The renowned Turin-Milan Hours is one of the finest and richest examples of medieval illumination. As the name given to leaves spread across two volumes in two separate libraries and a number of detached leaves elsewhere, the work is also one of the most challenging to untangle. It was divided into multiple sections over time and decorated over a series of campaigns spanning over half a century. The masterpiece thus involves different patrons and features the leading artistic personalities of the late fourteenth century and the first quarter of the fifteenth century, making it a prime archive of the most prestigious paintings of the late Middle Ages.
Originally commissioned by the renowned bibliophile Jean, Duke of Berry, the manuscript was conceived as a creative combination of texts primarily in Latin which included: a Missal, a Book of Hours, and a segment dedicated to prayers. Together the ensemble would have comprised of around 350 leaves and featured over one hundred miniatures, with generous use of gold throughout the frames and ornamented borders, the historiated initials, and various details. Given the separate campaigns of painting, the format varies a bit, but most of the illuminated pages combine a large miniature with about four lines of text.
Sixty Years in the Making
This unusually elaborate and distinctive compendium was commissioned by none other than Duke Jean of Berry beginning sometime in the late 1380s. There were as many as six different painters involved in this first stage, which alone spanned almost two decades of frequently interrupted progress.
At some point, perhaps seeing how unwieldy the project was becoming, the duke divided the manuscript into two portions. One of these was fully illustrated and is likely the Très Belles Heures de Notre Dame listed in his records that he traded in 1413 with Robinet d'Estampes.
The second section was only partially illustrated and must have thus been unbound for some time. This is the section that scholars have termed the "Turin-Milan Hours". This unfinished part somehow reached the Low Countries, where they were completed in the fifteenth century and subdivided into two again at least a century or more later.
The Missal section entered the Trivulzio Library in Milan from the Agliè collection and is currently part of the collection of the Museo Civico d'Arte Antica in Turin.
The section with the calendar and prayers came to the Biblioteca Nazionale e Universitaria in Turin through the royal library of King Amadeus of Savoy but met an unfortunate end when it was destroyed in a fire in 1904. Fortunately, however, its miniatures at least had been published two years prior, thus leaving modern viewers some documentation of the masterpiece.
Northern patronage and painting
Although in an unfinished state, the Turin-Milan Hours provided inspiration to the Netherlandish artists to whom it was presented as the manuscript seemingly moved from patron to patron or was the product of sustained and wide collaboration. Heraldry throughout these new miniatures identifies several prominent families to whom the book could have belonged, but it is unclear how to read these.
The manuscript was affiliated, for instance, with the Duke because of the appearance of his arms on the banner in the breathtaking (albeit now destroyed) miniature depicting the Cavalcade on the Seashore from Turin's fol. 59v. A minuscule pair of coats of arms are also found in the window of the extraordinary interior illustrating the birth of John the Baptist on Milan's fol. 93v, but these have not been properly identified.
The Northern decoration campaign(s) are also difficult to distinguish due to the sheer number of hands at work and the different approaches they took. The manuscript is even more complicated by the fact that the later miniatures show evidence of collaboration by several artists on the same individual pages, and a miniature might be supplemented underneath with a bas-de-page illustration by a separate artist.
Some artists went along with the tone set by the original Parisian miniatures and imitated their style, while several others took a route that drew inspiration from the renowned Jan van Eyck's panel compositions, who is believed by many to have actually contributed miniatures to this masterpiece alongside his brother Hubert.
Nonetheless, the miniatures added until the book was "finished" are rightly immortalized are some of the finest paintings of the fifteenth century. No one has come close to having the final word regarding patronage and attribution in this glorious manuscript. The various entities that constitute this work continue to beguile and delight experts and the general public alike.
We have 3 facsimiles of the manuscript "Turin-Milan Hours":
- Turin-Mailänder Stundenbuch facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1995
- Blätter im Louvre (Collection) facsimile edition published by Faksimile Verlag, 1994
- Libro d'ore di Torino-Milano facsimile edition published by De Agostini/UTET, 2005