My ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century has recently been made available on-line. In that, I try to place Weiss’s first monograph into its intellectual milieu and to provide some suggestions of how the tale of English engagement with the studia humanitatis — and vice versa — could be revised by a new approach building on the work of Weiss and those who followed him, in particular A. C. de la Mare. What I could not do is to bring to life Weiss’s character — and I can only wish I had more opportunity to delve into his biography, for it is intriguing.
This self-proclaimed ‘count’ had certain exotic allure in his early life because he had made the decision to emigrate from Italy: he appears, for instance, in Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. It is said that he arrived to go to university in Cambridge, did not like it, so rushed over to Oxford and persuaded them to take him. Quite why he wanted to adopt Britain is the subject of rumour rather than hard fact but it is said that he settled here out of dislike for the Fascist regime in the land of his birth. There is, though, one piece of plausible information that might help to corroborate this rare insight into his politics.
In Oxford, he was fortunate enough to fall into the ambit of John Buchan, whose son was at Oxford with Weiss, and who lived at Elsfield, only a few miles outside the city. Weiss’s connexion with Buchan continued after his undergraduate days, with him acting as an informal research assistant when Buchan, then Governor-General in Canada, was completing his biography of Augustus. That work itself was partisan in its politics, drawing unfavourable comparisons between the first Roman Emperor and his soi-disant successor, Mussolini. Soon after its publication, it was translated into Italian but was revised or censored so as to remove those comments. Long after the War, in 1961, it was reprinted in Italian — and it is said that it was Weiss who revised the translation to reinsert Buchan’s original criticisms of Fascism. No reference is made in the volume itself to the identity of the reviser.
Away from politics, those I know who remember Weiss describe him as a ‘gentleman’ — and as a gifted cartoonist. He used to etch Christmas cards for his friends and apparently sat through the inaugural meeting of the Society for Renaissance Studies drawing impressions of those around him. They do not, I think, survive, though some of his papers did reach the Warburg where, looking through his notebooks written in his neat small handwriting and which record both his intellectual pursuits and practical, mundane necessities, you feel you are in his presence. He died a year before I was born. Having spent some time with not just his works but also with tales of him, I can only wish it had been otherwise.
Books are as static as stones. They sit inert on the shelves, though, in my room, some are piled so high on their sides there is a chance that one day one might topple over and slip to the ground, from where it can not fall any further. It will lie there until I stoop to help it up again. Yet, books are also highly movable, more so than, say, many paintings or furniture. A book’s stasis is a temporary state, a front to hide the active career it has had – and could have again at any moment, if I take it off the shelf, flick through it, or throw it across the room in disgust, or give it away in an act of generosity I know I will later regret. Each book is a travelogue that can never be finished.
Take the book in front of me. Its price sticker has not lost its stickiness yet. It sits on its back cover and tells me I parted with £12.99 in Blackwell’s, Oxford. Integral now to the book is my ownership note, written, as is my practice, at top left of the front flyleaf in pencil: it reminds me that I brought it home to Catherine Street from the Broad on 12th June 2007. I wonder: how far had it travelled before then? The title page tells me that the work was published by University of California Press (Berkeley Los Angeles London): which side of the Atlantic was it manufactured? The text was composed in the States or, at least, that would seem to be where Steven Rendall produced this English translation of a French work. The book is shy about revealing his whereabouts. It is only by moving away from my book and checking on-line that I learn he was then based in Eugene, Oregon as Professor of Romance Languages (he now lives in France). So, the work must have been a dialogue between neighbouring states: the original author signs the preface ‘La Jolla California’. That is over 400 miles from where the publishers would have been sitting. The work was well-travelled even before it was printed. It first appeared in 1984, but the publication details record that the ‘first paperback printing’ was in 1988. In fact, I suspect my book of not being honest with me: it must be lying about its age. The same page records ‘the paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (R – 1997)’. I do not know what this means but another look on computer records that this industry standard for paper quality was released on 1st January 1992. So my book must date after that. And several years: the cover design, involving a photograph by Toshi Sasaki, was created by Victoria Kuskowski – ponder on the cosmopolitanism conjured up by those names – and Kuskowski, the internet says, left Wesleyan University in 1998 and was senior designer at the relevant press from 2001 to 2006. Despite what it claims, my book is not yet ten years old but, with the quality of paper, I should be reassured it can last for ‘several hundred years’ – if fire, or water, or simple neglect do not kill it first.
A book like this can be reluctant to reveal all about its origins; it misinforms and it simplifies its own history. We are complicit with that simplification. We hand over the money in the shop and leave with it, thinking little about how it came to be there in the first place. Leave aside the odyssey of the text from Paris to Oregon to California (and presumably back and forth) before it was typeset. My book – my unique copy, with its price sticker, ex libris and slight stain down the outer edges (was that there before today?) – had undergone its own journey: from computer screen to print run, and then via binding and warehouse to purchase order and coming to rest on a shelf in the Norrington Room, Oxford’s underground treasure-house of books. And, then, the next instalment of its story began when I purchased it. How many lives it must have touched on its travels, and none of those lives any more able than myself to conceive of all the others who had become in some small way associated with each other by this paper object. To what mundanity a book, however arcane the wisdom of its text, is witness; to what humanity a book is also testimony.
