These days, famous lines such as “let them eat cake” have made cultural icons out of historical figures like Marie Antoinette ““ despite the fact that they are historically false. But even back in the Middle Ages, when common pastimes included troubadours, puppet shows, jesters and rooster fights, people fabricated historical events to make them more entertaining.
The J. Paul Getty Museum’s latest exhibition, “Imagining the Past in France, 1250-1500″ features a collection of illuminated manuscripts that tell the story of history as it was understood during the Middle Ages, when people still believed in sorcery. The exhibition runs through Feb. 6, 2011.
According to David Bomford, acting director at the Getty Museum, “Imagining the Past” started with an idea between co-curators Elizabeth Morrison and Anne D. Hedeman when the two women discovered that they shared a mutual passion for historical manuscripts.
After eight years of planning, the exhibition features pieces from more than 25 libraries and museums, most of them ambitious projects commissioned by royalty.
According to Bomford, four of the pieces are loans from the National Library of France, which until now had never left their home country where they were created in the Middle Ages.
“We’re incredibly lucky,” Morrison said. “These are cultural treasures kept in libraries, rarely open to the public. It’s like (lending) the Declaration of Independence out somewhere.”
Morrison and Hedeman said that the manuscripts on display bridge the past and the present and represent a time period when major texts were being translated from Latin to French and made more accessible with illustrations.
In one featured piece, an illustrated translation of “The Trial of the Duke of AlenÃ§on,” the artist, Jean Fouquet, depicts an image of a crowded medieval courtroom filled with eager spectators. According to Hedeman, the artist’s attention to elaborate visual details shows how stories were told through pictures in addition to words.
“Looking was just as important as reading,” Hedeman said.
These colorful manuscripts depict stories saturated with scandal, intrigue and fantasy.
“This isn’t the history you think of when you think of your sixth grade history book. This is exciting history that’s about adventures and epics and heroes and damsels in distress and knights on horseback,” Morrison said.
One display, titled “Alexander Exploring Underwater,” illustrates the legend of Alexander the Great when he discovered an entire world beneath the sea, complete with trees, animals and civilians. Morrison said that even during medieval times, the combination of historical fact and entertainment was a common method of communicating history.
Bomford said that he expects visitors will need to make repeat trips to the Getty Center just to skim the surface of the manuscripts’ intricate details.
“I expect to see (visitors) here every day,” Bomford said.
The Getty has made great efforts to preserve the value of these historical documents. Each manuscript is sealed in cases with silica gel to regulate humidity while charcoal cleanses the air inside each case. The museum’s temperature levels are controlled to maintain the integrity of the pieces.
Visitors are encouraged to “flip” through the pages of these coveted manuscripts using computer terminals that give access to the museum’s digital archives.
In the final room of the exhibit, visitors will find the manuscripts’ stories woven and sculpted onto household objects such as tapestries and ivory boxes.
According to Morrison, the last room is meant to show the many ways the texts have been used in different contexts.
“We want to show how the words have leapt from the page onto other media,” Morrison said.