Test Sheet with Patterns, Sketches, and Pen Trials
A rare glimpse over the shoulder of a Renaissance artist at work, this parchment test sheet is filled with pen and brush trials that show the hand(s) of an artist or workshop experimenting with different colors and letterforms. This leaf is also an unusual example of a test sheet later repurposed in a book binding, probably in the seventeenth-century. The sheet was folded and inserted as a front flyleaf, evidenced by the long crease with remnants of paper and evidence of worming on both sides. Although doodles and pen trials are frequently found on flyleaves in bound manuscripts, this example, with its large central pattern and unfinished figural sketches, almost certainly existed as a loose sheet before it was repurposed. By comparison, another fifteenth-century test sheet repurposed as a fly leaf is found in Leiden (UBL, BPL 3327, 22; see blog post by Erik Kwakkel, "Doodles in Medieval Manuscripts").
The leaf is most likely from an artist or workshop in northern Italy, based on the style of the patterns and the method of applying pigments. The front of the leaf displayed in its current frame (originally the verso) shows a large calligraphic pink and green scroll pattern with swirling sprays of delicate penwork, possibly representing the initial 'M' or initials 'IM.' This kind of ribbon-like letter design is found in surviving Renaissance pattern books from Milan, for example in the Alphabet Book by Giovannino de Grassi made in the late fourteenth century (figure 1; Bergamo, Biblioteca Civica, MS Cassaf. 1.21, detail with initials 'M' and 'N'). Dozens of pen trials surround the large calligraphic pattern, including 16 letters and around 40 short sections of ornate penwork in red, blue, green, and shell gold. A figural sketch of a bearded man appears in the top corner, unfinished but prepared with a base layer of green earth, or terra verde, with noticeable dark flecks.
On the verso are sketches of two figures in brown and black ink: a man in robes with a long beard, identified as "Moises" (Moses) on an inscribed banderole, and a crowned woman with a girdle book or book bag in her left hand. Like the recto, the faces are painted with green earth, in this case clearly making use of the method described in the famous Libro dell'Arte by Cennino Cennini (c. 1370-c. 1440) involving base layers of earth and lead white to which vermillion was applied for flesh color (see the chapter "How to paint faces," trans. D. Thompson, 1960, pp. 93-93). Inscribed above are two columns with simple arithmetic (adding numbers 7 plus 3 for 10 and 1 plus 12 for 13) in the same brown ink as the figures, with the words "filius meus" at right in black ink, partially rubbed. The sketch of Moses can be compared to the scenes in the so-called Paduan Bible Picture Book (figure 2, London, British Library, Add MS 15277), probably made in Padua around 1400 (in this case not painted using green earth for flesh tones).
The reverse is inscribed in ink in a seventeenth-century hand with a title or author(?) "P. Incognitus(?)" and former shelf mark or index number "A / 236" along with the folio number "1" and catalogue number "MS / XXIX" in pencil. The parchment with minor wear and some staining, consistent with age and reuse.
17th-century inscription on recto, "P. Incognitus (?) / A 236" (former shelf mark); Mark Lansburgh, deposited at Colorado College, Colorado Springs; sold London, Sotheby's, 22 June 1993, lot 33.
M. Lansburgh, "The Drawing Collection at the Colorado College," The Art Journal 29 (1970), pp. 341-348, as "vellum leaf with sketched figures and blue-tinted faced," p. 343, ill. fig. 8.
Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman's Handbook: The Italian "Il Libro dell' Arte," trans. Daniel V. Thompson, Jr., New York, 1960.
J.J.G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work, New Haven, 1992.
Erik Kwakkel, "Doodles in Medieval Manuscripts"
Paduan Bible Picture Book, Northern Italy, c. 1400 (London, British Library, Add. MS 15277)