THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

25 September 2017

Drop dead gorgeous

At the beginning of the Office for the Dead in a 15th-century Book of Hours at the British Library, an initial was decorated with an image of a richly-attired skeleton admiring herself in a mirror.  This image may already be familiar to readers of this blog. What we haven't previously mentioned, however, is this manuscript's connection to a powerful duchess, the Renaissance artist Titian and a real skeleton. 

Yates Thompson 7   f. 174
Detail of an initial in the Office for the Dead, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Central Italy, c. 1480–1520, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 174r 

The stylish skeleton appears in a Book of Hours owned by Eleanora (also called Dionora) Gonzaga della Rovere, duchess of Urbino. She was an important patron of the arts and a political figure. We know that this book was owned by Eleanora because it is inscribed with her name and because her family's arms and her husband's arms appear throughout the decoration. The scribe, who signed his work, was Matteo Contugi de Volterra, who worked around the year 1480. The illumination, completed later, may be the work of one of the most notable illuminators from Renaissance Italy, Matteo da Milano. 

Yates Thompson 7   f. 14
Detail of a border with the inscription 'Diva Dio(nora) Duci(ssa) Ur(bini)' and with the arms of Della Rova impaling Gonzaga, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 14r

Eleanora was a great patron of other artists, too. She supported writers such as Baldassare Castiglioni and the poet, Torquato Tasso. Today, she is particularly associated with Titian, who painted her portrait and that of her husband. Some people have even argued that Titian used Eleanora's face as a model for other paintings, namely La Bella, Girl in a Fur Cloak and the Venus of Urbino, although this is now disputed. That is probably just as well: the Venus of Urbino was bought by Eleanora's son Guidobaldo, possibly as a gift for his wife, so it might have been a bit odd if Titian had used the eventual recipient's mother-in-law as one of the models!

Yates Thompson 7   f. 174    Eleanora gonzaga titian

Tiziano-venere-urbino

Spot the difference! Yates Thompson MS 7, Titian's portrait of Eleanora (now in the Uffizi Gallery) and the Venus of Urbino (now also in the Uffizi Gallery)

Eleanora Gonzaga della Rovere died in 1570 and she was buried in the church of Santa Chiara in Urbino. All that now remains of Eleanora , former owner of the British Library's Book of Hours, is a skeleton. Indeed, the skeleton believed to be hers was exhumed and analysed in 2005, with the study using craniofacial superimposition to compare its skull with Titian's portrait of Eleonora. The analysis concluded that 'the face of Eleonora [in the painting] matches the skull fairly closely except for the length of the nose'. Titian may have portrayed her with a smaller nose to exaggerate her beauty. If that was the case, it is an interesting coda to the story of the duchess who owned this Book of Hours, with its famous image of a skeleton warning against vanity!

Yates Thompson 7   f. 42v
Detail of a border and an initial 'D' inscribed with the words 'Dionara Gonzaga Duc(issa) Urbini et cet[era]' , Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 42v

 

Alison Hudson

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