Illuminating the Serenissima: Books of the Republic of Venice
May 3 - June 19, 2011
La Serenissima, or the Most Serene Republic of Venice, existed for over a millennium from the late seventh century to 1797. At the height of its power in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was the center of an empire extending from mainland Italy to the eastern Mediterranean. The head of state was a Doge who was elected for life by the nobility.
Books, called commissioni, are presentation copies of contracts of Venetian noblemen elected to oversee the Serenissima's provinces for usually sixteen months, or to be lifelong administrators of the city of Venice. From the mid-1400s until the fall of the Republic, office-holders had their commissioni elaborately written, illuminated and bound by hand. Commemorating service to the state, personal achievement, and taste, these manuscripts were objects of privilege, power, and beauty.
Isabella Stewart Gardner's commissioni not only reflect her passion for Venice—as seen in her Venetian-style palace and its art from the Serenissima—but also her love of books. She started to collect rare volumes in the mid-1880s before she began to buy art, encouraged by Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard's first professor of art history and an expert book collector. Mrs. Gardner acquired three of the commissioni displayed along with fourteen other Venetian manuscripts from Norton. He sold them to Gardner because he believed that she alone would appreciate the books' artistic and historical value as a collection.
The commissioni are displayed in the Long Gallery where Mrs. Gardner kept them and her other most prized books. Her collection enables us to admire the evolution over three centuries of Venetian book-decoration, illuminating the past glory of the Serenissima.