Art history mystery solved at Rice University

When Melisa Palermo, a Rice University art history Ph.D. student, entered the university’s Fondren Library more than three years ago to study a 500-year-old music manuscript, little did she know her research would lead to an astounding discovery.

Rice art history Ph.D. student Melisa Palermo identified the previously unattributed music manuscript and its image of an Old Testament prophet as the work of 15th-century Spanish painter Pedro de Palma. (Credit: Tommy LaVergne/Rice University)

Using an art historian’s keen eye and analytical skills (art historians call it “connoisseurship”), Palermo was able to identify the previously unattributed manuscript and its image of an Old Testament prophet as the work of 15th-century Spanish painter Pedro de Palma. Hand-drawn on a large vellum sheet and beautifully illustrated, the manuscript had been donated to Rice in 1949 by New York City bookseller and antiquarian Paul Gottschalk and is housed in the library’s Woodson Research Center as part of the Illuminated Sacred Music Manuscript Collection.

Palermo said a good amount of information was already available before she put the final piece together. For example, it was known that the manuscript, also referred to as a “folio,” dated back to 1500 Spain and was part of a choir book. The folio’s music and words – Psalm 66:4 – were chanted during the introit, the initial chant of the Catholic Mass on the second Sunday after Epiphany.

After perusing a wide range of sources, Palermo, who has an interest in religious iconography, had a eureka moment. “I actually ordered through interlibrary loan a book on Pedro de Palma, and when I looked at it I saw the uncanny resemblance between the Rice folio, the figure of the male (prophet), and the other images in this book,” Palermo said. “I made the connection that it’s Pedro de Palma, who is the artist that we see on our folio.”

Palermo’s research was part of a spring 2010 seminar on “Multicultural Europe, 1400-1700,” taught by Diane Wolfthal, the David and Caroline Minter Chair in the Humanities and professor of art history at Rice. At that time, Palermo was in her first year of doctoral studies as a member of the Art History Department’s first Ph.D. cohort. “She (Wolfthal) introduced me to the folio and she wanted me to find out more information about it,” Palermo said. “I took on the project not really knowing what I was going to find.” Her de Palma attribution was confirmed in a recent article by Rosario Marchena Hidalgo, a professor at the University of Seville and expert on de Palma.

Joseph Manca, the Nina J. Cullinan Professor of Art and Art History and Palermo’s doctoral adviser, said identifying a work’s previously unidentified artist is an art historian’s passion and purpose. “It’s important from an art historical point of view that we know who did it,” he said. “This was a chance for Melisa to come and apply her skills. It took some sleuthing and figuring out and comparing it to other works, but it was finally something that she managed to do – and now the whole world knows about it.”

Palermo said she felt honored to be able to study the piece, and she encouraged the Rice community to take advantage of Fondren’s hidden treasures. “It’s a special object,” she said. “It’s a privilege to be able to look at it so closely. It’s here at Rice. Anybody can come and ask to view it and they can also enjoy it.”

For more information about the Illuminated Sacred Music Manuscript Collection, visit http://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/13014.

About Jeff Falk