Liverpool, the Renaissance and a little-known manuscript of Poggio Bracciolini
This being conference season, when I flew away from Dublin, I had four days to prepare a paper for a second conference. This was a one-day event, organised in Liverpool by my friend, Stella Fletcher, and sponsored by the Society for Renaissance Studies, entitled ‘William Roscoe and Italy.’ Stella can be proud of herself for arranging what proved to be a highly successful occasion, held in the refined surroundings of The Athenaeum Club, and attracting both academics and a range of interested local people. It was also an an event from which I learnt greatly.
William Roscoe, Liverpudlian banker, political liberal, art collector and biographer of both Lorenzo de’ Medici, the so-called Magnifico (1796), and his corpulent son, Leo X (1805), is himself far beyond my usual intellectual stomping ground. The furthest my studies have previously reached in the history of scholarship has been the antiquaries of the early eighteenth century, in particular Thomas Hearne. But my task for the day was to discuss the work of Roscoe’s self-declared disciple, Rev. William Shepherd (1768 – 1847), who penned the first – and, so far, only – English Life of Poggio, first published in 1802, with a second revised edition in 1837. That second edition was informed by the Italian translation of Sheperd’s biography, which appeared in 1825, augmented with detailed footnotes – and undertaken by no less a person than Cavaliere Tommaso Tonelli who went on to produce the edition of Poggio Bracciolini’s letters which remained the standard work until the 1980s.
The role of Roscoe and his circle in developing British studies of the Renaissance has received some popular notice recently, including a name-check on Bettany Hughes’ BBC radio programme. It struck me from last week’s proceedings, however, that its significance may still be underestimated. In terms of the history of British scholarship, Roscoe and Shepherd – religious dissenters and political radicals wedded to their North-western identity – seem to me to mark out a particular approach to learning, quite distant from that of the antiquaries in either of the university towns or in London. In terms of the historiography of the Renaissance, these English authors, and their Italian enthusiasts, provide a perspective which has been too often overlooked because their approach was largely superseded by what could be called the Swiss school, comprising such divergent figures as Jean Charles Sismonde de Sismondi and Jacob Burckhardt. Burckhardt’s Civilisation of Italy in the Renaissance, like the works of Karl Marx in a different field, had an influence that was immense but is now increasingly incomprehensible. Burckhardt’s evocative image of the discovery of individualism, in which everything became a work of art created for one’s own use, has proven an engrossing mythology. Perhaps, though, if scholarship had not gone down that particularly beguiling path, and continued with the approach of Roscoe and Shepherd, which saw an association between mercantile cities and cultural achievement, but did not dress it up in tales of individualism, less ink may have been wasted. Roscoe was father of other myths, certainly, but perhaps they would have proven less corrosive.
My time in the Athenaeum – of which Roscoe was a founder member – was made all the more productive because I had chance to see a manuscript there. William Shepherd was given a manuscript of Poggio’s Epistolae which was sold at auction the year after his death. The manuscript survives, though it is not listed in Neil Ker’s Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, nor is it mentioned in Helene Harth’s 1980s edition of Poggio’s Lettere. The oversight might not be that surprising: when I visited the Athenaeum, they were not sure that they had any such thing but I was certain it was there as it had been seen by that exacting scholar, Martin Davies, who mentioned it in print in Italian Studies in 1993. And, sure enough, the helpful staff at the Athenaeum kindly hunted out the volume and I had a happy half-hour studying it. It had been bought by the Athenaeum at the auction of Shepherd’s library. It may not be of great textual value, but its interest lies not just in the fact that it owned by Poggio’s nineteenth-century biographer and annotated in pencil by him. The manuscript was produced in Italy in the third quarter of the century and may have spent its first years there, but what I discovered is that it has marginalia by an English hand, demonstrating it was in this country by the early sixteenth century at the latest. It is witness, then, to the English interest in that most human of humanists, Poggio Braccolini – an interest to which William Shepherd was a worthy heir.