Italian White Vine, Semi-Humanist Script

Italian Book of Hour created in the last quarter of the 15th century, probably used by Giovanni Colonna.  Housed in the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana its shelfmark is Ricketts 141.  It is written in what is termed a “semi-humanist minuscule.”  More information can be found here.

This manuscript has typical 15th century Italian decorations including white vine.   While definitely beautiful a beautiful work, there are some things that show its wear over the past five hundred  and some years.

The gold seems to smudge and rub off on the pages opposite it.  This is an invariable pattern throughout the book.  Makes you wonder what  quality of gold was used and what else was in it.

A side by side comparison for you.

6v opposite the above picture.  All the gray/black marks are exactly where the gold rubbed from 7r.

6v All the gray/black marks are exactly where the gold rubbed from 7r.

Beautiful page but the gold is a bit coppery in color.

7r Beautiful page but the gold is a bit coppery in color.










This smudging was the cause for me to ask those knowledgeable in the arts of illumination and in gold smelting etc for their opinions.  Here is a summary of what was discussed.

First of all is that gold? Probably. It probably isn’t very pure gold.  It may have copper or more likely silver in it.  Yes other impurities are possible as well or instead.  We do know that the smelting process to get to 24 karat gold was known in this time.  So the question becomes did the illuminator choose this quality on purpose?  If so, why?

Now, we shouldn’t let this take away from our opinion of the beauty of this work.  But we should keep in mind that pure gold doesn’t tarnish and that when you see smudges like these opposite the gold, the gold simply is of a lower karat gold.

We see other interesting things in this manuscript as well.  This page has a lot gold capitals, gold lettering and rubrication as well.  This isn’t typically what you see in most manuscripts.  If you click on the picture you will see that a lot of filigree work has been done as well.

Ricketts 141 -  8r Illuminated V
A very nice illuminated V with Italian White Vine work around it.  Do you see the wonderful Pepto-Bismol ™ pink?  Yes, indeed it is a period color.  Indeed, if you go back and look at 7r above you will see three different shades of pink.

Ricketts 141 -  8v illuminated v close 2
Very nice.  Now look below the “V” and see the Illuminated “Q” and what do you see?  Purple ink “filigree.”  This kind of pen work was common to see in this manuscript.

For example here on 10v we see some more of the beautiful purple filigree work.  Purple is an uncommon ink color and so it was a nice find for me to see in person.

Ricketts 141 -  10v close purple

Here we can see red and purple filigree work.  I noticed something interesting in comparing the two, the purple filigree pen work is thinner than the red.

Ricketts 141 -  10v purple v red

We’re seeing a lot of decorative pen work here, though, yes, it could be with a very thin paintbrush.  So why can the purple ink lines be thinner than the red lines?  Of course the pen or paintbrush could have been larger.  That wold speak to a choice made by the decorator to put more weight to the red thus drawing more attention to that color.

But what about the qualities of the ink?  Do the qualities of the purple ink lend themselves to hair thin lines when the red ink simple can’t go on that thin?  Most likely we can’t know for certain but perhaps some colored ink making will be in my future to help answer the question.

As a calligrapher I tried very hard to not drool over the calligraphy in this manuscript.  I must have done a good job as I retained my visitor privileges at the Lily Library.  This is 130r and it is a beautiful page.  Not only for the red and purple filigree work but also for the script.

Ricketts 141 -  130r 0 full page
Closer look for everyone the top, middle and bottom.

Ricketts 141 -  130r 1 top Ricketts 141 -  130r 2 Middle Ricketts 141 -  130r 3 bottom
When I fist saw 135r I couldn’t help but think I had seen it before.

Ricketts 141 -  135r  full page
Truth be told I don’t think I ever have.  But a close look at the top miniature gave me pause.

Ricketts 141 -  135r 1 top
A beautiful miniature and I love the candle holder on the left of the page.   The detail work is such that you can almost recognize the figures.

Ricketts 141 -  135r 2 portraits

I suppose we all know someone who could resemble one of the figures in this miniature.

A note of caution can be learned from this manuscript as well.  Keep your work area clean and pay attention to where you ink is going!

Ricketts 141 -  131r ink splot
That ink blot covers a grand total of 15 pages.  A lesson in history.  It is a very good idea to use careful techniques when making and handling your art and craft.  We don’t know when the ink drop got there but we do know that it happened due to carelessness of some kind.


12 responses to “Italian White Vine, Semi-Humanist Script

  1. Kind of you to say so. I look forward to your posts. It’s one thing to read technical details in the abstract – but being able to talk with a practicing scribe is brilliant.

  2. Ian, Thanks for the recipe; its perfect.
    I won’t use your blog to discourse on influences in Carolingian and Ottonian imagery, but we know Carolingian schools were not only dependent on Byzantium and Baghdad for their texts. The bipedal Sagittarius is one evidence of alternative sources even if we didn’t know of – e.g. Gregory’ book-buying expedition to Egypt in the 6th).

