Fall-Winter 2016

In a splendid monastery on the edge of the Syrian desert, in the stillness of an oasis, a Byzantine priest is bent over a sheet of parchment. The fragrance of jasmine comes in through the window with the breeze. His clear eyes, his mind, his spirit and his hands are concentrated and coordinated on the creative effort made in transcribing an ancient text. The tempo is that of the calm beat of his heart; he knows that it is also thanks to this coenobitic silence that the ancient culture will be passed on to future generations. The parchment sheets are then gathered together and will last for a very long time as they are not as fragile as those made of papyrus. He has learned from his Arab brothers that writing is not only conveyance of thought, but an art that speaks through symbols, as fascinating as those of the precious miniatures with which he embellishes his manuscript illustrating the tales and legends with figures, showing infinite patience in creating the watercolours, the glazing of the hues, the precision of the details. The exterior of his creation will also be sumptuous; the cover for the parchments will be decorated with precious stones, enamel and gold and lined with velvet. Such a splendid codex is destined to the emperor in Constantinople, the new Rome, so close in spirit and yet so far that it too seems to be a legend.

Along the path that leads to the discovery of humankind, the codex painted in miniature appears as a reference point that passes through history and unites the culture of all people.

In Egypt, as early as the 2nd century A.D., there was news of the use of the Caudex, or Codex, hence the code, a Latin word that means “log”, “trunk”, and, by extension, “wood”. In ancient times a layer of wax was placed on these tablets in order to write on them.

Thousands of years were to pass before books printed on paper were invented, but the codices of ancient people were their distant progenitor and for two good reasons. Because they opposed and eventually eliminated the other writing instrument of the times, the Volumen, or rolled-up papyrus, and because in turn the word ‘libro’ (book in Italian) derives from the Latin word Liber, which means “wood”, in particular the white wood that is the living part of the tree. Wood is therefore the original common denominator for codices and for books.

In the East, Liber is also one of the names used for Dionysus, a reference to his wisdom.

The codex slowly prevailed over the rolls of papyrus thanks to its practicality and became the favourite companion for humankind’s learning and tradition. Not only were the ancient holy texts passed down to the future through codices, but also great literary masterpieces such as those of Homer and Virgil. Their importance did not lie only in their calligraphy, hence “beautiful writing”, but also in that of the miniatures, small watercolour paintings that made them luxury objects and it is thus that there are codices decorated with velvet, precious stones, enamel and gold.

The greatest creativity is found in the Byzantine codices, extremely popular from the founding of Constantinople to its fall in the 15th century. In fact, directly or indirectly, the art of Byzantine codices influenced the culture of European ones, among which the French codices excel. In particular, both in their figures and decorations, the Byzantine miniatures are of a perfection and variety that bear witness to the technical expertise and the imagination of the artists.

At least until the 12th century, codices were illuminated by artist monks, but then collected with loving care also in imperial libraries. In fact, the emperors, starting with Charlemagne, used the codex for their civilising mission, not only for schools or for agriculture, but also law.

In their shared Byzantine origin, the European codices present stylistic differences; the Anglo-Saxon style is the most original, the German rougher, the French more decorative, the Spanish more calligraphic (perhaps due to Arab influence) while the Italian style is more inclined towards the classical.

In Italy, the Benedictine monks in Montecassino created one of the most important centres, under Byzantium’s total domination. Works such as The Miracles of St. Benedict (11th century) bear witness to the artistic importance of the codices written by those monks.

We are, however, aware that spiritual subjects were not the only ones addressed in codices. In a more profane framework, emperors such as Frederick II ordered the creation of a codex concerning falconry, and "De arte venandi cum avibus" inaugurated with splendour the tradition of manuals as real works of art.

The growing secularism led to the appearance of romance novels. The "Roman de la Rose", from the 13th century, was in turn heir to the Greek rhetorical-sophist novels, and it is not just a story anticipating the creations of the "Dolce Stil Novo" and Boccaccio: with its splendid miniatures it is also an incredible and evocative review of charmed life in the Middle Ages and the Art of Gardens, clearly influenced by Persian gardens.

The hand of a human being tracing a beautiful letter as a work of art itself, the winged eye concentrated on the harmony of colours and shapes, the calm stillness of a Benedictine cell, the quiet beating of the clock of time that then still corresponded to that of the human heart, are all we should think of when wondering how this ancient world came to us. Artistic sensitivity, an everlasting thirst for knowledge and aspiring to spirituality were its driving force.

The tradition of illuminated codices, the loving care of the amanuenses, represent the humanity that is still in us today. Is there perhaps a separation between Art, Craftsmanship, Science and Technology? The answer lies in these codices. And every time, nowadays, a man devotes himself to the creation of a work of his genius, and creates it with his hands and his mind, the eternal spirit of the ancient amanuenses lives in him. In these times of technology, competing everyday with itself, it is up to us to acknowledge and protect this humanist genius that is the golden dust that allows our dreams and our lives to take flight.