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Remarkable 14th century Franciscan text survivor leads Bonhams £1M book sale
Top item in the sale was a 700 year old Franciscan manuscript. Estimated to sell for £20,000 to £30,000 it achieved £49,250. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Many items in Bonhams sale of ‘Early Printing and English Books’ yesterday (2.10.12) were purchased on behalf of British libraries and achieved a total of £1,081,675 with 95 per cent of lots sold.

Top item in the sale was a 700 year old Franciscan manuscript described by Bonhams Book Dept as: “A remarkable 14th century survival from Italy. A lovely thing to hold in your hand with great illustrations by a monk.” Estimated to sell for £20,000 to £30,000 it achieved £49,250.

The manuscript titled GREGORY I, Saint and Pope it is a remarkable survival of two fourteenth century Franciscan texts in an early Italian blind-stamped binding.

The Dialogues of St Gregory (Dialogi de vita et miraculis patrum Italicorum, in four books were orignally written c.593-594, in the early years of Gregory's papacy. They record the stories and miracles of Italy's great Saints and holy men and women, in order to prove that ascetic saints were not only at work in the orient, but in Italy too. The second book focuses exclusively on Benedict of Nursia, whereas books one and three recount the lives of numerous lesser known saints. The fourth book is devoted to visions of the afterlife.

Bonaventura, a most important scholastic theologian, is regarded as the second patron of the Franciscan order. Asked by the general chapter of the Franciscans he wrote an exhaustive biography of St Francis of Assisi in 1263. Two versions of this biography soon spread: While the shorter version, the Legenda Minor, was intended to be regularly read to the friars during their day, the longer version, the Legenda Maior, was reserved for theological studies. To find both authoritative texts on St Francis in one and the same codex together with Gregory's Dialogues less than a hundred years after the younger texts were composed, leads to the conclusion that this manuscript was made for a Franciscan convent.

The illumination in this manuscript is not only intended to enhance the appearance of the manuscript, but also to link together the two texts that are originally separated by centuries, almost in an effort to make the legends of the life of St Francis appear as the fifth book of Gregory's Dialogi.

The illuminations show portraits in medallions, two of them with two figurated medallions. The Dialogi of St Gregory are decorated with St Gregory as a bishop, either in dialogue with a monk or with the reader of the page. At the beginning of the second book he is shown in conversation with Benedict of Nursia, whereas the beginning of the fourth book has him in conversation with a non specified friar.

Surprisingly, a secular scribe in a blue gown with a red hat decorates the beginning of the third book. St Francis takes over the position of St Gregory in the opening of the second text of the codex.

The colours of the floral decoration and the style of the figures suggest a workshop in or around Bologna or Padua - both centres of the Franciscan movement - in the middle of the fourteenth century.

The illumination and some contemporary amendments to the text suggest that the book was made for a convent of the Friars Minor, most likely of the Franciscan order in the Emilia Romagna.

The manuscript was newly bound in the early fifteenth century as indicated by the added paper. Fol. 25 has a text insertion which starts "Incipit testamentum quod fecit beatissimus pater nostrum Sanctus Franciscus propter obitum suum ..."; this, along with another added paragraph on St. Nicholas on fol. 27, indicates that the manuscript must have been part of a Franciscan library in the fifteenth century, where it was kept up to date.

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