The Gualenghi-D'Este Book of Hours

Written by  Laura Graziani Secchieri

Portrait of a court gentleman and his family.

The exhibition Cosmè Turo e Francesco del Cossa. L’arte a ferrara nell’età di Borso offers food for thought in the singularity of all the works it features. The Book of Hours which is known by the names of the couple who commissioned it – Andrea Gualenghi and Orsina d’Este – enables us to meet one of the many families which both helped to consolidate the Este government and encouraged the flowering of Ferrara’s culture in its different aspects. On loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Book of Hours – which measures a mere 10.8 x 7.9 cms – unites the work of two of the greatest miniature artists of the second half of the fifteenth century: it opens with Taddeo Crivelli’s Annunciation, on the left, and the Madonna and Child signed with Gulglielmo Giraldi’s initial “D” on the right. The clients are indicated on the first plate by a scroll bearing the motto FORTIS EST INASPERIS NON TVRBARI, “courage does not yield to difficulty”, and on the second by the Gualenghi crest, with its pair of golden lions. The same coat of arms can be seen carved in the stone capitol on the partly walled open gallery in the main courtyard of the entrance to the family house at Via Paglia 27.

Crivelli makes reference to Gualenghi’s important kin acquired by marriage in his use of Este family emblems, such as the eagle and anchors, which appear in the margins of other miniatures in the manuscript. His wife, the acknowledged natural daughter of Nicolò III by the wife of a blacksmith, Antonio Rampini, was one of his many illegitimate children celebrated in the popular saying Di qua e di là dal Po son tutti figli di Nicolò (“On either side of the Po/They’re all the children of Nicolò”). Andrea Gualenghi was Orsina’s third husband. The couple are thought to have commissioned the two artists to produce the precious Book of Hours at the time of their wedding in 1469, or shortly afterwards. Crivelli’s plate 25 gives us a glimpse of the noble appearance of the knight and his wife, flanked by an adolescent and a child, in the act of prostrating themselves before Saint Bellino, Bishop of Padua. The saint was killed in 1147 during the taking of Fratta; he was a native of a village on the Po Delta which was later dedicated to him, and where the Gualenghi family held land and property. The inclusion of the saint in the manuscript may reflect a particular devotion to him, or may represent an implicit tribute to Gualenghi’s Po Delta estates. Surrounded by his family, Andrea Gualenghi kneels, extending his hands towards Saint Bellino, who stands before him. Their faces, their posture, even the ochre and pink marbling on the chapel wall all converge on the Bishop and his right hand, which points to heaven; the saint is represented as an intermediary between heaven and earth, in a religious celebration which miraculously celebrates the union beyond time of the 11th century bishop and the knight and his family. Just as the Breviary represents the book of prayer to the religious, so the Book of Hours serves as a text for prayer and meditation for lay worshippers. It’s not hard to imagine Andrea holding this precious book between his hand while asking Saint Bellino to intercede with God on behalf of his family and – why not? the house of Este.