While grotesque crowds jostle for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, the room next door is almost empty. And yet, if ever a show deserved the title “Small is Beautiful,” this would be it.
For the first time, the Louvre reveals one of its best kept secrets, its collection of miniatures taken from medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.
Cutting pictures out of books might not be a nice thing to do, yet it’s a time-honored practice. It started in the 18th century, when tourists from northern Europe flocked to Italy, eager to bring home souvenirs.
One of the worst sinners was Luigi Celotti, a Venetian abbot who became an art dealer. In 1798, when the Vatican Library was pillaged by French troops, he bought the loot, cut it up and sold the illustrations to collectors. Many ended up at the British Museum.
The collection of the Louvre evolved in a more haphazard way, mostly thanks to donations. Among the donors, two colorful characters stand out -- Horace de Viel-Castel, known for his malicious memoirs, and Charles Sauvageot.
A violinist in the orchestra of the opera, Sauvageot collected anything that wasn’t nailed down. A room at the Louvre is named after him.
No wonder the show reflects the personal taste of the donors rather than the systematic approach of an art historian. The 70 items, the cream of the crop, come from Italy, France, Germany and Flanders and cover half a millennium -- from the 11th to the 16th century.
At the end of the 12th century, the production of illuminated books passed from monks to lay artists, which meant that miniatures on parchment or vellum became a worthy equivalent of contemporary paintings on wood and canvas.
One of their characteristics was borders where flowers, insects and little monsters were rendered with the utmost accuracy, often adding an element of comic relief. On the margin of a Nativity from Verona you find, for no particular reason, a satyr with hairy legs, hooves and a long tail.
The favorite subjects were scenes from the Bible -- the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Crucifixion. When the Renaissance rediscovered antiquity, pagan heroes joined the Christian pantheon. A miniature from Naples shows young Hercules killing the snakes sent by Juno against her husband’s extramarital offspring.
The most brilliant of the artists in the show is Jean Fouquet (ca. 1420-80), the greatest French painter of the 15th century. Whether he worked on miniatures or on a larger scale, his art always has the same monumental character.
Fouquet’s St. Margaret tending a flock of sheep, from Etienne Chevalier’s celebrated Book of Hours, is a masterpiece of elegance and charm.
Skip Lisa, have a look at Margaret.
“Enluminures du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance” runs through Oct. 3. The show coincides with the publication of a catalogue raisonne of the whole collection (55 euros or $79.33). Information: http://www.louvre.fr or +33-1-4020-5317.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)