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Giorgio Giulio Clovio or Klović (1498 – January 5, 1578) was born in Croatia and is considered the greatest illuminator of the Italian High Renaissance, and perhaps the last notable artist in the long tradition of the illuminated manuscript.
So exactly what is an illuminated manuscript? You probably immediately think of the Book of Hours, a Christian devotional book popular in the MIddle Ages and the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. It is a perfect example of decoration, where initials, borders and miniature illustrations are added to a text. Technically, an illuminated manuscript is one decorated with gold or silver, but the term is now commonly used to refer to any decorated or illustrated manuscript in the Western tradition.
The portrait of Clovio was painted by El Greco between 1570 and 1571. In it, Clovio is an old man, pointing to his most favorite book, Officium Virginis or the Farnese Hours, which was decorated by himself. Tradition has it that his dexterity in painting miniatures was so great that he could paint the whole of the Last Supper on a fingernail!
Clovio was born in Grižane, a village in what is today Croatia. Where he received his early
training is not known, but he may possibly have studied first with the monks at Fiume of Novi Bazar, a town in Bosnia. He moved to Rome when he was 18, where he lived in the household of Cardinal Marino Grimani and studied under Guilio Romano, an Italian painter and architect and a pupil of Raphael. One of Clovio’s his first pictures was a Madonna after an engraving by Albert Durer.
Clovio lived an exciting life, travelling around Italy and eastern Europe, following his commissions . In 1523, Clovio went to Buda, to work at the court of Louis II, King of Bohemia and Hungary-Croatia, but returned to Rome when the king was killed in battle in 1526. He resumed contact with Giulio Romano, and studied the work of Michelangelo. Rome was
sacked in 1527 and Clovio was captured and imprisoned, during which time he vowed to devote his life to religion if he escaped. Which he did, and moved to Mantua where he entered a Benedictine abbey and continued to develop his talent of painting miniatures.
With some help from Cardinal Grimani, he was released from his vows, but apparently continued to follow a somewhat monastic lifestyle. He spent several years in the service of Grimani, executing some of his most beautiful works. He painted with the patronage of such powerful figures as Cosimo II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Phillip II of Spain and
Portugal, but then returned to Rome. There, he spent nine years completing his masterpiece, the paintings that decorate the so-called Farnese Hours. The Farnese Hours, commissioned by Cardinal Allessandro Farnese, who would become Pope Paul III, was completed in 1546 and contains twenty-six lavishly-detailed full-page miniatures and a few dozen more pages illuminated with elaborate border decorations.
Clovio himself recommended to Cardinal Farnese’s attention the young El Greco, a sincere admirer, who painted his portrait. He died in Rome at the ripe old age of eighty; his tomb is in the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, where Michelangelo’s Moses is also found.