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The Burke Collection of Early Italian Miniatures

To my surprise, I learned that it was possible to acquire paintings by notable Renaissance artists that had been commissioned as part of the decoration of these several-hundred-year-old manuscripts. The age, beauty, and historical importance of the works attracted me greatly, perhaps because I had studied the art and history of this period for six months in Italy [as a Stanford undergraduate], and perhaps for aesthetic and subjective reasons I do not yet fully understand.

– T. Robert Burke

Every great collection of medieval materials begins with a moment in the collector's life when a passion sparks into a flame that burns across years and decades. Sir Thomas Phillipps, the 19th-century manuscript collector, described himself as a "vello-maniac," so great was the desire that drove his urge to collect.

Bob and Kathy Burke are charmingly low-key about the magnificent collection of Italian manuscript miniatures that they have built over slightly more than twenty years. Their assemblage of many of the greatest artists of the Italian medieval and Renaissance periods began here in the Bay Area in 1996. As Bob describes it in the quote above, a visit to the 1996 Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco was the moment that he and Kathy began their enterprise.

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By 1998, the couple had acquired six pieces. The spark had become a flame or, as Bob says, "My natural tendency toward compulsive behavior was in high gear." However, that tendency quickly led to an approach that put incredibly productive boundaries around their activity. After a few initial forays that included non-Italian works, the Burkes became focused on the very specific period of time in Italy that marked the shift from the medieval to the Renaissance. Bob's experience in 1962 as a Stanford sophomore on the Stanford Overseas Studies program in Florence, Italy, laid the groundwork for this particular focus. Most of the works in the core of their collection range from the late-13th century into the 16th century. In the microcosm of this collection, we can see the emergence of artistic ideas that mark a cultural shift that would spread across Europe.

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The question I have not addressed is: why do we collect? That is a tough one. Although there are many pragmatic aspects of art collecting, it is essentially not a pragmatic activity. We love the art for reasons that are subjective, emotional, psychological, spiritual and aesthetic.

– T. Robert Burke

In 2017, the Burkes made the generous decision to deposit their works in Special Collections at the Stanford Libraries. They are eager to see the works used by students and researchers, and the Libraries are delighted to be able to facilitate that use as temporary stewards of the collection. This online exhibit is one way of making the Burkes' treasures available to the world. There are also contact details on the About page of this site for those who wish to study the works in person.

The love that the Burkes have for this art can be glimpsed in the diversity of images that we can offer through this site. We invite you to engage with the materials here, find connections, help us to expand our knowledge of these objects and, above all, explore - through the link at the top of this page, or through the Browse page of this site.