I recently wrote a review for Renaissance Studies of a work which deserves the epithet ‘monumental’: the long-awaited, two-volume comprehensive study of The Reception of Plutarch’s Lives in Fifteenth-Century Italy by Danish humanist scholar Marianne Pade. It is so important because there was a veritable vogue for Plutarch translations in the early quattrocento, particularly (though not exclusively) of his Lives, which appealed to humanists as improving, diverting and thankfully short. Plutarch’s place in the humanist revival of classical literature is well-known but has not previously received such sustained study.
I notice that there are already a couple of reviews on-line of this work, by Julia Haig Gaisser and Maude Vanhaelen; it is not my intention to repeat here the substance of my own review, which will appear in print early in 2009. You will already be in little doubt of the praise I heap on the work, not least for the meticulous scholarship on display in the second volume, which edits all the surviving dedications of the Latin translations of Plutarch’s Vitae and a full listing of the extant manuscripts. I do mention in my review that I have a very few corrigenda and addenda to her catalogue of manuscripts which I promise to place here on this site. So, below, are the few comments I can make which I hope will be of some use. I attempt to follow Pade’s layout and use her abbreviations for the names of Lives and translators.
Delete 230 = 220 (The Norfolk Library, held at Gresham College, listed by Bernard, eventually entered the BL as the Arundel MSS).
253: Present location remains unknown but a later sighting, after it left Dyson Perrins collection, can be noted: it was in the Witten catalogue of 1975 as lot 82 and sold for $3150.
325 = Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Ashmole 780, s. xvii. Paper. A manuscript of only 14 leaves, consisting of brief lives in English, which may in part précis Plutarch.
Add 395.5: Paris: Les Enluminures Gallery, sine numero, s. xv3/4. Paper, northeastern Italy. Po / IA (attrib AP).
441: According to Kristeller, Iter Italicum, ii, p. 146a, it was destroyed in the Second World War.
Add 556.5: Verona: Biblioteca Capitolare, MS. CCLV (227). Thm / G+ (1 – 17v).
The information about 253 I garnered from the useful resource the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, which records the appearance of manuscripts in sales catalogues over the centuries. From that, a few additions to Pade’s catalogue can be made of manuscripts in private hands and so presently inhabiting Utopia:
Add. i: 1438?. Last sold at Sotheby’s in 1965 (Rukh catalogue, lot 205). Original Italian binding. Mbr. Mar / ??. Context: Sallust, De bello Jugurthino.
Add. ii: s. xvmed. Last sold by Sam Fogg in 1995 (catalogue 16, no. 98). Paper, Venice?. Lu / LI.
Add. iii: 1450?. Last sold at Sotheby’s in 1936 (Mensing catalogue, lot 469). Mbr, Florence. Cam / OL.
Finally, as Pade includes entries which have material related to Plutarch’s Vitae which are not the Latin translations, there are further manuscripts which can surely be added. I offer one example:
Add 470.5: BAV, MS. Cappon. 247. s. xv. Bru / Giovammaria dalla Porta (volgare; ded. Francesco Maria della Rovere, duke of Urbino).
If and when I find further information, I hope to add it to this brief listing.
A footnote to one of my earliest aperçus (or posts, if you prefer a more wooden term). The attentive may remember that I mentioned the humanist re-invention of the diphthong, marking the combination of two vowels which make a single sound by writing both of them or eliding them into a digraph. The generations immediately preceding the humanists, wielding the orthographical equivalent of Ockham’s Razor, would have gone for the simpler option of just dropping the first vowel.
Walking through the streets of Leiden yesterday evening, I came across a playful example of over-correction. It was a poster for a forthcoming concert by the consort or band who call themselves The Mediæval Bæbes. It depicted them — appropriately given their chosen name — with décolletage intended to raise an eyebrow or some such. What caught my attention, of course, were those digraphs. They suggest what one would assume anyway: that their chosen name is self-consciously ironic. Their website takes it further and places a suspension mark — the sign that a word has been abbreviated, leaving our a letter or more, like a circumflex in French — over each of the digraphs. That combination of suspension mark and digraph is surely knowing nonsense.
