Like many grand women, Isabella Stewart Gardner kept private accounts of influential men, the keys to power and portraits of otherworldly beauties.
Now English art scholar and historian Anne-Marie Eze has revealed a rarely seen side of Gardner through a gorgeous exhibit of Venetian manuscripts from her private library never before shown to the public.
Small but full of riches, “Illuminating the Serenissima” showcases seven “commissioni,” elaborately decorated, handmade books that served as contracts for Venetian noblemen elected to serve as ambassadors or administrators for the then great maritime power.
Subtitled “Books of the Republic of Venice,” the show runs through June 19 in the museum’s Long Gallery where Gardner kept some of her 1,500 books in covered cases to protect them from light.
“Not everyone gets to see Mrs. Gardner’s books,” said Eze, postdoctoral curatorial fellow and one of the area’s top experts on illustrated manuscripts. “This is a great opportunity to see works that have been out of public view for many decades.”
From 697 to 1797, “La Serenissima” — the Most Serene Republic of Venice — ruled an empire that reached from mainland Italy to the eastern Mediterranean.
While most visitors come to the Renaissance style palazzo for its extensive collection of European, Islamic and Asian art, this subtly informative show opens a gorgeous window onto a distinctly Venetian art form and Gardner’s sophistication as a bibliophile.
Gardner director Anne Hawley said the exhibition “not only boasts beautiful objects that are usually inaccessible to visitors but further illustrates Isabella Gardner’s passion for Venetian art and history.”
Eze said commissioni were issued in pairs to nobles setting off on 16-month terms of duty in Venice’s provinces. One copy was kept by the government and the other given to the office-holder, who typically treasured it as an emblem of prestige.
Though essentially contracts, she said office-holders regarded them as “status symbols” and had them illuminated and bound according to the evolving conventions of their times.
Eze graduated with a bachelor’s degree with honors in classics and a master’s degree in library studies with a specialization in manuscript studies and historical bibliography from University College London. The focus of her doctoral dissertation was the infamous Venetian priest-turned-art dealer Abbe Luigi Celotti and 19th century illuminated miniatures.
While styles evolved, commissioni often featured artistic conventions such as an elaborately illustrated page with decorative figures and Latin text stating a solemn oath and the statues of the appointee’s service.
Over the course of the three centuries covered in the show, the illustrated pages grew more sophisticated featuring decorative borders, allegorical images and the appointee’s coat of arms.
Eze said the commissioni provide rich sources of information about Venetian history, art and culture.
“Commissioni are important to the study of Venetian art and history because they are dated sources of style about illumination, bookbinding and iconography as well as heraldry, portraiture and biographical information about their owners,” she said. “Though thousands were produced under the Republic, commissioni are intrinsically rare because only two copies of each were ever made.”
Small flashlights are hung near the commissioni and binders to help visitors view their exquisite details without damaging the fragile manuscripts.
To the careful viewer, the images provide a remarkable catalog of Venetian art and history.
Created by the most skilled illuminator of the 16th century, the commissioni of Francesco Donato features a winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice and an image of the Virgin and Child.
Researching the manuscript from 1546, Eze discovered an apparent forgery worthy of a Dan Brown mystery. The manuscript had been signed with a curious T-like mark — apparently added many years later by the owner or a dealer — to mislead potential buyers into thinking it was the work of Tiziano Vecellio, popularly known as Titian.
A 1615 image by an unknown illustrator features a miniature of the appointee, Francesco Contarini and his patron saint worshiping a charming picture of the Virgin and Child.
The exhibit includes three exquisitely crafted binders, or covers, that progressed from goatskin to calfskin to hammered silver, bearing symbolic figures of great craft and artistry.
As the museum proceeds on schedule to complete its new wing, “Illuminating the Serenissima” should remind visitors that Gardner, acting upon advice from thoughtful advisers, appreciated and collected this distinctly Venetian kind of bound and illuminated manuscripts.
The show features seven of the 20 manuscripts Gardner purchased which Eze has been studying along with the founder’s extensive book collection.
She said Gardner purchased her first rare book in 1886, five years before her father’s death which provided some of the inheritance to support further acquisitions.
Eze said Gardner acquired four books in the exhibit and several others from Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard University’s first professor of art history, a friend and fellow member of Boston’s Dante Society. Letters between Norton and Gardner show he sold them to her near the end of his life because he felt confident she would preserve them rather than sell them piece-by-piece like other collectors.
WHAT: “Illuminating the Serenissima: Books of the Republic of Venice”
WHEN: Through June 19
WHERE: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, Boston
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
ADMISSION: Adults, $12; seniors, $10; students, $5; $2 off with same day admission from Museum of Fine Arts
INFO: 617-278-5156; www.gardnermuseum.org