Chiara Matelli is an Erasmus trainee on a three-month internship in the Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books.
I come from Italy, where last April I took a MA degree in Art History at the University of Pavia, focusing my dissertation on the analysis of an Italian late-medieval illuminated manuscript Pavia, University Library, ms. Aldini 570. It is a Choir Book containing the sung parts of the Mass and it belonged to a former monastery in Pavia. Its decoration, (made in early 14th century Lombardy), shows very rich floral motifs and vivid sacred images.
Working with illuminated manuscripts, particularly within a museum context, is something I am seriously considering as a career. The Fitzwilliam’s collections of illuminated manuscripts are renowned – particularly those bequeathed by Viscount Fitzwilliam himself, which under the terms of his will can never leave the Museum building. So with some trepidation, I wrote to Dr Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books, offering to do whatever task was required of me – anything so long as I could occasionally study the collections. You can imagine my astonishment when I heard in person from the Keeper herself, explaining that she and her team were about to embark on the final stages of mounting an exhibition celebrating the Museum’s Bicentenary and that I was very welcome to assist with all aspects of the preparation. It was an opportunity to unite my ruling passions.
The experience has been truly inspiring and revelatory: I have been involved in preparing templates for the labels of every single object on display. One of my earliest tasks was to learn the location of all the exhibits in the cases and on the walls around the exhibition rooms. I was asked to put the temporary labels near every object and exactly where the curator wanted. I had to make sure (with the supervision of the Keeper of the Department) that every label matched the right object in the right position. I’ve had to learning about lighting and exhibition design. I saw first-hand how book cradles were designed and hand-made for each exhibit. I was also given a chance to make some of the final adjustments, sticking some letters and symbols by myself. It was an experience that taught me that even the smallest details play a fundamental role in shaping an exhibition.
Choosing a favourite from such a treasure trove is an all but impossible task - but it would probably be the so called Peterborough Psalter, a book of psalms and other devotional texts, made in England around 1220-1225 and extremely rich in its illuminated decoration. It shows sacred scenes taken from the Psalms’ text and foliated initials with elaborate ornamental patterns and impossibly gorgeous penwork. I have been lucky enough to see this manuscript and leaf through its pages. What really amazed me was the exceptional brightness of the colours and the gold leaf, as well as their excellent state of preservation. It is very unusual to see a manuscript, made almost 800 years ago, in such remarkable condition: it is almost as though time stood still since the Psalter’s first owner opened the book in the 13thcentury.
I have learnt a huge amount and am tremendously grateful to colleagues in the Department and all around the Museum, who went out of their way to make me feel welcome and valued.