On the parchment trail: following music manuscript fragments from Malta

by Theresa Zammit Lupi PhD ACR
(Conservation Consultant for the Notarial Archives Resource Council, Valletta, Malta)

following her presentation at the Ligatus conference: Codex to Code

In this talk I have taken up the theme of fragments, their value, and how one might follow them.

During the talk an introduction on the subject of my PhD was given. My research had involved a codicological study on the L’Isle Adam Manuscript Collection - a set of ten illuminated French choir books dated 1533. Here I also discussed a database that I specifically designed to gather information and carry out a condition assessment on the manuscripts. The talk primarily was about my research on music manuscript recycled fragments and my current research on similar French choir books outside Malta.

Waste material from similar liturgical manuscripts as the L’Isle Adam choir books that were turned into covers for bindings were discussed. As part of my PhD I looked at some of the archival bindings in the Notarial Archives and the Museum of Fine Arts, both in Valletta, Malta. With the changes in the liturgy of the mass that took place after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), entire leaves were cut out of large choir books to accommodate these changes. This was common practice throughout the Catholic world. In the case of the L’Isle Adam manuscripts this meant that new text and music were introduced turning the older leaves into waste material that could either be discarded completely or sold and recycled into covers for bindings.

In other instances covers are now in their third life as flat parchment leaves with turn-ins but no textblock. In some cases, it is evident that fragments came from the same scriptorium as the L’Isle Adam choir books. The stylistic comparisons are extremely close on a number of counts: same palette, same script, same quality skins, same rubrics and ruling patterns.

In these last four years I have been working at the Notarial Archives as a consultant conservator on privately sponsored projects. The Notarial Archives has over 2km of manuscript material spanning over six centuries. It includes thousands of contractual agreements many of which are typically bound in parchment. The reason for having such thick volumes in the collection is because a notary would have to bind all his yearly deeds into one volume. Thick volumes indicate he was a busy notary. So large skins from choir books were perfect to be recycled into covers. At the Notarial Archives we have so far identified about 150 recycled manuscript bindings many of which once formed part of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Music manuscripts were also used as spine linings, stiffeners or quire supports.

In 2015 while transferring some manuscripts from inside a cupboard to safer shelving conditions, I came across a volume with a music manuscript fragment. Upon close inspection it was clear that the cover was once part of an antiphonal. The single folio that now covers the front of a collection of notarial deeds includes part of the readings and chants for the office of matins celebrating the feast of Pentecost. The fragment is folded on three sides: at the head, tail and fore-edge and has been sewn on its fore-edge using a thin cord to hold the springy parchment turn-ins from coming undone. The most exciting part of this story has been finding the coat of arms of Grand Master L’Isle Adam hidden inside the bottom turn-in of this cover. Stylistically this fragment points towards the same style as the L’Isle Adam graduals, that is, to the scriptorium of the followers of the French illuminator Jean Pichore.

The discovery of this antiphonal fragment sheds light on the fact that many more manuscripts were produced than was generally believed. In trying to develop a picture of what truly existed, one is also bound to consider the remnants of what was destroyed completely. There is scope for the study of music history and the history of music literacy through searching for, describing and understanding fragments in such collections. Or from a book historian’s viewpoint, there is scope for the study of bookbindings in helping to interpret the history of choral music.

Another research project I am involved in is also connected to the study on the L’Isle Adam manuscripts. This is a study on its illuminations. The Parisian illuminator Jean Pichore whose collaborators we now know were involved in decorating the L’Isle Adam manuscripts, was also responsible for decorating a set of four choir books in 1520. These are now dispersed in four separate collections: one in Europe at the Staatsbibliotek in Berlin, and three in the United States at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Denison Library in California and at The Houghton Library at Harvard.

I have recently been granted a research fellowship through Harvard University where I have been carrying out research on the Jean Pichore choir book at the Houghton Library. A number of art historical and codicological similarities emerge when comparing these four manuscripts to the Maltese set. The results will be published in the near future.

Since finishing my PhD 8 years ago, my career has followed a trail to identify, analyse and treat manuscript fragments, music or otherwise. In a way my PhD was a point of departure for the study of music manuscripts and their fragments that I was later to embark on during different work experiences.

I have worked on other things in between but the doctoral work has produced a great deal of foundation work that I keep returning to as my point of reference. Here I am not only referring to the subject of illuminated manuscripts and their fragments, but also to the way I have learnt different competences to be able to look at books and manuscripts in general. These include for example, digital techniques to compile data such as the creation of a database; they include pictorial analysis in the form of iconography to be able to identify styles and methods of work. They also include having intellectual resourcefulness to be able to find and use available resources to carry out projects successfully.

My doctoral research has also refined my sensibilities on how to look and interpret fragments which I have also continued to develop through my teaching experiences. I have had the opportunity in the last years to deliver courses about parchment and fragments at different universities working on music and non-music fragments from a number of precious library collections.

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