Like it or not, Oxford’s name can not escape from being associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, in the loose sense of the mid-nineteenth century British artists who claimed inspiration from pre-Mannerist Italy. It is appropriate, then, that the first show in the new temporary exhibition space in the revamped Ashmolean should be on the likes of Ruskin, D. G. Rossetti and Burne-Jones. It is a significant change of location from the old exhibition room, where about twenty years ago, I remember seeing a previous display on the Pre-Raphaelites. There is more space and more spaciousness, assisted by the vista over the new central lobby from the main window in the middle of the three rooms. The lighting in the first room is so low that, while the pictures themselves can be seen, the captions often remain shrouded in gloom. That, though, can be remedied: the new rooms themselves are surely a success.
I should have started: like it or not, and I don’t. I am no fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and I did not go to swoon at them; I was there for the ‘and Italy’ of the exhibition’s title. I stayed for two hours because what it had to tell of Italy was engrossing – what was on display was an Italy that was more imagined than remembered, that was simplified from the clutter of its many lives, and celebrated in its passing rather than for its future. Let me clarify those aspects by reference to one painting for each.
I. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante Drawing an Angel on the Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853)
A year after its painting, Ruskin wrote to its creator congratulating him on his ‘glorious work – the most perfect piece of Italy, in the accessory parts, I have ever seen in my life’ (my italics). The phrasing suggests a way of seeing which might be alien to most of us who go to this exhibition: we soak up the stories the images we want to tell, but some contemporary eyes saw something greater, an evocation of a nation, not just an event. Those accessory parts are, one presumes, both the vistas of seen through the doorway and the window – a verdant garden and a waterside cityscape – and the interior décor of the room, with its drapes and angel-head carvings. None of those, of course, could have been painted from life or from memory: Rossetti’s Italian name hid the fact that he had no more first-hand knowledge of Italy than did William Roscoe. The latter, as I have said before, is mocked for daring to write on Florentine subjects without setting foot there; Rossetti receives less censure.
The distance between a viewed Italy and an imagined one is perhaps summed up by the cityscape Rossetti depicts in the distance: it seems to avoid any attempt to emulate the physical Arno and its banks. The image is removed in space and also, obviously, in time – and yet, for Ruskin, it conjures up a ‘perfect piece of Italy’, a concept of a place more intriguing for being idealised – and nearly as dead as Beatrice.
It is stating a commonplace to recognise that outsiders’ concepts of a nation provide an imagined country. But it is interesting to ask how a vision became constructed and so to notice what locations inspired those Pre-Raphaelites who did, unlike Rossetti, have the opportunity to visit Italy.
A vagary of any exhibition is the unintended impact of the selection of material it has, by necessity, to show in its confined space. The images on display in the Ashmolean suggest an interest in Italy that centred on a few places – Venice, certainly, and Verona also, as well as Florence, though Lucca seemed to receive as much attention. Other cities have walk-on roles – Pisa or Padua, say – but it still interesting what is not here. Nothing of Siena, nor of Arezzo. Umbria is notably absent, as is Emilia Romagna or Lombardy. The selection, as I say, skews the evidence but it does hint at how the appreciation for ‘Italy’ was highly selective and partial. There was not an attempt to grasp the variety of the peninsula but rather to extrapolate from a smaller set of stimuli, declaring those inspirations to be the mark of what had been Italian genius.
It also mattered that it was a genius that had had its glory days. Again, it is Ruskin’s enthusiastic reaction to an image that is revealing. The American Newman was praised for ‘exquisitely [rendering] the colour of the marble … still uninjured by restoration’. The idea of restoration as damage still has its pull for us: we tend to prefer our history delapidated and romantically suggestive, rather than prosaically complete. Ruskin encouraged others on a sort of ‘rescue archaeology’ campaign of depicting the monuments of his favoured cities before they were cleaned and renewed. One wonders how he imagined the buildings would have looked in a century’s time if restoration had not occurred.
What makes the nostalgic element so notable is its political context – a context, of course, to which the Pre-Raphaelites rarely paid direct attention. Most of the pictures in the exhibition, when they are populated by humans at all, are home to medieval figures. In some of the architectural drawings, a reclining peasant or Florentine bourgeois might be allowed to appear, but very few paintings on display touch on contemporary life. One that does have a political relevance is the image by Arthur Hughes. Intended to depict Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Court Lady’, it shows an injured soldier, who has etched ‘Italia’ into the wall beside his bed, as the tricolore flutters in the sunshine seen through the window in the background. Maurizio Isabella discusses in the exhibition catalogue the British enthusiasm for Italian nationalism – for a state both unified and liberal. That political support might have been deeply sincere but what sort of Italy did these artists expect the new nation to be? Indeed, did such details matter to them? Was it, rather, that unification mattered less in their minds for what ‘Italy’ might become than for its affirmation of what they perceived the Italian genius to have achieved? In that sense, unification would be an ultimate accolade for past greatness – national unity as laureation.
I am left wondering about the nature of the love affair the Pre-Raphaelites had with Italy: in some ways, it is the most delicious sort, a love that delights in, rather than recoils from, imperfections but which is, all the same, based on a blindness to the whole, leaving out the elements you do not want to see. In a harsher light, though, can we deny that it was an abusive love, caring little about the object of desire and delighting instead in the emotions and responses it provides for yourself?