Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books

Exhibition Website

Sep 22 2016 - Jan 16 2017

Just as we question today whether printed books will become extinct in the digital age, this exhibition invites you to revisit the era when the advent of printing made hand-painted manuscripts obsolete. In the 1400s book production witnessed groundbreaking advances in design and technology that transformed pages from parchment (animal skin) to paper, script to font, and vividly colored illuminations to black and white prints. A surge in literacy and demand for books drove innovation. These radical changes did not occur instantly but through a gradual process of experimentation marked by notable leaps in achievement. Much like analogue and digital culture today, manuscripts and printed books co-existed for a long period serving different purposes and readers.

In this exhibition, we will visit the studies of scholars, princely libraries, places of worship, and printing presses of Renaissance Italy to explore how the ancestor of the modern book was perfected around 1500, thanks to innovations of the previous century. These developments arose from the efforts of Italian humanists, scholars who found inspiration in ancient Rome to create a new book for a brighter future. Whether you prefer a Penguin paperback or a Kindle, you are indebted to their inventions.

The Gardner’s show is part of an ambitious city-wide collaborative project entitled Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections, which is the largest ever exhibition of medieval and Renaissance books held in North America. The Gardner joins Harvard University’s Houghton Library and Boston College’s McMullen Museum as one of three venues which will simultaneously display 260 outstanding painted and printed books selected by a team of local experts from 18 Boston-area institutions. Learn more at

Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.

  • Books / Manuscripts
  • International
  • 15th - 17th Century
  • Various artists

Exhibition Venues & Dates