Poet’s little book a big labor of love

Petit Livre d'Amour, a collection of love poems, remains as romantic today as when love-struck poet Pierre Sala wrote it for his sweetheart and future wife, Marguerite Builloud, in the 1500s.
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Miniature of Pierre Sala dropping “his” heart in a marguerite for his beloved Marguerite.

Miniature of Pierre Sala dropping his "heart" in a marguerite for his beloved Marguerite.

Most people buy a card for their loved one on Valentine’s Day and call it a day. Some will put in a little more effort by buying flowers, candy or a fancy dinner, too. But no one will likely step it up like French poet Pierre Sala did. 

In the 1500s, Sala created Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) for his beloved future wife, Marguerite Builloud. A Valentine’s gift to top all Valentine’s gifts, Petit Livre d’Amour is an ornate bespoke book that measures around 4-1/2 by 3-1/2 inches and was not only handwritten by Sala in French, it was written with gold ink on pages made of purple velvet. Sala’s prose is accompanied by beautiful color illustrations by an artist known as “Master de la Chronique Scandaleuses,” including one of Sala himself.

The book also has a small wooden carrying case covered with leather done in an ornate flower design colored green and gold, and carved with devices including the letters P and M (for Pierre and Marguerite) formed out of crossed compasses or staves. On the case’s edges are rings intended for a chain to suspend the book from his lover’s belt.

We’re not sure what Marguerite’s reaction was when she got the book, but we’re guessing that swooning was involved.  

The illustration of Pierre Sala at the end of the book.

The illustration of Pierre Sala at the end of the book. 

Sala began the first few pages of the book by describing the love and relationship between him and Marguerite, and the rest of it consists of 12 “iconologues,” which are a combination of prose and poetry on the left-hand pages, and corresponding illustrations on the right-hand pages. Five of these relate to love and give a more realistic view of it, rather than the purple prose you might expect from a poet pouring his heart out on purple velvet.

The other iconologues cover more moral topics, including how you shouldn’t limp in front of a lame person; another illustration is of a man carrying another one on his shoulders while stamping on a man lying on the ground, which is an illustration of the proverb, “Trampling on one man to help another.” Scattered throughout the book are more initials of M and P.

The ornate carrying case.

The ornate carrying case.

Sala’s metaphors are able to exalt beauty, while retaining poetic wit and a critical distance before the vulnerable state of his lover. One of the best iconologues is where Pierre tells Marguerite that he wants to put his heart in a marguerite daisy, and that his thoughts will always be with her. In the accompanying illustration, you see a man literally placing his heart in a giant marguerite.

For more information and photos, visit the British Library at www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts