The first public sale of illuminations at Christie's in London in 1825 is regarded as a landmark in the history of collecting. Some 97 lots of multiple items were sold from "Choir books of the Papal Chapel of the Vatican." Dispersed during the French Revolution, these illuminations were brought to England by an enterprising curate, bibliophile, and collector-dealer, Luigi Celotti. In the introduction to the catalogue written by William Ottley (d. 1836), an art historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance, Ottley emphasized that, whereas many panel paintings and frescoes of the same period are either lost or exist in imperfect states of preservation, illuminations survive in often perfect condition. Because they reveal with surprising freshness the artistic achievements of the Renaissance, he declared them to be "monuments of a lost Art." The Celotti sale attracted picture dealers, not bibliophiles, and they bought heavily and paid high prices.
In England, the imposition of custom's duties by weight must have encouraged the importation of illuminations cut from large, heavy manuscripts often bound with thick wood boards. However, the chief reason for collecting illuminations, "cuttings," is their value as art. Referring to his practice of cutting up manuscripts, the critic and theoretician John Ruskin (d. 1900) colorfully wrote in his Journal, "Cut up Missal last night--hard work." Ruskin's cultural barbarism is a product of his times. He wanted to call the attention of Victorian craftsmen and women to the lost art of illumination, among whom he circulated fragments of illuminated manuscripts. Distinguishing between pictures (art) and texts (curiosities), Ruskin succinctly describes his attitude when he asks a friend to be on the lookout for interesting manuscripts for him, "interesting in art, for I don't care about old texts."
"Interesting in art," this phrase accurately sums up the history of collecting illuminations. Often illuminators, who were also painters, are responsible for high quality miniatures. This is the case of the great Jean Fouquet and Jean Bourdichon active in Tours in France. It is also the case of many of the painters of the renowned Scuola degli Angeli in Florence, a monastery that housed celebrated artists like Fra Angelico, Battista Sanguini, Lorenzo Monaco, Don Silvestro Gherarducci, among others. In Florence, unlike in much of northern Europe, the same guild served the needs of both painters and illuminators, who switched from panel painting to book painting, as the occasion arose. Today, whole manuscripts richly illuminated by famous artists are of the utmost rarity and prohibitively expensive. But single illuminations of great historical interest and extraordinary aesthetic quality are still, surprisingly, within the grasp of the discerning private collector.
Now there are many public collections of miniatures put together from the nineteenth century onward. A permanent public exhibition is in the Musee Marmottan in Paris (best known for its Monet paintings), which houses nearly 321 examples belonging to the Fondation Wildenstein. Other important European collections are to be found in Venice (Cini Foundation), Berlin (Kupferstichkabinett), as well as in the British Library, the Musee de Louvre, and elsewhere. In the United States significant holdings exist at the National Gallery in Washington, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The J. Paul Getty Museum.
Sandra Hindman, Mirella Levi d'Ancona, Pia Palladino, and Maria Francesca Saffiotti Illuminations in the Robert Lehman Collection New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (in association with Princeton University Press), 1997.
Carl Nordenfalk, et al., Medieval and Renaissance Miniatures from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 1975.Roger Wieck and William Voelkle.
William Voelkle and Roger Wieck with the assistance of Maria Saffiotti, The Bernard H. Breslauer Collection of Manuscript Illuminations, New York, 1992.
Sandra Hindman, Michael Camille, Nina Rowe, and Rowan Watson, Manuscript Illumination in the Modern Age. Recovery and Reconstruction, Evanston, IL The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 2000 (distributed by Oak Knoll Books).
Pia Palladino, Treasures of a Lost Art. Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.
Online illuminations at the Musee Marmottan in Paris (houses 313 miniatures)