold the 2009 Salerno edition, the Biblioteca Berenson is one of a small handful of libraries worldwide that possess both. Side by side they provide a rare illustration of the vast changes in the reproduction of illuminated manuscripts from the remarkable early forays in the 1850s and 60s to the stunningly accurate achievements of the present day.