Is any object more familiar than a book? It comes in all shapes and sizes, but the book as an object is identifiable to us even before we can read one word on its pages. The medieval book is a more rarefied form of this now-quotidian object, but, as “Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City” at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum shows, the book has always served as a marvel of communication.1

Home to the oldest university in Europe—founded in 1088 by a guild of students—Bologna thrived during the medieval period, weathering waves of political intrigue, bouts of the plague, and ambitious citywide building programs. By the eleventh century, thousands of students were coming to this northern Italian city to study medicine, theology, canon law, and Roman law. Initially, students attended lectures in private apartments or churches until formal university buildings were constructed in the mid-sixteenth century. Among Bologna’s earliest professors was Bettisia Gozzadini (1209–1261), the first woman to earn a law degree (1237) and the first woman to teach in a university.

Paolo di Bonaiuto, Tomb of Lorenzo Pini, ca. 1397, Limestone, Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna, Italy.

Scholarship and the accompanying book industry made Bologna a center of learning that drew not only professors and students but also parchment makers, scribes, stationers, leather workers, illuminators, and gold-leaf artisans. To support these workers, hundreds of guilds, notaries, and administrators arose. Where there are books, there are secondhand books, and Bologna was no exception, hosting numerous shops where students could purchase used textbooks at lower prices. Straddling two rivers connected by a canal system, Bologna was amply supplied with the water needed for the month-long process of turning an animal skin into writing material. It was an expensive process, and parchment couldn’t be wasted; one illustration in the exhibition shows a parchment maker’s workshop in which men wash ink from a page for reuse.

The production of the books used by Bologna’s students was remarkably efficient and, in some ways, not unlike ours today. Exemplars—master texts—could be rented out by stationers to scribes who worked in groups to produce eight-page sections (peciae) simultaneously. These peciae were assembled into a complete book; in this way, several textbooks could be produced in the time it would take for one scribe to write out an entire book. This is similar to today’s method of Smyth binding, in which signatures of sixteen pages are assembled into complete books or magazines. Scribes and illuminators were paid by the pecia and worked at home, often putting the whole family to work. The finished product could be a book so heavy that some wealthier students paid servants to carry them.

Nerio, 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, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As is typical in illuminated books, the most interesting bits are often in the periphery of the main illumination, part of a secondary drawing, or around the main text. Accompanying the central figures splendidly illuminated in vivid pigments and gold leaf, there may be quizzical domestic animals, mysterious supernumeraries, fantastical creatures, and improbable architecture. In “Medieval Bologna,” lecture scenes are common, showing students—young and old, rapt with attention or daydreaming—at tilted desks with open books. In one medical textbook (ca. 1280), an ornamental initial T envelops a depiction of the Arab physician Ibn Butlān teaching two students; at the left, a hybrid creature holds a flask for urine collection. The market scene from the frontispiece of the Register of the Cloth Merchants’ Guild (1411), for example, is lively with densely packed stalls selling some of Bologna’s famous textiles—one buyer is being brusquely hustled into buying a coat—while toward the rear of the piazza stands a small chapel surrounded by furniture and what looks like a portable toilet chair. 

Time was of the essence to the book-makers of Bologna, and they developed a number of ways to increase efficiency. One innovation was the widespread use of littera bononiensis, a rounded and highly readable Gothic script popular from the thirteenth century. Artists also developed a limited color palette and formulae for rendering figures and clothing to speed up the depiction of complex scenes. In addition, borrowing page-design conventions from Bibles, scribes created textbooks that incorporated a central block of text punctuated by visual aids such as ornamented capitals or illustrations of the topic under discussion. Surrounding this central text, separated by a wide margin, was the gloss, or expanded explication. Those studying the concepts of consanguinity and affinity in matrimonial law, for example, could consult diagrams called trees to see graphically what was described textually. Colored inks, indicators for paragraphs and chapters, and marginal notations also became common, setting up a paradigm for book design still in use today.

Workshop of the Master of the Bible Vat. lat. 20, Leaf from a breviary: The Visit from the Wise Men to King Herod (in initial D) and Christ’s Baptism and Temptation by a Demon (in bas-de-page), ca. 1275–80, Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, Brandeis University Library, Waltham, Massachusetts.

In addition to the university and its book industry, the presence of the mendicant orders of the Dominicans and the Franciscans led to the construction of magnificent churches filled with carved tombs, frescoes, panel paintings, and sculpture. On view are many cuttings from some of these churches’ choirbooks, large parchment pages with oversize neume notation (an early form of musical notation) and glorious illuminations, huge in scale to allow several monks to sing the chants from one book during the Mass.

Many of the paintings here show how illuminators’ conventions carried over into narrative paintings in tempera and gold on panel. Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee (Master of the Bologna Polyptychs, ca. 1320) depicts Mary Magdalene drying Christ’s feet with her hair, a scene probably inspired by the version told in the Golden Legend. The composition is filled with telling details: Simon’s skepticism contrasts with the piety of his servant; John the Baptist’s praying hands create a downward diagonal leading to Mary kneeling on the floor; the horizontally delineated background, dark behind the figures, gold above them, sets off the lovely still life of food and drink on the host’s table.

Astonishing in its naturalism, The Flagellation (Pseudo-Dalmasio, ca. 1330–40) depicts a bound Christ being assaulted by two men, one pulling his hair, the other preparing to strike. The kinetic movement and the harrowing, head-on perspective are disquieting—the viewer might be one of the crowd in Matthew 27 shouting, “Crucify him!”

The Frist Art Museum specializes in traveling exhibitions, and I have seen many fine shows there over the years. The setting—the building was Nashville’s central post office and is an Art Deco masterpiece—is particularly fitting for a show whose central theme is the spread of literacy and the role of the arts and letters in education.


  1.  “Medieval Bologna: Art for a University City” opened at the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, on November 5, 2021, and remains on view through January 30, 2022.

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