It should be said that ‘medieval’ in English English (the American version is less open to the possibility) can be spelt with the digraph as ‘mediæval’ — and, indeed, reflects pre-gothic medieval uses: in manuscripts in caroline minuscule, the script before the gothic bookhand, the diphthongs were often marked. From what I can tell, the band’s music reflects various influences, including the Celtic tradition, but, in Leiden, the poster was placed alongside other advertisements for concerts which may interest the Netherlandish community of ‘goths’, an audience which surely would demand the digraph be dropped. But then they would be ‘The Medieval Bebes’, which is hardly alluring. On the other hand, as the ‘ae’ diphthong is pronounced close to an ‘i’, saying ‘bæbes’ could end up sounding as if the speaker had a strong West Country accent.
As a footnote to this footnote, I note The Mediæval Bæbes are appearing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival — one hopes no turf-war would break out between ‘Meds’ and ‘Rens.’ At the Festival, guests are asked to decide which dish they consider most evocative of the Renaissance: the choice includes turkey legs and cheesecakes on a stick.
Being a new inhabitant of this corner of the inelegantly named blogosphere, I am not yet fully acquainted with its geography. So far, I have encountered few sites whose primary interest is the Renaissance; the ever-useful Society for Renaissance Studies website provides a useful list.
In the absence of a large encampment of Renaissance cogniscenti, we are left flick-switching, so to speak and as so often, between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern.’ In the latter category, I note that I have received an honourable mention on Early Modern Notes, which has its own very instructive resource of ‘blogsetc’. Moving in the other direction, the Digital Medievalist is the nom-de-plume — should that be nom-de-écran? — for an American Celtic scholar who also helpfully provides information not only on conferences and events in the real world but also of other medieval characters with a virtual existence.
If you know of any other sites which should be added to this ‘blogography’ for their assistance in providing access to a wider Renaissance universe, do enlighten me.
A grassed avenue stretches ahead to the lake, beyond which stand twin recumbent statues. Off to the right, through a lightly wooded glade, a small bridge leads to the bottom of the slope above which stands the North Front of the house. That Front is impressive, but less so than the double colonnade which adorns the opposite frontage. Entering through the South Front into the hall and the place utterly reeks of taste, with its marble columns and busts in the classical style. Its elegance is only slightly diminished by being unskilfully executed in the faux-antique images of some of the ceiling frescoes.
The house is West Wycombe Park, designed in Palladian style in the 1750s for Sir Francis Dashwood. And here is the incongruity: this is Dashwood best known for his pranks and his prick. He travelled Europe, causing havoc in the Vatican, returned home to be both an MP and the founder of the Hellfire Club, for which much has been claimed: drinking beyond excess, orgies beyond nature’s limits, not to mention satanic rituals. Some of this may be far-fetched: this was a man who rejected papistry in all its forms and was willing to prove it through mocking practical jokes, but however much he believed the Black Legend, it does not follow he performed Black Masses. But his name lives on, I find, in both popular music and ‘erotic fiction’ as an apostle of debauchery.
This afternoon saw a short excursion to West Wycombe and I am left musing on the relationship between Dashwood’s taste and his decadence. We know very well that both can live together in one person — and, indeed, in those incongruities humanity lies. The house itself allows hints of this other side, in portraits of the master pretending to be the pope, echoes of the art of the Palazzo Te or in the frescoed celebration of Bacchus. But did Dashwood himself see any conflict between these elements in his existence? Did he return from a night at the caves, soiled and stinking of drink, and looked up at his house with a pang of guilt? Or did his house which screamed elegance make him run screaming from its order to find something less ordered, more primal? Is culture too much for a human to bear or is it a necessary escape from the bare human?
