Step into the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace or, indeed, the equivalent space at Holyrood and you sense the self-imposed expectation that all should be of a certain standard, from the ironwork of the banisters to the heavy wood of the toilet doors. Have the opportunity to take a light lunch looking over the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and the same seems true not just of the permanent fittings but also of the food – the dainty smoked salmon sandwich or the amuse-bouche of mozzarella and pesto. There appears to be a projection of royal identity or, rather of certain values associated with that identity, even to those who are transient visitors, temporarily at the very edge of what in its loosest sense could be termed the court.
I mention this because on Friday, through the kind invitation of Kate Lowe, I attended a symposium on Italian culture at the Tudor court held (thanks to Lucy Whitaker) under the auspices of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. It was followed on Saturday by visits to Windsor Castle and (for this I had to bow out) Hampton Court. The occasion marked a culmination of a collaboration between Queen Mary’s, London and the Royal Collection which saw a funded doctorate, now submitted, by Charlotte Bolland. But the event felt less like an end than a beginning: a conversation that helped take stock of what we already know but also what more there is to find, to define and to conceptualise. The event was organised with few papers and an emphasis on discussion, with about thirty participants around the table. It was structured by a set of questions, each thrown out by one of the participants – the result was, helpfully, both some answers and many more questions. So, what I want to provide is not a depiction of the topic but rather an overview of some of those issues that might be usefully researched in future.
I will begin with a set of questions that, while not often at the centre of discussion provided a theme that ran through the day. How often were products recognisable to their users as hailing from a specific place of origin? In our own generation, we might, for instance, rarely check the labels on foodstuffs – unless we are concerned about food airmiles or want to boycott some benighted country – but we would talk of Dutch Edam, French baguettes and Danish pastries. Was there a deeper sensitivity to origins in the sixteenth century? And, if so, were products considered ‘Italian’ or more specifically, say, Venetian (glass), Milanese (armour) or Cremonese (at the end of our period, violins)? These products could include animals – some of our discussion, prompted by Charlotte Bolland, considered the role of horses as diplomatic gifts and the self-presentation of the Gonzagas of Mantua as both the owners and the arbiters of the best equine specimens. Nor were these ‘products’ confined to the tangible; Lucy Whitaker raised the question of whether Italians were particularly associated, in sixteenth-century minds, with technical innovation. I would add the link made between Italy – particularly Rome – and eloquence in the pre-Reformation period. These affinities between place and product or practice could also lead us to a comparative question: were the cities of Italy, generally or individually, particularly associated with a greater number of ‘things’ than were other places in western Europe? However we were to answer that, we would have to recognise that the wider issue lying behind it would be whether there was any concern to achieve economic autarky or whether the commercial inter-dependence of Europe – and beyond – was recognised and welcomed. We also cannot pretend these issues are static: as reputations change and skills spread or migrate, so the perceived affinities must eventually shift.
That being the case, the first cluster of questions has to be balanced or combined with another: how far did individual products or practices bear witness to what might be called a melange of manufacturing? This could most obviously encompass the naturalisation of an activity – Sydney Anglo, in deliciously provocative mode, opened the proceedings by noting how few Italians were involved in the ‘italianate’ arts of war or of festivals and other courtly pastimes as practised in sixteenth-century England. We might also think of mediated influences — with France and Burgundy being the usual suspects paraded in this category. But this is an issue which envelopes other phenomena too. We heard from Maria Hayward of clothing that could be begun in one place, shipped north from the Mediterranean and finished in England. I would parallel this with examples of manuscripts written, for instance, by a Dutch scribe for an English patron in the littera antiqua bookhand favoured by Italian humanists, illuminated in a fashionable French style and then bound in England (I have in my mind’s eye some of the codices for which Erasmus’s favourite scribe, Pieter Meghen, was the copyist).
The key concept here is, of course, eclectic or hybrid and that is often seen as the defining characteristic of court culture. The question then becomes whether the court was eclectic because that was seen as the route to the best or whether being hybrid or cosmopolitan within the confined space of the court was itself seen as being best – was this hybridity for an aesthetic purpose or as an end of itself? Behind this lies issues of how far the court was a place best suited to judge the best, whether discernment of quality was itself an innate quality of those gatherings of the high-born and the highly promoted. That, in turn, can broaden into the wider question – court: trend-setter, fashion-victim or old fogey? The answer to that, of course, depends on the cultural material which one studies. In terms of textiles, for instance, we heard of the court’s tailoring as being at the cutting edge, so to speak. In terms of the production of books, I would say that, most often, the court was a participant rather than a leader. Our trip to the library at Windsor threw up not quite an exception to this but certainly a useful counter-example: an inventure of Henry VII’s reign, occupying several pages, written first in Latin, then in English, its administrative purpose signified by the uneven cut of the top of the folios (wavy rather than serrated), the whole presented as a small book with its original binding similarly indented at the top – a type of product that is so particular and, at the same time, so associated with the traditions of royal bureaucracy that it could only have been produced in the environs of Westminster. That is to say, the court could prove the ideal location for the creation of the singular, the cultural hapax legomenon or, put more bluntly, the oddball.
