Giovanni Giampietrino Birago (1471-1513)

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Giovanni Giampietrino Birago, previously known only as The Master of the Sforza Book of Hours and before that as the Pseudo-Antonio da Monza, was finally identified as the illustrator of the Sforza Book of Hours in 1956.

The one and only work he is known to have produced is the series of illuminations which constitutes the Sforza book of Hours.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

Illumination for The Book of Hours

Yet, he obviously enjoyed a high reputation in his day considering that he was able to charge five times more for his work, 500 Ducats, than his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci was able to charge for his famous Madonna of the Rocks, 100 Ducats.

Customers in Milan must have been very sharp art connoisseurs for indeed, the Sforza Book of Hours is a masterpiece of Renaissance illumination.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours
  Illumination for The Book of Hours 

The book was ordered by Bona Sforza, wife of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, duke of Milan from 1466 to 1476. Unfortunately, before he was finished, some 27 pages were stolen from Birago’s workshop by Friar Johanne Jacopo, seemingly working for the Duke of Milan’s half-brother.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

 Illumination for The Book of Hours

So, some 27 leaves ended up with the half brother. This theft took place around 1490.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

Illumination for The Book of Hours

The rest of the Book of Hours survived; it was eventually completed years later by another artist, the Flemish illuminator Gerard Horenbout; it was treasured and made it down the ages and in 1893 was donated to the British Museum.

Now, it’s been a while since 1490, and one would think that the stolen pages have long had an opportunity to be destroyed, but in 1931 the Munich dealer Jacques Rosenthal exhibited one of the stolen pages: The Adoration of the Magi.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

Illumination for The Book of Hours

Ten years later, in 1941, it was anonymously given to the British Library. An inscription on the reverse indicates that it came from the collection of the French Baron Jean Davillier, who died in 1883, and whose collection came mostly from Italy.

How interesting that one of the stolen pages would show up 441 years later. How many other pages could be in existence somewhere, unknown and otherwise unauthenticated? The possibilities are endless.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

Illumination for The Book of Hours

This is not all. In 1984, another page, depicting the month of May, was purchased by the British Library from New York dealer Bernard Breslauer. Before that, it had been seen by a scholar in the late 1950s with Italian collector Tammaro de Marinis, who died in 1969, and had been based in Florence and Lausanne. This page was also said to have belonged to Charles Fairfax Murray, who died in 1919, a British connoisseur.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

Illumination for The Book of Hours

There is more. Just recently, the page for the month of October was bought from Chicago dealer Sandra Hindman, for US $351,000. She had acquired it from Bernard Breslauer, before his death on 14 August. This page appears to have the same history as the May page. All three recovered pages may therefore have remained in Italy until the late 1800s.

Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

Illumination for The Book of Hours

So, it is clear that the pages stolen in 1490, including the very desirable calendar, have survived. The question is where are they? The British Library wants them. We want them too. If the accounts are correct, 27 pages were stolen, which leaves 24 pages which have not yet come up.

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Birago Painting, Illumination for The Book of Hours

Illumination for The Book of Hours