When was the Renaissance? It is an old question which came to mind as I was walking around the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood House last week. The temporary exhibition ‘The Art of Italy: the Renaissance‘, is one half of a larger show of works from the Royal Collection, previously presented in London, where it also covered the Baroque. In the smaller but elegant space available in Edinburgh, the display allows us to muse on some memorable paintings, as well as drawings and a very few books. What struck me was that nearly all the items are datable to the sixteenth century: they include well-known portraits by Parmigianino, Agnolo Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, as well as more enigmatic images by Titian and Lodovico Pozzoserrato (whose Italianised name hides his Netherlandish identity); the oldest work was a copy of the masterpiece published by Aldus Manutius from his Venetian press in 1499, the illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Where, I wondered, was the Renaissance of the quattrocento, the fifteenth century, that is home to me?
It is not as if the Royal Collection lacks art from fifteenth century Italy. I remember, about fifteen years ago now, having, in effect, a private view of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court – they had, at that point, been removed from the public rooms, but, being a pushy student, I asked to see them. It was a memorable half hour in front of images remarkable for their classicising style and sheer magnitude, with an equally interesting history to tell as one of the purchases of Charles I from the sale of the Gonzaga treasures. Perhaps the Mantegna are considered too frail to travel for exhibitions, but there are other quattrocento works available as well in the Royal Collection. The Queen can feast her eyes on a work by Benozzo Gozzoli, best known for his lively frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. Up the road and to the right from there, the convent of San Marco hides within its tranquil, contemplative walls the work of Fra Angelico, also represented among Her Majesty’s artworks. The exhibition could also have branched out into ceramics and included the bust by Guido Mazzoni of a laughing child, owned by Henry VII as one of the first Italian Renaissance items in the English royal collection. But all were absent, leaving out at least a century of what I would consider Renaissance art.
The Royal Collection’s decision implicitly to define the Renaissance as sixteenth century is in many ways a return to an old fashion. Many would now use the terms High Renaissance and (though highly problematic) Mannerist to describe the trends in art of the generations of Michelangelo and his followers. But, to the nineteenth century, this is where it truly was: the art of the quattrocento – Masolino and Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna himself – constituted ‘the Primitives’, before the grace and supposed perfection of the early cinquecento so influentially by Vasari. Few, however, would consider that we should return to those designations or that periodisation.
The real question, of course, is whether it matters. After all, the Royal Collection have provided a pleasurable exhibition which fits into the space available. In many ways, it does not matter or, rather, should not – but there are two current issues which do give it some import. In the first place, it relates to the academic division between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’, which, in history departments tends to fall around the year 1500. As someone who studies both sides of that divide and who sometimes describes himself an expert in that part of the Middle Ages called the Renaissance, this is one more example of a tendency which reinforces an unfortunate separation which we should be working instead to undermine.
This, though, is about more than the relatively unimportant matter of how academic departments choose to organise themselves. What is also at stake is how we perceive historical ‘progress.’ There are surely few, if any, historians who would admit to believing that there was some definable shift from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’, a moment or simple process moving from one era of society to another. The passage from past to present is more complex, and much less about a linear vector of development, than that would suggest. But I would want to take this further and to warn against making too close an association between different cultural ‘movements’ or phenomena. Historiography can provide many ‘Renaissances’, particularly clustered in the sixteenth century but – as the case of Italy shows – not confined to that time-period. In popular textbooks, the impression can be given that those Renaissances, usually defined by country, share an identity, as if it were a baton-race from nation to nation. It is wise to be aware of the evident links between these phenomena, but all the more essential to appreciate the disconnections and the distance between them. In the end, we can use the concept as we wish, either confining our own use to the sixteenth century or allowing to range from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in chosen contexts – just as long as we recognise we are always constructing ‘Renaissances’ for ourselves rather than expressing some ineffable reality.
In short, it is tidier to have a Renaissance confined to the sixteenth century and certainly less complicated to imagine it was a single phenomenon which manifested itself across Europe. But, in this case, I am on the side of messiness.