The conundrum of the golden camel

The conundrum of the golden camel
Susan Thomas investigates a riddle in one of the library's medieval manuscripts
1 March 2015

This post was originally writen for the regular feature Medieval Manuscripts in The National library of Australia Magazine 

Page from Book of House

Book of Hours (detail)  c. 1500 in Clifford Collection of Manuscripts Mainly Relating to Roman Catholicism, c. 1250–1915, Manuscripts Collection, nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms1097-6

This late fifteenth-century book of hours (a collection of prayers and psalms for private devotion) from the Ferrara region of Italy is one of several examples from the Library’s collection that can now be viewed online. A medieval manuscript reflects the time and place in which it was created and, while the precise details of this book’s history have not endured, clues to its past can be found in the way in which it was made, the choice of text and style of decoration.

For reasons lost to us today, the book’s decoration is unfinished; there are a number of pages that contain outlines of what were intended to be intricately worked letters. The book appears to have been produced in a commercial workshop in which several scribes and artists contributed different sections. This shared system of book production flourished in Italy from the thirteenth century, making for faster output and answering a growing demand from an emerging educated merchant class for that ultimate accessory—a book!

Among the tantalising riddles associated with the manuscript is the meaning of the camel at the foot of the first principal folio. Images of camels are not unknown in medieval bestiaries (illustrated moral compendiums of real and imaginary animals), but this one is depicted in what seems to be a heraldic shield, surrounded by a laurel wreath and flanked by two putti (cherubs). The camel was originally rendered in gold or silver (now degraded) on an azure background.

Coats of arms were a popular way of personalising books in Europe at this time and provide evidence about the owner of a manuscript. Preliminary research suggests that the shield is associated with the Gobio family, who were prominent in Mantua (74 kilometres from Ferrara) from the thirteenth century.

This finding has generated much excitement among Library staff, but there are still questions to be answered before we can solve the longstanding conundrum of the golden camel. Was the book commissioned by the Gobio family and duly ‘stamped’ with their family shield? Could it have belonged to another Italian family with a camel in their coat of arms? Or was it associated with a town, some of which also have camels in their shields?