The digitized manuscripts of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Marlay cutting It. 12
Marlay cutting It. 12 – The Burial of St Monica at Ostia (left) and St Augustine Departing for Africa (right).

That little jewel in the in the center of Cambridge that is the Fitzwilliam Museum is home to an extraordinary collection of paintings, engravings, and most importantly for us, digitized medieval manuscripts. These manuscripts are available online (and linked in our app) so we went to give a look to see what wealth is available to us.

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s website

Following the link in on the DMMapp, you are taken directly to a list of all the digitized objects made available from the Fitzwilliam Museum that contain the keyword “manuscript”. As you will notice, on the left there is the possibility to further refine this search by showing objects that contain images, by maker, production place, etc., giving you plenty of control over what you would like to find.

Master of the Murano Gradual
Master of the Murano Gradual, The Dormition of the Virgin from the Gradual of San Mattia in Murano, Venice, c. 1420

Manuscripts are partially digitized and in most cases you will not be able to browse from front to back cover, but you will still be able to look at more than 700 digitized and described objects. The metadata is of alternating quality. In some cases you can read through a detailed description of a manuscript (MS McClean 172 is a perfect example), in others you might find the title and some basic information only (see MS CFMurray 15).

The technical problem with the images is that they are “responsive”. This means that the smaller your screen is, the smaller the digitized image shown will be. Furthermore there is no direct way to view the images full size, or to zoom in and out. That is a bit inconvenient; although a user-friendly solution (you will always see a good image, no matter on what device you are on), it doesn’t help a researcher that might be interested in the small details.
Finally, the size of the images themselves are not amazing. They are actually rather small: with the long side hardly ever going above 720 pixels, one could say they are “HD Ready” more than “Full HD”.

Although rather small and not perfect to navigate, the digitized pages are still an excellent starting point for both researchers and manuscript enthusiasts.

What can I find there?

Fascinating to us is the presence of an inhabited letter attributed to the Master of the Murano Gradual. If you have visited the Getty Museum’s collection after reading our post about it, you will note a striking resemblance to one of the digitized images available there. To prove the quality the descriptions available there, we strongly recommend that you give a look at the notes available on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s page regarding their initial. It narrates a very fascinating story about miniature painting in Italy in the late 14th century.

And don’t forget the miniatures by the “Masters of the Beady Eyes”! Awesome!

Masters of the Beady Eyes
MS 1-1974 – Illumination in the style of the Masters of the Beady Eyes (Maîtres aux Yeux-Bridés), who were active mainly in Ghent during the third quarter of the fifteenth century.

Overall, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website and its digitized collection is most certainly worth more than a visit. There is a lot of content worth viewing, and navigating through it is a pleasure. Go and see for yourself!

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Giulio Menna
Giulio is an MA graduate in Book and Digital Media Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is also system librarian at Leiden University Library. Founder and developer of Sexy Codicology and the DMMmaps Project; lover of medieval manuscripts and of all things digital.

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