The Alexander Romance and Marco Polo in Oxford's Bodleian Library is a composite manuscript comprising a group of tales concerning the ancient Macedonian king Alexander "the great," copied and illuminated in Flanders—probably Tournai—around 1338-1344, supplemented by more Alexander material and Marco Polo's account of his travels in Asia, copied and illuminated in England at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The splendidly illuminated manuscript is as famous for its dozens of marginal scenes of quotidian subjects as for its more than 200 miniatures illustrating the texts.
One of the artists of the fourteenth-century portion of the book, Jehan de Grise, signed and dated his work (fol. 208r). He worked with Pierart dou Tielt and two others. As many as six painters illuminated the fifteenth-century portion of the book.
Daily Life in Picture
The bas-de-page (bottom of the page) scenes in the Alexander Romance depict episodes from courtly and rural life. Among these are entertainments, such as puppet shows (fols. 54v and 76r), dancing (fols. 78r and 84v), music making (fol. 180v), board games (fols. 112r and 121v), a cock fight (fol. 50r), and jousting (fols. 92r and 121r).
Practical activities—such as shoeing a horse (fol. 107r), metal smithing (fols. 164v and 171v), and cooking (fol. 170v)—are also pictured, as are romantic encounters (fol. 76v), a horse-drawn cart (fol. 42v), and a windmill (fol. 81r). Departures from the everyday are found in the many drolleries (amusing things), which include animals acting like humans (fols. 79v, 81v, and 94v).
Alexander the Hero-King
Legends concerning Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) circulated widely in the high Middle Ages, and the Old French poetic Alexander Romance was so popular that it gave the name "alexandrine" to 12-syllable lines. In the Bodley manuscript, groups of four scenes form full-page miniatures at the beginnings of major text divisions, but most of the illustrations occupy the width of a column of text.
The dazzling miniatures illustrate the romance's descriptions of Alexander's conquests, marvelous things, and remote places. Each episode is pictured on a diapered (geometrically patterned) ground, with lavish use of burnished gold leaf. Among the legendary episodes is that of Alexander exploring the sea in an underwater vessel (fol. 50r).
Marco Polo, Merchant of Venice
Marco Polo's Description of the World opens with a half-page miniature depicting Marco's departure, together with his father and uncle, in 1271 from Venice (fol. 218r). The image establishes the text's author as from the most important commercial milieu of the time. The remaining miniatures are smaller, occupying a column width, and illustrate the travelers' encounters at the court of Kublai Khan (1216-1294), Mongol emperor of China. As in the miniatures of the Alexander Romance, the episodes are presented on diapered grounds, here often featuring spiraling gold vines.
The fifteenth-century scribe responsible for writing the Middle English alliterative verse dialogue Alexander and Dindimus (fols. 209-215) and the Old French "court" version of Marco Polo's Description of the World (fols. 218-271) wrote in the same formal Gothic script as his Flemish predecessor. These texts were designed expressly to accompany the nearly century-old copy of the Roman d'Alexandre. Not only the script but also the size and layout of the pages (with text in two columns of forty-five lines) imitate the earlier book.
Intense Interest and Textual Augmentation
The added texts, the dialogue nearly contemporary and the Marco Polo text a century old, expand the original adventure narrative to embrace a broader exploration of the Far East. Interest in the original romance is manifested in the rubrics supplied by the fifteenth-century scribe in the fourteenth-century portion of the book.
Original Patrons Unknown
It is unknown for whom the Alexander romance was initially made, how that book traveled to England, and who prompted the elaboration of the original in England. Richard Woodville (d. 1469), Earl of Rivers, acquired the manuscript in 1466, and it was then in the possession of his son Anthony (d. 1483), also Earl of Rivers. The manuscript probably came to the Bodleian Library from Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) in the early seventeenth century.
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Oxford Alexander Romance and Marco Polo": Il romanzo di Alessandro Magno. I viaggi di Marco Polo facsimile edition, published by Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana - Treccani, 2014Request Info / Price