Walters sleuth finds illumination in the details

April 09, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

In the world of manuscript scholarship, where perseverance is considered the norm, Lilian M. C. Randall is renowned for persistence of almost superhuman intensity.

Throughout the medieval texts with which she works, the tiniest punctuation mark may be a smoking gun, a doodle in the margin of a calfskin page may be biting commentary on society, and identifying the author of a single manuscript may take years of research.

For the past decade, Dr. Randall, research consultant for manuscripts at the Walters Art Gallery, has been immersed in such details without relief. She has been working full-time on a multivolume catalog of about 500 Western European manuscripts dated from the ninth to the 16th centuries. It is a project of such immensity that her colleagues urged her not to tackle it.

"For the research process, you need an adventurous spirit and curiosity. And knowledge helps," she says. "So does the ability to sit still for a long, long time."

This year holds particular significance for the Berlin-born scholar. It marks the completion of 20 years spent on the Walters staff, first as curator of manuscripts and rare books and then as research consultant. In the next few months, she will finish the third volume of the series -- meaning that, though a fourth volume is scheduled, the end of her project is nearly in sight.

In celebration, the Walters is holding now through May 21 an exhibit that highlights some of her discoveries about manuscripts.

There is much to celebrate.

"Her catalogs are really the most significant catalogs of manuscripts that have been written in about 100 years," says Roger Wieck, associate curator of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

"No one else has had the audacity or the nerve to endeavor to complete such a project -- and succeeded."

Gary Vikan, now director of the Walters Art Gallery, says: "My first action when I became chief curator was to counsel [Dr. Randall] in this project, and I told her, 'Don't try to do it all.'

"I'm glad she ignored me."

The core of the Walters manuscript collection -- considered one of the finest in the United States -- is 730 Western and Near Eastern manuscripts collected by Henry Walters.

Manuscripts are books, usually designed for religious use. Most often hand-written by monks or laymen, they are illuminated (or illustrated) in brilliant inks made of gold, malachite or even small reddish bugs.

The catalog's first volume, actually two books, deals with French manuscripts through 1420. The second details 220 later French works, and the third, again published in two books, describes manuscripts from Northern European countries other than France.

The proposed fourth book will list about 150 Spanish and Italian texts. All the books are being published in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University Press and funded through grants, including several from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Dr. Randall is working to raise funding for the last volume now.)

Her lifelong goal, first through exhibitions (sometimes 12 a year) and now through catalogs, is to make these rare artistic and historic works accessible to the public.

"One of the responsibilities of a curator is to make the collection in your charge as widely available as possible throughout the world with as high a standard as you can muster," she says.

But as a curator, she knows it's not easy selling the idea of manuscripts to the public at large.

"Sex!" she says. "That's what's needed to get people's attention. But there is sex in manuscripts. And violence. Of course, it is of the biblical sort."

As part of her crusade to make the museum's manuscripts more accessible, Dr. Randall -- aided by a team of researchers -- has remained huddled for a decade in the museum's rare-book room, magnifying glass in hand. She pores over book after ancient book, trying to pinpoint origins and authors, and providing descriptions so meticulous that they include remarks on the stitches in the bindings.

Subtle clues

There are many places to stumble. Most of the manuscripts are unsigned, and few are dated, she says.

Another layer of uncertainty was added by Henry Walters, because the collector destroyed all mention of prices and often of purchase dates, which may have provided small hints about each example.

Clues may appear in many forms. First, Dr. Randall examines the book's cover and bindings. Then she studies the style in which the book was illuminated, considering the initial letters and taking note of the border decorations. Last and most important, she reads and translates the text itself; often the illustration plays off the subject matter.

In the exhibit, titled "Manuscript Sleuthing: Discoveries of a Curator," a 15th-century manuscript provides an example of the painstaking attention that must be paid to each book.

Researchers know that the pages of these texts are made from rectangular pieces of parchment folded in half, so the number in each book should be even.

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