Murder in Lombardy! The original owner of a rare Italian Book of Hours identified

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 9/52
Book of Hours (here identified as the Hours of Cornelia Rhò), Use of Rome, Philadelphia, Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 206, fols. 16v-17r (full-page miniature of the Virgin and Child, and beginning of the Hours of the Virgin with historiated initial and coat-of-arms)

Though in rather poor condition, a closer look at this neglected Renaissance Book of Hours from Lombardy, Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis E 206, can tell us a great deal about its original context. Despite bearing a Lewis shelf mark, the manuscript was a gift to the Free Library from Simon Gratz (1840–1925), a Philadelphia lawyer, education reformer, and autograph collector. Like an item we examined several weeks ago, this manuscript never belonged to John Frederick Lewis and therefore was not described in the 1937 catalogue of the Lewis Collection’s 200 western manuscripts.1 Prior to being owned by Gratz, the book had been in the possession of another lawyer, George T. Strong of New York (1820–1875), who had acquired the book by 1843, when he inscribed his name on one of the flyleaves. Incidentally, Strong’s notoriety stems from the survival of his 2,250-page diary, rediscovered in the 1930s, which records nearly every day of his adult life in great detail, including the purchase on 30 May 1837 of a “a vellum MS., very splendidly and elaborately illuminated, and several large pictures of the Crucifixion, etc.,” which could plausibly refer to this manuscript, if we interpret the Crucifixion pictures as separate items.2 The manuscript thus came to the New World relatively early on, but that is certainly not where its story begins! 

Beyond this American provenance, the book’s origins have until now remained obscure. Perhaps on account of its somewhat compromised condition, the book was not included in the landmark Leaves of Gold exhibition in 2001. It is therefore essentially unpublished. And yet, present at the bottom of the first page of the Hours of the Virgin, on folio 17r, are a straightforward heraldic escutcheon bearing two impaled coats-of-arms (i.e. shown fully side-by-side to indicate a matrimonial union) and a somewhat less easily discernible name. These elements do not appear to have been altered through overpainting. They therefore must indicate the original owner.


Image result for stemma da rho  
Lewis E 206, fol. 17r (detail of Visconti/da Rhò coat-of-arms) and their modern equivalents below

The right or sinister side of the coat-of-arms is readily identifiable as a serpent devouring a human baby, the famous vipera or Biscione, employed by the Visconti rulers of Milan and incorporated into the arms of their successors, the Sforza (argent an azure serpent devouring a child gules, or, in Italian, d’argento alla biscia d’azzurro ingolante un bambino di carnagione). The heraldic field behind the Biscione appears black due to the oxidization of the original silver. The dexter side of the arms is of a less famous family, the De Raude or da Rhò (Gules, a wheel argent, in Italian, di rosso, alla ruota d’argento), with the cart wheel being a play on the Latin word “rota” or wheel. Happily, the blue cartouche that surrounds the escutcheon contains a still-legible three-line inscription in gold capitals that reads “CO-RNE/LIA- DE/RA-VDE” or Cornelia de Raude.

I thus began to search for an early-sixteenth-century Italian noblewoman of this name. Because the Sforza, the usurpers of ducal power in Milan, re-employed the Biscione in their more complex arms, I initially thought that the combination in our Book of Hours might be a reference to Cornelia, illegitimate daughter of Ottaviano Riario (1479–1523). Ottaviano was himself the son of Caterina Sforza (1463–1509), and the latter was instrumental in the upbringing of her grandchild Cornelia. The date range seemed approximately correct, and the Sforza link could explain the use of the Biscione on the sinister, as well as the inclusion of a full-page prefatory miniature of Saint Catherine a few pages earlier, on folio 15v.