    Manuscripts acquired in Syria during the Crusader period see introduction, again, of motifs from other traditions. It’s the white vine on a *blue* border or ground ,found again in Spanish Jewish works (among others) which is attributed by a number of scholars to the Karaites. Documentary evidence is patchy, especially for the north, and in any case you won’t be criticised for attributing the white vine motif in the fifteenth century to the humanists of northern Italy.


  3. Diane, thank you.

    Are you talking about Ottonian “white vine.” and what came after it. (I believe that is the term.)

    And example of it can be found here:

    The description for this manuscript is found at:;smode=basic;rmode=digscript;docsPerPage=1;startDoc=1;fullview=yes

    This example being dated to around 1200-1215 AD.

    Karaism is a Jewish tradition.

    King Otto I, II and III was an inheritors of Charlemagne’s Empire (such as it was,) and were definitely Christian in faith. I am very curious what evidence shows that it is Karait in origin. Or is it something they took and used from the Christian artists? An interesting question.

    You asked:

    “What I’d like your opinion about is the material used fo that ‘terracotta’ coloured ground. Wouldn’t it have to be smooth to take the leaf?”

    Yes, it would have to be smooth to take the leaf well. And that isn’t an insurmountable problem to say the least. And smooth does not mean it has to be flat.

    The materials were likely gesso with some coloring added which would likely be bole for the terracotta coloring and honey to help keep it hygroscopic. You can find some examples of what that might look like from this vendor.

    In De Arte Illuminande we see wonderful recipe from the time period that covers those very ingredients.

    Size for Laying Gold: 4 parts calcined and prepared gesso, gesso sottile worked up with 1 part best Armenian bole to utmost fineness and let dry. Take a part and grind it with stag’s horn glue or parchment size and add a much honey as you think necessary, not too much or too little, so that it barely tastes sweet in the mouth.

    Grind thoroughly and add enough clear water to cover. To use, pour off the water without stirring the material. Try it on similar parchment to see if it’s properly tempered.

  4. Hello – I’ve bookmarked your site. It’s excellent. If you call the white vine a humanist motif you won’t fail any exams, but in case the subject interest you, it occurs (looking more like a white dracunculus) in Crusader art in the middle of the 12th, and internal evidence is strong that it was a Karaite custom. By the mid-fourteenth it appears as border (blue and white) or as a white vine over a terracotta-coloured background (‘throne’). Then, via types of card, to the 15th manuscripts.

    What I’d like your opinion about is the material used fo that ‘terracotta’ coloured ground. Wouldn’t it have to be smooth to take the leaf?


  5. I was wondering about the individual square itself. The motif is a small square with tic marks at the cardinal compass points. It has also been shown a few times with the outer square as double-lined. In a few illustrations (primarily from France), it has been used as the background, but I am interested in the cases where it appears as a single square. I have seen it used as corner medallions. The one use that may shed the most light is it’s use in a calendar of saints where it appears twice on 4 months, once on 4 months and not at all in Nov through February. I know it may just be a simple design, which is fine, but if it is a glyph representing some individual or group (saint, monarch, political faction such as white or black Guelph’s, or a noble’s dynasty, etc) it might help identify the provenance of the manuscript. Or if it is representing a liturgical or astronomical event (the eucharist, or maybe a moon phase), it may help identify why it appears in the manuscript.

    Here are two examples of the specific square: (a series of 4 at the end of “nos liberati sumus”) (twice in the first week of March, once in April).


    • Okay, got it.

      The filagree work is usually done with a pen. To the best of my knowledge it is decorative and serves a several different purposes.

      1 – Its pretty and they (and we) like(d) to look at it.

      2 – It draws the eye. This was used as a way to quickly find “important” parts of the writing.

      3 – It broke up the passages making them easier to a) read and b) memorize.

      4 – The cardinal points decoration could be one way to point out something that could be more important than the other important things or some such.

      I know of no other special meanings for the filagrees.

  6. Thank you! Actually the “diapering” was something noticed after the initial interest in the particular square which in the Voynich appears singly. But thank you very much for the information, and for the pointer to the Hunting Book.

  7. I am so glad I stumbled onto your blog! Now I come begging an answer to something that has come up regarding the Voynich manuscript (which I accept at face value, and not as a hoax). There are some particular, but simple, square motifs that also appear in other period manuscripts, in the filigree, illustrations, and as a background repeated pattern. It has also been seen in a liturgical office book (or “Book of Hours”) seemingly designating something special about a particular day of the month. Would you have time to comment? The few of us looking at this are not paleographers nor calligraphers, but I remember in my medieval studies that some seemingly simple motifs had political, religious, familial, or societal implications. If you have the time, the discussion with referenced imagery is on Ellie Velinska’s blog here:


    • Thank you for your compliment.

      You are referring to something called, “diapering” I believe?

      A geometric repetitive pattern in the background. To my knowledge this is merely an artistic choice that was very very common in medieval books of hours and in others books as well.

      If you look up, “The Hunting Book of Gaston Phebes” you will see it there as well.

      Could it have meaning? In some instances it might, but overall, it was merely a common artistic design in the time.

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