The Sketchbook of Giovannino de' Grassi is the best-known and most precious manuscript in the Angelo Mai Public Library of Bergamo and is commonly regarded as the most remarkable example of late Gothic Italian art. Created in the late fourteenth century at the Visconti court, the codex is a so-called model book and comprises 77 drawings and 24 letters of the alphabet in excellent quality.
The Artist: Giovannino de' Grassi
The master who so perfectly painted the manuscript is Giovannino de' Grassi. He was truly a universal artist and a gifted drawer and sculptor, as well as the architect of the Milan cathedral.
At the height of his career, Giovannino de' Grassi maintained contact with the most famous architects of central European Gothic cathedrals, including with Heinrich Parler and Ulrich von Einsingen. This reinforced the Lombardian master’s position and probably also led him to produce drawings in which he documented his artistic ideas.
Model Books: Guiding Images of Medieval Art
Model books of this kind were an indispensable tool in every artist’s workshop. They contained artful ornamental elements, perfect calligraphic initials, and even animals. Most medieval artists, indeed, never had the opportunity to study exotic creatures, such as leopards, gazelles or even lions, in nature.
In order to depict these animals in a realistic way, it was necessary to provide the artist with a model that could be identified without question by the viewer. Model books thus provided exemplary motives, showing both human beings and animals in their typical pose or while executing specific activities.
Given their extraordinary artistic importance and the great influence they would have on the stylistic evolution of art, model books soon became sought after as collector’s items.
Exemplary Models for Generations of Artists
The model book depicts the most varied types of creatures. Sheep and lions rest harmoniously side by side while ostriches, porcupines, and monkeys happily roam among the pages of the manuscript. A very interesting feature are the perfectly drawn groups of humans.
There are women playing the lyre or gathering to read, and there is even a sailing boat. Every single page of the model book is a work of art in its own right, so masterly executed that many painters after de' Grassi used it as a model for their own creations.
The World-Famous Figure Alphabet
The five most extraordinary pages of the model book contain Giovannino de' Grassi’s famous alphabet. The Gothic letters, so skilfully painted by the master himself, consist of both human and animal figures. Musicians and angels wander through the book, side by side with very realistically sketched lions or bulls.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Sketchbook of Giovannino de' Grassi":
- Das Musterbuch des Giovannino de Grassi facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1998
- Il Taccuino di disegni di Giovannino de' Grassi facsimile edition published by Il Bulino, edizioni d'arte, 1998-2002