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The Frist Hosts First Major Exhibit in the U.S. Devoted to Medieval Art in Bologna

'Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City' opens on November 5, 2021 and runs through January 30, 2022 at The Frist Art Museum.

The Frist Art Museum presents Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City, the first major museum exhibition in the United States to focus on medieval art made in the prosperous northern Italian city of Bologna. Conceived and organized by Frist Art Museum senior curator Trinita Kennedy, the exhibition of illuminated manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures will be on view in the Frist’s Upper-Level Galleries from November 5, 2021, through January 30, 2022.

The nearly 70 objects in the exhibition span from 1230 to 1400, from the first great flowering of manuscript illumination in Bologna to the beginnings of the construction and decoration of the ambitious Basilica of San Petronio in the city’s Piazza Maggiore. On view will be many illuminated law textbooks, which are fascinating for their distinctive page layouts and iconography as well as their notable size and heft. The works are drawn primarily from American libraries, museums, and private collections, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Library of Congress, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the New York Public Library, and Princeton University Library. Loans are also being sought from the Museo Civico Medievale in Bologna.

The exhibition explores how medieval Bologna, with its porticoed streets, towers, communal buildings, main piazza, and mendicant churches, became a center for higher learning at the end of the Middle Ages. Home to the oldest university in Europe, Bologna fostered a unique artistic culture with its large population of sophisticated readers. The city became the preeminent center of manuscript production south of the Alps, and it helped bring about a revolution in the medieval book trade. Manuscripts circulated in a thriving market of scribes, illuminators, booksellers, and customers operating mostly outside traditional monastic scriptoria. The university initially specialized in law, and many law books were illuminated in Bologna with brightly colored narratives. Professors enjoyed high social status and were buried in impressive stone tombs carved with classroom scenes.



Thursday, November 11                                               
Curator’s Perspective: Art and Learning in Medieval Bologna Presented by Trinita Kennedy, senior curator
6 p.m.                                                                            
Presented on Zoom                                                       
Free; registration required

Join Trinita Kennedy as she introduces the northern Italian city of Bologna and its significant role in the history of both art and education. Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe. Students have been flocking there as pilgrims of learning since at least the early twelfth century. The academic environment contributed to the unique artistic culture of late medieval Bologna. Professors were buried in impressive stone tombs carved with classrooms scenes. Most importantly, teachers and students created a tremendous demand for books, all of which had to be made by hand before the invention of the printing press. This lecture will explore the large and dynamic book industry that developed in medieval Bologna to serve students, involving parchment makers, scribes, illuminators, and booksellers. It will also look inside medieval textbooks to see how information was organized on the page and the ways in which decorations added by illuminators made the labor of learning more delightful for readers.

Thursday, January 13                                                    
Bologna Redux: A Fresh Look at the Beginnings of Legal Manuscript Illumination presented by Susan L’Engle, professor emerita, Saint Louis University
6 p.m.                                                                            
Frist Art Museum Auditorium                                                                

Textbooks made for law professors and students, lawyers and judges represent a major category of manuscripts made in the northern Italian city of Bologna in the late Middle Ages. Hundreds of examples survive, and in them we find distinctive page layouts, illuminated courtroom scenes and illustrations of societal regulations, and the marginal annotations of readers. Susan L’Engle has spent her academic career studying Bolognese legal manuscripts of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. In this lecture presented in conjunction with the exhibition Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City, Dr. L’Engle takes us on a journey of how she first became interested in these complex and sophisticated books and the avenues of research that she has since pursued as she seeks to understand medieval legal iconography, the ways scribes and artists worked in service to Bologna’s university, and how students in this period engaged with texts and images in the classroom as they learned and memorized the law.

Susan L’Engle, PhD, is a professor emerita of Saint Louis University and former assistant director of the Vatican Film Archive Library. The author of numerous essays on canon and Roman law manuscripts and a specialist in Bolognese illumination, she co-curated the exhibition Illuminating the Law: Medieval Legal Manuscripts in Cambridge Collections (2001) and co-authored its catalogue. She contributed the essay “Learning the Law in Medieval Bologna: The Production and Use of Illuminated Legal Manuscripts” to the catalogue for the Frist Art Museum exhibition Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City.


Exhibition gallery

Against a blue background, a haloed, robed man reaches toward two men kneeling before him. Three women gazing at an angel are situated at the top of the work. Beautifully adorned curves frame the figures.

Nerio (active late 13th–early 14th centuries). Cutting from a choirbook (antiphonary): Easter Scenes: The Three Maries at the Tomb with the Angel of the Resurrection, and The Resurrected Christ Appearing to the Three Maries (in initial A), ca. 1315. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 9 3/8 x 9 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Rogers Fund, 12.56.1

Against a golden background, an angel hovers over bloodied, mortally wounded people as she heats her sword in flames. Saint James wearing a bright red robe and gold crown appears to beseech the angel. A group of mitered figures look huddled in fright.

Master of Saint James at the Battle of Clavijo (active ca. 1315–30). Saint Catherine of Alexandria Freed from the Wheel, from Stories of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1330. Tempera, gold, and mosaic gold on panel, 25 x 32 1/4 in. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, GL.60.17.14

Three men in white robes hold a book. They are situated in a frame surrounded by floral-like shapes in reds, blues and greens and small golden circles also surround the men.

Nicolò di Giacomo di Nascimbene, called Nicolò da Bologna (documented 1349–1403). Cutting from a choirbook (gradual): The Trinity (in initial B), ca. 1394–1402. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 14 x 12 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California, Gift of Elizabeth J. Ferrell, MS 115 (2017.122.1), leaf 1v. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

On a round canvas, against a night-blue sky, a nude man is looking at a haloed figure as animals stare at the nude. The background is a night-blue sky, water is in the foreground and a long-necked bird stands on a hill eating from a tree.

Seneca Master (active early 14th century). Cutting: The Sixth Day of Creation, early 14th century. Tempera and gold on parchment, 2 3/4 in. diameter. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, The Jeanne Miles Blackburn Collection, 2006.9

In the center of a heavily scribed sheet, seven figures flank a depiction akin to a family tree.

Nerio (active late 13th–early 14th centuries). Leaf from Giovanni d’Andrea, Summa de sponsalibus et matrimoniis and Lectura super arboris consanguinitatis et affinitatis: The Tree of Affinity, ca. 1315. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 17 1/4 x 11 1/8 in. (43.8 x 28.3 cm). The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, Purchased in 1927, MS M.715.2v

A beautifully illuminated initial letter “P,” introduces a paged covered with dense text. Two colorful marriage scenes are embellished with gold.

Nicolò di Giacomo di Nascimbene, called Nicolò da Bologna (documented 1349–1403). Leaf from Giovanni d’Andrea, Novella in Decretales: Frontispiece for Book 4, The Marriage; The Kiss of the Bride (in initial P); The Bride Abandoned (in initial D), ca. 1355–60. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 17 1/2 x 10 3/4 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection, 1961.17.5

Musical staffs with square-shaped notes fill the page. The left margin features beautiful ribbons of color, and in a small square, a man with a halo is being stoned.

Lando di Antonio (documented 1314–34). Leaf from a choirbook (antiphonary): The Stoning of Saint Stephen (in initial S), ca. 1325–30. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 22 7/8 x 15 3/4 in. L’Engle Collection, Lakewood, Ohio, MS 8

About the Author

Michael Aldrich

Michael Aldrich is Nashville Parent's Managing Editor and a Middle Tennessee arts writer. He and his wife, Alison, are the proud parents of 4-year-old Ezra and baby Norah.