Primer of Claude de France

Primer of Claude de France Facsimile Edition

Romorantin, Loire Valley (France) — 1505

More than just a "children's book": the magnificently illuminated primer for the daughter of the French queen Anne de Bretagne with beautiful insights into the medieval world

  1. Guido Mazzoni's (ca. 1445–1518) work belongs to one of the rarest book genres of the Middle Ages: children’s books

  2. The educational codex for Princess Claude de France (1499–1524), daughter of Queen Anne de Bretagne, shows inter alia the alphabet in various scripts

  3. Above all, the painter created realistic insights into medieval cities, Renaissance palaces, and natural landscapes

Primer of Claude de France

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  1. Description
  2. Detail Picture
  3. Single Page
  4. Facsimile Editions (1)
Primer of Claude de France

The Primer of Claude de France was created by the Italian court painter Guido Mazzoni, considered to be one of the most gifted and versatile artists of his time, in 1505 at the behest of the French queen, Anne de Bretagne, who was a highly educated patron of the arts. It belongs to one of the rarest book genres of the Middle Ages, namely children’s books and probably helped the future French Queen Claude learn to read. The codex depicts the alphabet with various types of letters as well as the most important Christian prayers of the time and is adorned with gorgeous miniatures resembling watercolors, which are set in elaborate golden frames. Its décor includes 2 full-page miniatures, 36 smaller miniatures, 12 vignettes, and 22 decorative initials as well as artful golden frames for both text and imagery.

Primer of Claude de France

Primers, from which children learn the alphabet and reading, only existed among the upper crust in the Middle Ages. At the least, only a few medieval manuscripts of this type have survived. Probably the most beautiful of these rare examples if the Primer of Claude de France from 1505. The codex, which shows the alphabet in parts with variations of lettering, as well as containing the most important Christian prayers, is endowed with a multitude of valuable pictures. Two full page pictures and 36 miniatures framed in golden borders with architecture and embellished with initials of brushed gold decorate the codex.

Commissioned by the Queen of France

In the year 1505, Claude, the firstborn daughter of the French queen, Anne de Bretagne, was six years old. Anne is considered to be a highly educated lover of art and a few Italian Renaissance artists were working at the French court at this time. The queen, who highly valued Italian art, wanted to enable her daughter to teach herself how to read and write. She commissioned the Italian painter Guido Mazzoni of Modena to design a work in a child-oriented format. Along with an explanation of the alphabet, the codex also needed to contain the daily prayers that every child in the Middle Ages needed to learn. Guido Mazzoni was considered to be one of the most gifted and versatile artists of his time because of his sculpture, painting, and book illumination.

A Posterchild of French Book Art

The eventual Queen Claude was herself a renowned lover of books. She prized her first codex and it is possible that she used it to teach her own children to read. The later whereabouts of the work are not precisely known. The manuscript was first listed in the private collection of a wealthy English family in the 18th century. In 1808, the Irish philanthropist and antiquarian Viscount Richard Fitzwilliam of Merrion acquired the book and bequeathed it after his death to the University of Cambridge along with an opulent collection of manuscripts.

An Enchanting Wealth of Imagery

The primer opens with a full page painting of Queen Anne de Bretagne, who is depicted in the company of her namesake, Anna. Following this painting are 36 miniatures, which relate the events of the creation story through the Fall of Man and the death of Adam and relate therewith the sacred history up to the birth of Jesus Christ. The picture stories were annotated with clear, large script in small description fields. For the depictions of landscapes the painter chose nearly transparent colors, which would show pictures like watercolors and allow the sharply contoured and lightly colored figures to move into the foreground. The miniatures are framed with architectural borders of finely shimmering brushed gold. The codex closes with a portrait of the young Princess Claude who is likewise depicted with her namesake, Claudius.

An Adept Master

An unmistakable detail of the primer is the realistic borders and decorated initials which embellish the miniatures and text of the book. Guido Mazzoni accumulated a lot of experience in the depiction of architecture as a sculptor. The borders show golden, artfully contoured and bedecked columns, bases, and capitals that lend the miniatures a decorative frame. The painter succeeded in reproducing realistic insights into medieval cities, Renaissance palaces, and natural landscapes. He set the impressive pictures against a text, which was decorated with golden initials that were at times outlined with flowery ornaments, birds, and angelic figures. The Primer of Claude de France continues to be a pleasure for the eye of the beholder to this day.


Alternative Titles
Fibel der Claude de France
L’Abécédaire de Claude de France
Size / Format
20 pages / 26.0 × 17.5 cm
36 miniatures, 12 vignettes, 2 full-page illuminations and 22 initials on gold ground with golden architectural borders
Artist / School
Previous Owners
Richard FitzWilliam, 7th Viscount FitzWilliam of Mount Merrion (1745–1816)

Available facsimile editions:
Primer of Claude de France – MS 159 – Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, United Kingdom) Facsimile Edition
Quaternio Verlag Luzern – Lucerne, 2012
Limited Edition: 980 copies
Detail Picture

Primer of Claude de France

Annunciation to the Shepherds

The shepherds tending their flocks near Bethlehem when Jesus was born are shown here, some looking awed while one has his arms crossed skeptically, in the moment that an angel of the Lord appeared to them. Depicted in blue and gold leaf, it holds a banderole and declares: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk. 2:10-11)

Fibel der Claude de France
Single Page

Primer of Claude de France

Anne of Brittany Praying to St Claude

Here we see a typical patron portrait of Queen Anne, who commissioned the codex for her daughter Claude. The miniature is presented in a golden architectural frame with her coat of arms displayed in the bas-de-page with a motto and held by an angel standing on a pillar to the left. Her arms are presented once more on the carpet that she kneels upon as a pious example to her daughter.

The Queen, dressed in yellow, kneels alongside a youthful Virgin Mary before a prayer desk covered by a blue cloth with more personal symbols: “A” initials and fleur-de-lis. They are being presented by Saint Anne to Saint Claudius of Besançon, Princess Claude’s patron saint. The Queen’s face is particularly detailed as is St. Claude’s cloak, highlighted by a thin layer of gold.

Fibel der Claude de France
Facsimile Editions

#1 Fibel der Claude de France

Quaternio Verlag Luzern – Lucerne, 2012

Publisher: Quaternio Verlag Luzern – Lucerne, 2012
Limited Edition: 980 copies
Binding: Reddish-brown leather modelled on the original binding
Commentary: 1 volume (175 pages) by Roger S. Wieck, Eberhard König, and Cynthia J. Brown
Languages: English, German
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
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