A Manuale is a general term for one of the many books that guided the Christian religious rites beyond the Mass. Since every church community had its own books of this kind, these can largely vary in content. As the opening words are written in gold, this codex was a commission of the highest rank and use in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, a famous church run by the Augustinian order. Indeed, the present richly decorated manuscript bears many characteristics of Augustinian use, with prominent attention to Augustinian saints in texts and decoration. A papal bull cited in the manuscript refers to the year 1493 – which shows that the book must have been composed in or after that year. As the church was being seriously renovated during this period, new books may have been commissioned at the same time.
The opening page of the main text is adorned with two fine historiated initials, surrounded by full borders lavishly decorated with gold, including six medallions with portraits of the prophet Isaiah, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (pictured with a book, a lily, and a glowing sun on his breast), as well as Saints Stephen, Lawrence, Monica and Augustine. The text opens with the initial F that contains an image of the Virgin and Child behind a ledge inscribed 'S. M. D. POPVL' (Santa Maria del Popolo). The image was painted after the famous icon of the Virgin and Child that has been in the church since c. 1230. The second initial, E, encloses a portrait of Saint Paul. The largest and finest initial in the book contains another superb portrait of Saint Paul. Furthermore, there are 31 smaller illuminated initials with partial border, marking the most important feasts. Two more initials are historiated, for example the second 'Corpus Christi' initial depicts a chalice and host, and the 'Invention of the Cross' depicts the Cross. The entire book is lavishly decorated with very fine pen-flourished borders.
The famous church devoted to Santa Maria del Popolo became one of the most richly decorated Renaissance churches of Rome. Several members of the Della Rovere family were involved in its restoration, beginning with Pope Sixtus IV. Other members of the family were buried there. Both the Basso della Rovere chapel and the Della Rovere (or Nativity) chapel were decorated by Pinturicchio and his assistants. In the 1480s and 1490s they painted frescoes that are still greatly admired today. In the early 16th century, Pinturicchio was again employed in Rome by another high ecclesiastic of the della Rovere family: Pope Julius II. As the manuscript dates from the same period, possibly someone in or near Pinturicchio's workshop may have received the commission to illuminate this Manuale.
Not many years later, in 1511, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther stayed in the monastery attached to Santa Maria del Popolo during his visit to the eternal city. In Rome, he became most disenchanted with what he saw of his fellow clergy. This deception was to have the most serious consequences.
Only some fifteen years later, in 1527, Santa Maria del Popolo and its monastery were pillaged during the Sack of Rom. However, the present Manuale with its refined pen-flourishes and illumination survived the ages unharmed and is a unique testimony of one of Rome’s finest churches.