The Roman de Troie was Benoît de Sainte-Maure's twelfth-century translation of the beloved Homeric epic into French, an inaugural work within the major transfer of the works of antiquity into the vernacular. Made in the mid-fourteenth century, The Russian National Library's copy of this text is the largest and most abundantly illustrated.
Indeed, the French codex flaunts a total of 343 miniatures while lush decorative borders flourish on practically all the folios of the manuscript, growing gradually more exuberant as one progresses through the book. Each column of the text is enclosed in an ornamental frame, and sixty-one large initials, the overwhelming majority of which are on gold grounds, lend additional grandeur to the poetic text.
It is unclear where the book was made, although stylistic evidence points to the Emilia Romagna, wherein Bologna was an important center for book production, both for local use and also for export.
The illustrations in the St. Petersburg manuscript narrate the content of the Roman de Troie in great detail, comprising the perfect complement to the poetic composition. The miniatures are primarily organized in the large bas-de-page, but sometimes exceed its boundaries, and the majority of them represent medieval battles.
While the images may conserve insights into contemporary fashion, architecture, objects, and games, one should not use these fanciful elaborations of history's battles and love triangles uncritically as documentary sources.
An Italian Bookhand
The Italian origin of the manuscript is supported by the script. Written in different shades of brown and black, the oval letters are representative of a fourteenth-century Italian book hand.
Errors and their corrections abound in the text, which is also abridged in some areas. Abbreviations particularly affect the love scenes, while some passages detailing the short truce are also summarized.
In addition to the large ornamented initials, two-line red and blue initials punctuate the text throughout and feature elegant filigree decoration. The ornamental filigree includes some purple in instances, which is another trait of Italian bookmaking.
Across the Alps and into the hands of Russian Bibliophile
Manuscripts devoted to the history of Troy are mentioned in the inventories of many private collections in Italy in the Late Middle Ages. There is, unfortunately, little evidence within the book itself that would aid the identification of its owner.
However, due to its richness, it is clear that the book was commissioned by a person of means, and experts have connected it with northern Italy where it was probably patronized within the circles of the ducal courts.
In Italy, Benoît de Sainte-Maure's poem was particularly popular in the courts of Lombardy and Naples in the fourteenth, thus suggesting a Lombard connection. Although the artistic style strongly recalls illumination from Emilia Romagna, an artist from Bologna could have easily traveled north to work on this commission for a duke.
While the manuscript's creation is contextualized within northern Italy, it appears that it was taken across the Alps as war booty during one of several French incursions into Italy at the end of the fifteenth- and beginning of the sixteenth centuries.
The manuscript is then associated with the renowned collection of French Chancellor Pierre Séguier—which later became the property of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près—but no signatures or bookplates exist in the manuscript that would confirm this association with certainty.
The manuscript's path picks up again at the end of the eighteenth century when the diplomat Peter P. Dubrovsky added the book to his esteemed collection, which was later incorporated into the Russian National Library.