Primer of Claude de France

MS 159 - Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, United Kingdom)

Alternate Titles:

Fibel der Claude de France, L’Abécédaire de Claude de France

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Alternate Titles

Fibel der Claude de France
L’Abécédaire de Claude de France

Extent / Format

20 pages / 26.0 x 17.5 cm


Anne de Bretagne Queen of France

Artist / School

Guido Mazzoni


36 miniatures, 12 vignettes, 2 full-page illuminations and 21 initials on gold ground with golden architectural borders

Former owners

Richard, seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion

Short description

The primer of Claude de France was created by the Italian court painter Guido Mazzoni in 1505. The work belongs to one of the rarest book genres of the Middle Ages, namely children’s books. It probably helped the future French Queen Claude learn to read. The codex shows the alphabet with various types of letters and the most important Christian prayers of the time. Numerous paintings similar to watercolors set in golden frames decorate the manuscript.

Facsimile editions available


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 payed close attention to 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. First in the 18th century, the manuscript was listed in the private collection of a wealthy English family. In 1808, the Irish philanthropist and antiquarian Richard, Fitzwilliam of Merrion acquired the book and bequeathed the book 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.

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