The Death of Sardanapalus
The Death of Sardanapalus, De cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Geneva, Bibliotheque publique et universitaire Ms 190/I, fol. 63

Visual Translation in Fifteenth-century France:
Laurent de Premierfait and Boccaccio

Professor Anne D. Hedeman

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


This ICMA lecture examined the role of visual translation in shaping reception of the earliest twinned manuscripts of Laurent de Premierfait’s translation of Boccaccio’s De casibus.  Laurent collaborated with a libraire and with the Cité des Dames and Luçon Illuminators to produce a visual cycle of over 150 pictures that served as a guide to reading his translation of 1409.  Many of the visual messages that Laurent devised and his artists constructed work independently of their texts.  In designing and revising these dense programs of decoration, Laurent employed a visual analogue to the rhetorical practice of amplificatio in order to structure the cycles through image doubling by stretching illustrations of selected narratives, such as the examples of virtue and vice offered by Dido and Sardanapalus,  in order to create visual markers within the text.  He employed other images indexically, using them to reinforce textual revisions that he had introduced in his translation of Boccaccio.  Most radically, he broke with the long-standing medieval tradition of placing a large introductory frontispiece at the beginning of the volume.  Instead, he chose to feature the Destruction of Jerusalem, a story and its amplification buried in the eighth and ninth chapters of Book VII to frame interpretation of the entire text.  Laurent must have intended the large scale of the Destruction to capture the dukes’ attention and to encourage them to dip into that section of the book.  If they did, their first encounter with Laurent’s Boccaccio would involve an event central to contemporary political rhetoric about the French civil war.  Though idiosyncratic, this displaced “frontispiece” offered an effective introduction to reading Laurent’s translation as one of the “masterly fair and polished works” that Christine de Pizan said the Duke of Berry enjoyed.  Not only did this unusual frontispiece make explicit the presentness of past things and their resonance with contemporary France, it also encouraged readers to follow amplifications and digressions in the kind of non-sequential reading and discussion practiced in both fifteenth-century humanist and educational circles and in public reading at the courts of France and Burgundy.