The frontispiece of Tom Phillips’ artistic rendition of Dante’s Inferno seems to have received iconic status in the years since its appearance in 1985. I have seen it displayed at exhibitions, reproduced in scholarly volumes and in newspapers, as well as appearing on websites including the blog of the energetic and learned Kenneth Clarke, Miglior Acque.
I used it myself in a lecture last weekend at a well-attended study-day on Medieval Italy at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. My purpose was to illustrate the latterday Anglo-Saxon fascination with the dark forest of Dante’s mind, which he have inherited from our Victorian great-grandparents. I took the opportunity, however, to do something, which seemed to be appreciated by the audience and which I am repeating here. An icon is a work that transcends its immediate purpose and production but, in the process, it can suffer by losing its context. It has become easy to overlook Phillips’ ultimate source for his image: a fresco by Luca Signorelli in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
Signorelli’s draughtsmanship, with his tendency to rather weather-worn human figures, may not be to everybody’s liking. The image I have reproduced, in fact, takes the depiction of Dante out of its own original context, surrounded by grotesques and four grisaille images of scenes from the Comedy. But the juxtaposition of it with Tom Phillips’ better-known picture can, I think, remind us of the freshness of his image, precisely by showing us where he was imitative and where not. He takes the hunched, engrossed character and makes him more noble, with sharper outline. He transforms the nature of the book, so it pays homage to his ‘Dux’. He adds the intriguing vista. Placing them together, I think, helps explain to us why the later image is becoming an icon.
A brief post on medieval political thought. I have been re-reading Magnus Ryan’s Alexander Prize Essay on ‘Bartolus of Sassoferrato and Free Cities’, published in 2000 but first delivered as a paper several years earlier: I recall sitting in Keble in 1996 amidst bemused modernists, listening to this searingly intelligent and radical re-positioning of the thought of the fourteenth-century jurist and his most famous dictum, civitas sibi princeps.
But what struck me today was an obiter dictum in the piece, a quotation from Bartolus’ De Tyranno that reads:
…raro reperitur aliquod regimen, in quo simpliciter ad bonum publicum attendatur et in quo aliquid tyrannidis non sit…
This called to my mind a comment of Giles of Rome in his weighty and influential (if, frankly, for the most part unexciting) speculum principis, De regimine principum:
…forte vix autem nunquam reperitur aliquis qui fit omnino rex quin in aliquo tyrannizet, esset enim quasi semideus si nihil de tyrannide participaret. Inde est ergo quod dominantes aliquid participant de cautelis regiis et aliquid de versutiis tyrannorum… [III.ii.11]
When I first read that passage, I described it as like a strike of lightning, momentarily setting ablaze the whole volume. For Giles, who is so willingly to place the prince above the laws, a little tyranny is a natural thing; he does not see that as setting a challenge to his trust in the prince. Bartolus’ world-view was sharply different, but was he consciously echoing Giles’ thought and phrasing when he made a similar comment? And, for both, is this the ultimate result of the reconciliation of classical civic thought with Augustine’s Christian critique — in the face of evil rule, to give a slight shrug of the shoulders?
I have been fascinated for some years now with the burning of books. I can pinpoint the moment when my interest was kindled: I was wandering the galleries of Louvre and stopped before a large, not highly accomplished, canvas. It was Eustace Le Sueur’s Paul Preaching at Ephesus, painted in 1649 (a couple of months after, on the other side of the Channel, a king had lost his head); it formerly hung in Notre Dame. Paul stands at the centre of the picture with, in front of him, the locals rushing to tear up their books and throw them onto a small but lively fire at bottom-centre of the image. I was standing, in this temple to high culture, before a celebration of biblioclasm.
The episode from Acts has proven a fairly rich vein for similar images. The National Gallery in London has what appears to be a preliminary version of Le Sueur’s painting. Several decades before Le Sueur, the Italianate Dutch artist, Maerten de Vos, painted the same scene (now hanging in the excellent Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels). A couple centuries later, Gustave Doré, most famous for his illustrations of Dante, included a similar depiction in the scenes he selected from the Bible. In all of these, there is the anachronism that bound codices, not papyri rolls, are what are being thrown onto the fire. And all naturally follow The Book in seeing the burning of books as a virtuous act.
What brought this information flooding back into my mind the other day was an article in The Times that my fiancée, knowing my curious interest, brought to my attention. The article is about the Nazi destruction of books in May 1933, the precursor to Kristallnacht five years later, and (according to the article) a staging post on the road to the Holocaust. The inspiration for the article is a book dedicated to the incident which was published last year (though The Times describes it as new). It is by a German journalist, Volker Weidermann, and called Das Buch der verbranntem Bücher. I would not want to judge the book by this article; perhaps that can be done another day. Instead, what I wish to highlight is the mismatch between the article and the headline the sub-editor gave it.
The article itself expresses the accustomed shock at the destruction of Jewish and other ‘degenerate’ books, and I took part in that shock as a reader. I instinctively recoiled at the mention of universities actively condoning the book-burnings by attending the occasions. But, then again, such connivance was hardly a twentieth-century invention: Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was honoured by being burnt in the quadrangle of the Bodleian here in Oxford in 1683, thirty-two years after its publication. Our shock at biblioclasm is our culturally-conditioned reaction but it can hold us back from asking historical questions of the phenomenon. It may also give book-burning a power that, most often, the act itself does not have.
What struck me most in The Times’ article was the description of Weidermann’s own buying up of the books proscribed by the Nazis and his discovery that one bibliophile in Munich had ‘spent all his life and money collecting 15,000 first editions of the banned books’. That is a huge number of texts that were banned — and that survived the act of destruction. It would be interesting to know if any work had been completely extinguished in those fires: the likelihood is low. If the Nazis, with their religion of the automated, their science of inhuman organisation, believed that their bonfires could actually end the life of books, they under-estimated the ability of technology to subvert their plans. This is the point captured in the title of the article: ‘The Vanity of the bonfires’.
It is a bitter irony, of course, that it proved easier to destroy a people and whole communities than it did texts. The Nazis were not the first to prove this point — there was a history at least five hundred years old before them. It is not fashionable now to talk of a ‘print revolution’ but that transformation of information technology from individual manuscript to replicated print did change the dynamic between text and book-burner. Even in a manuscript culture, a text could survive the burning of both book and author. But, in print culture, the ability to ensure complete destruction became increasingly difficult. To my mind, the anachronism in the paintings of Le Sueur and de Vos, depicting bound books in front of Saint Paul, speaks to this: it takes the volumes of their own generations and transposes them to a golden era when their destruction could actually have been achieved. And it is surely not accidental that interest in this biblical scene arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as confessional strife lit bonfires across Christendom.
My point is this: the age when book-burning could succeed in destroying knowledge is an Arcadian past. The bonfires may be an act of hate, a symbol of destruction — but, most often, they demonstrate the impotence of the powerful in the face of pen. If book-burnings do have an ability to crush learning, it may not be because of the act itself, but because our reaction is to be shocked and cowed. The despairing on-lookers add fuel to the fire.
Soon after Prof. Holmes’ death, I wrote a few words. At the time, I lamented that there had not been any obituaries of him in the broadsheets. That has now been rectified by columns in both The Times and The Telegraph. There will, in the fullness of time, one assumes, be a memoir to him in the Papers of the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow. Similarly, I can state with some certainty that Renaissance Studies, which unusually for a learned journal demonstrates its humanity by including obituaries of leading scholars in the field, will devote a few pages to a description of his life and work. I have been asked to write that piece.
If you know of any other obits that have or will appear, please do add a comment to this post.