An exhibition in keeping with the theme of EXPO 2015
NOT ONLY BREAD – Food, books
Milan - Biblioteca Ambrosiana, 14th April – 12th July 2015
Ytala praeclaros tellus alis alma poetas
“Italy, the earth nurse of great poets”:
this verse written by Francesco Petrarca grasps the
significance of the sublime harmony that inspired the amazing page, painted by Simone Martini for
his Virgil Codex, around 1340 at Avignon. The great Roman epic poet is depicted as ecstatic –
almost in flight as a dream-like David by Chagall – lying not over Jerusalem but above shepherds
and farmworkers intent on their hard work, which will sustain Eneas until victory and the Pax
Romana: Labor omnia vicit improbus “Steady work overcame all things”.(Showcase IV, n°. 7) .
This is the meaning of the Ambrosian exhibition of 14 superb richly-illuminated manuscripts,
among the most precious in the world, originating from the most varied Jewish and Greek, Latin,
Arabic and Italian iconographic traditions which, starting from the theme of EXPO 2015, offer a
reflection on art, science and faith as the nutrition necessary for the insatiable hunger and thirst for
beauty and love that disquiets human existence, désir de beauté (Francois Cheng).
Let us
contemplate some of the masterpieces that represent the indefatigable expressive research by man
through which, as Ian Hacking and Jack Goody perceive, the identity of homo depictor is achieved.
The exhibition emphasises not only the truly unique value of art as a nourishment for humanity but
also the universal contribution by Arab culture to science, with the masterpiece of the
encyclopaedic work on zoology by ‛Amr bin Bahr al-Ğāhiz (Bassora, 776-869). A Scholar probably
of Abyssinian origin, “the Grey Eminence” of the Caliph of Baghdad, a theologian and polemicist,
he examined the problem – ever present – of the harmony between faith and reason. The “Book of
Animals” is his unfinished masterpiece, in which, while on the subject of zoology, he includes
interesting considerations on theology, metaphysics, sociology and psychology, anticipating aspects
of modern theories of evolution, and presenting us with delicate feminine scenes from the harem
(Showcase III, n°. 2).
Next to the most ancient Greek fragment for the Ilias picta Ambrosiana depicting the banqueting
gods as sung by Homer in the Iliad (Showcase II, n. 2), the codex on the Pozzuoli Thermal Baths
(De balneis Puteolanis), illustrated around 1470 in Naples by Cola Rapicano, is highlighted among
the other sumptuous illuminated manuscripts; Pietro from Eboli praises the innumerable benefits
deriving from the Bagno detto Archetto (“Small bath known as the Arch”), which provides
protection from inflammation of the liver, cures rheumatism and stomach-ache, frees the head from
heavy colds and induces a therapeutic feeling of languor. The magnificence and elegance of the
illuminations from the French school are shown in another extraordinarily beautiful page, in which
Sobriety and Greed – The rich banqueter and the poor man at his door (Showcase VI, n°. 12) are
The exhibition opens and closes with eschatological and mystical banqueting scenes deriving from
Jewish and Christian traditions (Showcase VII, nos. 14-15), in which the poetry of wine and
friendship of the symposium intertwine with stars and animals in arcane symbolism. Among these,
the double sheet of parchment, inserted at the end of a magnificent biblical Hebrew codex of
Franco-German origin dating back to 1236-1238, stands out. The last two pages, not illuminated
but painted with different and original techniques, represent subjects that are unusual in Jewish
iconography: on the right a vision of the cosmos with the sun, the moon and fifteen stars with the
seven heavens in the centre, in the outer corners four living beings as described by Ezechiel; on the
left the three animals of the origins – Ziz, Leviathan, Behemoth – and underneath them the
eschatological Feast for the Righteous (Se‛udàt ha-Zaddiqim), which will take place at the time of
the Messiah in Jerusalem (Showcase I, n°. 1).