Created in Ferrara around 1467, the Oxford Decameron is a deluxe manuscript copy of the classic Italian text by Giovanni Boccaccio set in the outskirts of Florence during the Black Death. Made for Teofilo Calcagnini, it was illuminated by Taddeo Crivelli in his characteristically refined Italian Renaissance style in brilliant colors and gold. Following a detailed chapter list, the text opens on a page with a fully painted border boasting an exquisite bas-de-page miniature, and the pictorial elaboration of the text continues with nine historiated initials.
Boccaccio's Decameron (ten-day thing) is a collection of 100 tales purportedly told by ten storytellers in ten nights. The storytelling takes place in a villa outside Florence, where the narrators have sheltered for two weeks as the Black Death ravaged the city in 1348.
A Gathering of Beautiful People
The text's opening page is the most elaborate of the book, with a full painted border with an intricate bas-de-page (bottom of the page) miniature (fol. 5r). The storytellers—all described as young sophisticates from Florence's merchant classes—are pictured as they assemble in the church of Santa Maria Novella. The seven women are already there, and the three men are just arriving. They are all identified by their names on banderoles, and they look every bit the intelligent wits Boccaccio's text reveals them to be.
Portraits in Paint
Historiated initials feature delicately rendered portraits of the storytellers. The images are either profile busts or half-length figures. Most are set against blue backgrounds, some graded in intensity to suggest atmosphere and others featuring embellishment of fine white scrolls. The figures are extremely poised and wear laurel wreaths, indicating their literary status.
A Court Painter
Taddeo Crivelli was a painter to princes best known for his illumination of the Bible of Borso d'Este. His painting in the Oxford Decameron shares the refined style and brilliant coloration of the Bible, including the characteristic gold balls that embellish the foliate extensions from the painted initials.
A Courtly Patron
Taddeo illuminated the Decameron for Teofilo Calcagnini (1441-1488), an official "companion" of Borso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio. The duke's emblem of the paradura (a floodgate) with the motto FIDO appears often in the book. Calcagnini's emblem of a white swan with a knotted neck and a French motto appears in the border of the opening page (fol. 5r).
Italian Script Style
The text is written in two columns in the characteristically Italian formal script of Gothic Rotunda. The decorated initials feature magenta, blue, and green foliate motifs, with delicate scrollwork embellishments in white and foliate border extensions. The minor initials are pen-flourished, generally alternating red with delicate violet flourishes and blue with red flourishing.
The text is preceded by a chapter list, also in two columns, written entirely in red (fols. 1-4). Each description of a segment of the text is introduced by a blue initial flourished in red.
In the Holkham Hall Library
The manuscript was in the possession of the Franciscan monastery of Santo Spirito in Reggio Emilia in the seventeenth century. Thomas William Coke (1754-1842), Earl of Leicester, later owned it, and it was in the library of his manor house, Holkham Hall, when it received its current binding of gilt-tooled purple velvet over wooden boards. It was acquired by the Bodleian Library in 1981.