A Nostalgic Filter: A University of Pittsburgh Exhibition


The medievalist Michael Camille once suggested that facsimiles of medieval manuscripts are ‘nostalgic mirrors’ that primarily reflect the desires of the modern era in which they are made. Though intended as a critical reminder that copies never fully recreate their models, the phrase also presents an apt characterization of what facsimiles offer, even if only imperfectly: not only the appearance, but also the experience of medieval books. This exhibition thus embraces Camille’s analogy and extends it to the concept of the lens, or the filter, that mediates online viewing in a moment of social media but also social distancing. Facsimiles do not replace originals; nor do they reproduce them with perfect authenticity. Instead, they invite us in to see the books from new perspectives, to become curious, to turn the pages, and to learn.

This student-curated exhibition for the University Art Gallery (UAG) at the University of Pittsburgh displays illuminated manuscripts through print and digital copies, with a focus on the University of Pittsburgh’s outstanding facsimile collection.  Rare and collectible books in their own right, these lavish copies are designed to reproduce the look and feel of their inaccessible models as closely as possible. Unlike illustrations that only present a single page as a detached image, facsimiles show manuscripts as coherent books, contextualizing their illuminations within complete objects that preserve many traces of use and provenance that have accumulated between their covers over the centuries. As organizers of the exhibition we have been mindful of preserving and promoting this quality of the facsimiles in an online format, using video, photography, and digitization to see old books in new ways. In a time when most of our interactions happen online, handling and manipulating the books offered a rare experience: one rooted in the physical dynamics of the turning page.  We invite you to join us as we leaf through this collection together. 

The exhibition is divided into six thematic sections which can be navigated using the table of contents in the upper left-hand corner. The sections were developed to reflect particular strengths in Pitt’s facsimile collection, which has been shaped in turn by the teaching and research priorities of students and faculty over many decades.

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