Life after the Warburg: Lorenza Gay
After completing her MA and PhD research at the Warburg Institute, alumnus Lorenza Gay is now a Cataloguer in the Books and Manuscripts Department at Bonhams, London.
In this ‘Life after the Warburg’ interview, we caught up with Lorenza to learn more about her career in the rare books trade, why she chose the Institute as a place to study, and her advice for graduating students.
Please could you tell us about your current role at Bonhams?
I currently work as Cataloguer in the Books and Manuscripts Department at Bonhams in Knightsbridge. My duties include cataloguing books for our sales, valuing books for prospective clients that wish to sell at auction, and taking part in valuations for institutions and privates.
What might a typical day in the life of a Cataloguer look like?
The great thing about working for an auction house like Bonhams is that no one day is the same. The cataloguing is the only constant, and even then, the books that we sell vary so much that I am always working on something different. In the same day, for example, I might catalogue a fifteenth-century Flemish illuminated manuscript, a first edition Ian Fleming, and a seventeenth-century book on chess. However, there are many other things that I get to do on a daily basis. When we are close to a sale, and all the books are catalogued, I might dedicate more time to proofing our catalogue and preparing the paste-up for the paper catalogue. I might also reach out to clients to flag up items they might be interested in buying. I also visit prospective sellers – those that wish to sell their book collections – be it privates or institutions. It means I often spend time working with people, something I very much enjoy.
Before this, you worked for an antiquarian book dealer – what did you enjoy most about this role?
I enjoyed working closely with the books, as I do now, as well as taking part in book fairs, particularly preparing the materials for them (from the catalogue to the layout of the stand). At fairs, I enjoyed meeting new people from different backgrounds, who all had the same love for books in common.
Any favourite manuscripts?
So many manuscripts, so little time. There are too many to choose from! However, one of my favourite manuscripts is BL Harley MS 4431 (dated to circa 1410), which is a collection of works by Christine de Pizan – one of the first women in Europe to earn her living as a writer. The manuscript is most likely in the hand of Christine herself and it is decorated by some of the best artists active in Paris at the time, with miniatures attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop, and the Master of the Duke of Bedford. This manuscript is also known as “The Book of the Queen,” since Christine had it made for Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI of France. This was one of the key manuscripts of my PhD thesis and the illuminations are all magnificent. I like it so much I even got a tattoo from one of the marginal decorations on folio 95r!
What did you study at the Warburg Institute?
Before completing my PhD (2014-2018), with a thesis titled ‘The French Renaissance of the Pagan Gods: French Manuscript Illuminations 1320-1420,’ supervised by Dr Paul Taylor and Dr Rembrandt Duits, I also completed an MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture, in collaboration with the National Gallery.
Did your experience at the Warburg Institute equip you with skills and knowledge to pursue your current role?
The Warburg Institute equipped me with very strong research skills that I rely on every day. While the research I currently undertake is less in depth that what I used to do at the Warburg, mostly due to time constraints, having those skills means I can still do a good job when working on a book, even when I have limited time to do background research.
What was the most valuable thing you learned during your PhD?
The PhD taught me resilience and determination. It taught me not to give up, even when the going gets tough.
Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place to study, and why?
My years at the Warburg were some of the best of my life - I learned so much and I met great people. It is a wonderful place for study and research due to the amazing collections - the Library, Photographic Collection, and Archive - and to the people that work and study there. Working on the Iconographic Database in the Photographic Collection and on the organisation of the Aby Warburg Mnemosyne Atlas Exhibitions, were certainly highlights of my professional career.
What advice would you give to graduating students also looking to pursue a career beyond academia?
Try to keep your skill-set broad while still maintaining a specialism – being versatile and able in a variety of fields is always something employers look at favourably.
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Lorenza Gay is currently a Cataloguer for Bonhams Books and Manuscripts department in London. As an art historian with a particular interest in iconography and the history of the book, her PhD, which she completed in 2018, focused on the depiction of pagan gods in fourteenth- and fifteenth- century French illuminated manuscripts.
Before joining Bonhams in May 2022, Lorenza worked in the rare books trade for an antiquarian book dealer. She also has curatorial experience, including the Warburg Institute’s Aby Warburg Mnemosyne Atlas exhibition, organised with the Haus de Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, and The Shape of Time exhibition, organised with the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan.