“Aproche aproche”: Christopher de Hamel on the Duc de Berry’s Collecting

Above the portrait of the Duc de Berry in the January miniature of his Très Riches Heures the golden words “aproche aproche” hang – he is welcoming guests to his New Year’s feast where he is being lavished with riches. “Aproche” means “approach” and is as much an invitation as it is a welcome. The richness of the image does much to draw the viewer in; plates of food and bowls of wine, small dogs and colourful stockings are rendered in bright blues, reds, greens and golds.

It is this opulence on which Christopher de Hamel focusses on in this year’s Annual Centre of the History of the Book Lecture, or more precisely, the process of collecting this finery, and particularly the collecting of fine books. De Hamel’s talk takes us to the town of Bourges in central France where the Ducal seat was based, to the roads and remains of the buildings occupied by the Duc. As grand as this tour is, it is shrouded by a reminder of how much has been lost from this great patron, and the past generally. Of the (roughly) 300 manuscripts held by the Duc, only 114 survive. The Duc’s chapel was demolished in 1757, and the only remains of his buildings that survive are fragments of the once grand palaces. The great library was similarly disbanded.

Two things stand out in the talk; the first is the detail of the books in the catalogue. De Hamel relates how the records were made as a probate inventory after the Duc’s death in 1416, and it is these documents that give us the names Très Riches Heures and Belles Heures, now synonymous with the grandeur of the books themselves. These records detail not only the physical objects but reveal the way they were seen as ‘expensive’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘old’; in short, the books are seen to have great worth even in their earliest years.

The second striking detail about de Hamel’s lecture is the quantity and diversity of material that the Duc collected. Jewels, relics, and illuminated manuscripts are to be expected from a man whose wealth abounds, but shells, the toe of a giant, and other small items of little (or spurious) worth humanise the Duc. Figures from history, mainly rich men from good families can seem fictional and unrelatable, but by drawing out the childhood sentiment of his collecting, the Duc is rendered real, if not relatable. Lustrous with anecdotes, de Hamel speaks of the Duc’s relationships with a Venetian jewel merchant, the boisterous illuminators the Limbourg Brothers, and a friendship with Christine de Pizan. After a meeting between Pizan and the Duc, she describes him as a lover of beautiful books.

As de Hamel leads us into the world of a medieval bibliophile, we stand like Christine de Pizan among the fine books and jewels, entering the demesne of the Duc de Berry as outsiders, travellers from another world. In this year’s lecture Christopher de Hamel and the Duc de Berry both beckon us into their world of fine collections and historical riches saying “aproche aproche”.

Report by Ted Simonds, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh. The CHB Annual Lecture took place in March this year.

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