Donato Acciaiuoli, Charlemagne’s Life

Italy, Florence
MS 180

A superb example of Florentine scholarship and Renaissance book design, this volume was also a subtle tool of cultural diplomacy. It evoked the ideal of the Renaissance prince while demonstrating Florence’s intellectual and artistic superiority. The author, Donato Acciaiuoli (1429-1478), was a distinguished scholar and diplomat. His friend, Vespasiano da Bisticci (c. 1422-1498), the most influential Tuscan book dealer of the day, oversaw the manuscript’s production. He employed two masters of Renaissance book making, the Humanistic scribe Messer Piero di Benedetto Strozzi (1416-c. 1492), and one of the Medici’s favourite illuminators, Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (1433-1484). The close relationship between author, scribe, artist and book agent demonstrate the importance of this manuscript to the Florentine ruling elite. The volume was produced quickly – between Louis XI’s coronation on 15 August 1461 and 27 October 1461 when the Florentine ambassadors set off for France.

Learn more about the manuscript by exploring the sections below or selecting folios on the right. Discover further details by choosing any of the folios with the hotspot symbol .

Two artists illuminated the manuscript: Francesco di Antonio del Chierico and one of his close associates.

The manuscript was made for Louis XI of France (1461-1483). By 1811, it belonged to Auguste Chardin (c. 1750-1823). Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745-1816), acquired it in 1814 and bequeathed it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816.

The dedication page displays an elegant design modelled on Carolingian manuscripts, but updated with the royal arms of France. The author’s prologue and the main text open with gold initials and full borders of white vine scrolls. The rest of the text has no ornamentation.

The artists’ delicate palette includes lead white, azurite, a copper-carbonate green, red lead and lead-tin yellow. Pink and purple hues were obtained with two organic dyes. Mosaic gold is present alongside shell gold and gold leaf. Black pigments are notably absent. They are substituted by earth pigments and probably iron-gall ink, used to obtain a variety of brown hues. Despite overall similarities, some slight differences exist between the pigments used on different folios.

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Detail of a cockerel in the left border under magnification (7.5x).
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Detail of a deer in the lower border under magnification (7.5x).
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Detail of a butterfly in the right border under magnification (7.5x).
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Detail of the orange cloud below the cherub’s foot under magnification (60x), with yellow highlights also visible. The FORS spectrum of the cloud (below) shows the characteristic transition edge of red lead at 560 nm, alongside features due to the azurite blue sky below and nearby.
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Detail of the cherub’s blue robe under magnification (20x), showing a light blue layer with white highlights and a translucent purple wash in the shadows. The FORS spectrum of the robe (below) shows the characteristic absorption bands of azurite at c. 1495, 2284 and 2352 nm.

Donato Acciaiuoli’s Vita Caroli Magni opens with a title and an initial C executed in gold leaf. The initial is enveloped in white vine scroll on blue, pink and green background, which also forms the full border, inhabited by cherubs (putti), birds and deer (hotspots 1-3). The border also includes a medallion with plants and the royal arms of France supported by putti. The latter show subtle visual and material differences with the putti painted in the same position on fol. 2r (hotspots 4 and 5), supporting the attribution of the decoration to two different artists.