Lewis E 206, fol. 15v, full-page miniature of Saint Catherine

And yet, Cornelia Riario had no known connection to the da Rhò family. Further research allowed me to conclude that the correct identification lies in the person of Cornelia Rhò (birth date unknown, died after 1538), the daughter of Giovanni Paolo Rhò who married Giovanni II Borromeo (known as “Il gigante,” apparently on account of his size!), in 1518. As the son of Filippo Borromeo and Francesca Visconti, Giovanni II was the descendant of a prominent aristocratic line and served as commander of the Sforza infantry. His grandparents, Count Giovanni Borromeo (1439–1495) and Cle­ofa Pio da Carpi, owned a truly splendid Book of Hours illuminated by Cristoforo de Predis (ca. 1443–1486), today in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (S.P.42).3

Cornelia’s mother-in-law was therefore a Visconti (see family tree below). The greater fame of the Visconti dynasty, and the complexity of the Borromeo family arms, which include a small Biscione anyway, are likely what led to Cornelia to elect to include the Visconti arms on the sinister, stripped of the gold crown atop the viper to signify that ducal power had passed to the Sforza. The wedding of Cornelia and Giovanni in 1518 accords perfectly with the circa 1520 date given to the book on account of the style of its miniatures and inhabited initials, which show the ongoing impact of the art of Leonardo da Vinci and his followers on miniature painting in Lombardy. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that this Book of Hours was a wedding gift to the young bride, either from her new husband, his parents, or her own parents.


Family tree of the Borromeo family, from Vincenzo De-Vit, Il Lago Maggiore, Stresa e le isole Borromee notizie storiche colle vite degli uomini illustri dello stesso lago (Prato: Alberghetti, 1877), 112–113

The da Rhò family had their ancestral origins in the town of the same name, some ten kilometers north-west of Milan, but in the late-fifteenth century were elevated by Gian Galeazzo Sforza to become lords of Borghetto Lodigiano, about ten kilometers south of the bishopric of Lodi, in the Lombard plain. Their imposing residence there, the Palazzo Rhò, still survives and currently serves as the town hall. It was built sometime after 1481 (see here for further information and photos).

Borghetto Lodigiano - palazzo Rho.JPG
Palazzo Rho in Borghetto Lodigiano, the former seat of the da Rhò family.

This book is a valuable addition to the biography of Cornelia Rhò, as precious little else is known about her. She and Giovanni II had a son, Filippo Dionigi, the year after their marriage. He would go on to marry the noted poetess Livia Tornielli. Apparently, for unknown reasons, Cornelia’s brother Baldassarre murdered Giovanni II—her husband and his brother-in-law—in 1536!4 The tomb of Giovanni II survives in the Milanese church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, famous for being home to Leonardo’s Last Supper.5 In a future post, we’ll explore the authorship and attribution of the manuscript’s high-quality miniatures and inhabited initials, which can help us to further understand the context in which this overlooked gem of the Lombard Renaissance was produced.


  1. Edwin Wolf, A. S. W. Rosenbach, and Richard W. Ellis, A descriptive catalogue of the John Frederick Lewis collection of European manuscripts in the Free library of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Free Library of Philadelphia, 1937).
  2. George Templeton Strong, Diary, vol.1, Young Man in New York, 1835–1849, ed. Allan Nevins and M. H. Thomas (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 66.
  3. See Luca Beltrami, Il libro d’ore Borromeo: alla Biblioteca Ambrosiana miniato da Cristoforo Preda (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1896).
  4. Vincenzo De-Vit, Il Lago Maggiore, Stresa e le isole Borromee notizie storiche colle vite degli uomini illustri dello stesso lago (Prato: Alberghetti, 1877), 172.
  5. Pietro C. Marani, Roberto Cecchi, and Germano Mulazzani, Guide to the refectory and Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan: Electa, 1999), 67.

3 thoughts on “Murder in Lombardy! The original owner of a rare Italian Book of Hours identified

  1. I enjoyed your piece and explanations. I will now keep my eye out for biscioni and ruote on my travels around Italy!

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