These issues lead naturally onto considerations of the relationship between the court and other activities. We were often reminded, particularly by Cinzia Sicca, of the importance of the mercantile world, as importers and as conduits of goods to the court. Was the court a parasite on the back of international commerce? Were, indeed, the court’s activities only possible in the increasingly metropolitan – though not necessarily increasingly cosmopolitan – world of London? Yet, the court itself was not one location with a static character. Leaving aside the issue of the court being used as shorthand for the royal court (no Skeltonian question of ‘which court?’ here), the king’s entourage was both movable and highly fluid. Part of its eclectic nature surely lay in that instability of presence with the toing and froing of international visitors re-shaping its identity and focus repeatedly. That process of visiting related to a highly pertinent question raised on the day by Margaret McGowan: the balance between ‘making’ and ‘doing’ in relation to court life. To put it another way, how far were the royal works of palace building themselves a prelude, the provision of a theatrical setting in which the performances that were the real work of the court took place? Do we do an injustice to court culture if we privilege the monumental over the ephemeral?
Cutting across all these issues, of course, are matters of periodisation. The Tudor century was, as Cliff Davies would remind us, no such thing – there was little consciousness of ‘Tudor’ to define it. We might instead see a simple way of dividing up the time to be the name of the monarch whose court it was, but that surely gives too much credit to the centre-point in defining the circle which, in fact, constructed the royal persona. Each scholar might detect different patterns: for my own part, I would see a continuity from the early 1460s to the early 1510s in terms of the Italian influences on royal diplomacy, while at the other end of the sixteenth century, there is (despite the change from English queen to Scottish king) arguably a continuity of interests from, say, the late 1580s to the early 1610s. Between those periods, further divisions might need to be made with, of course, the religious turmoil of the 1530s to late 1550s being necessarily a state of flux and uncertainty. But, then, such instability – the continual chasing of the butterflies of ‘fashion’, the blend of languid waiting and kinetic energy reminiscent of a departure lounge – these phenomena might be quintessential to the intrigue of the court.
My local library has opened an exhibition celebrating itself. Considering that that library is one of the largest in Britain and surely the most iconic university library in the world, no one could blame the Bodleian for doing that. Some might complain that the event is a tad unoriginal — the title, Treasures of the Bodleian, is also that of a volume from some twenty years ago. But, the answer could come, this has an elegant and interactive website, which includes a section looking forward to the opening of the New New Bodleian (Oxford’s answer to the game of Mornington Crescent, there) with an on-line ballot — albeit merely first-past-the-post — for what should be on display. And there’s even a write-in section for the ballot: ‘The People’s Choice’ it is called, which must be a sort of self-aggrandizing synecdoche, where the cultured bourgeoisie count as all ‘people’.
With my research interests, I was curious to see what the curators had decided was a ‘treasure’ and, in particular, what late medieval manuscripts they had on show. The answer is very few and nothing at all to do with the University Library’s second founder, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. And that’s even in the section called ‘A Bodleian Treasure’ with items, like Hilliard’s miniature of Thomas Bodley, providing visual vignettes of the library’s history. It is true that because of the early-sixteenth-century decline of the University Library and its eventual closure around 1549 — not all the fault of Richard Cox, despite what the commentary to the exhibition says — none of duke Humfrey’s manuscripts remained in the room now named after him, but some have returned. And if I was to propose a write-in campaign it would probably be for what is now MS. Duke Humfrey d. 1, a fairly small but refined manuscript of Pliny the Younger, with the duke’s ex libris and written in the hand of the Milanese humanist, Pier Candido Decembrio, who was then seeking the distant duke’s patronage. It encapsulates very well a particular element of Humfrey’s collecting and the international network that lay behind it.
And, yet, when thinking what makes for me the Bodleian such a remarkable place — my local haven for scholarship — I realised that much of what is redolent to me is immovable or intangible. They could hardly take down the original donors’ plaque for the south staircase to put on exhibition; and they certainly could not move the view from the Arts End of the original Library across Bodley’s Quad. Even more of a challenge would be to capture and to bottle the sensation when the light rakes across Duke Humfrey’s on an autumn morning; the yellowish tinge to the lighting in the north range of the Upper Reading Room is little imitated; and the echo of the dome of the Upper Camera — admittedly not as sonorous as that in Manchester’s Central Library — could hardly be on display. Then there are the little things which make the Bodleian, for me, what it is: the snakes of beads used to hold down manuscript leaves (held in a box called the snake pit); the curve of the back of the chairs in the old reading rooms; the out-dated clocks, often now most often stopped, that stand guard over the corner of the reading areas. It is these comforts of the quotidian that make the Bodleian a home to scholars — and that is surely something to be treasured.
Last month I received notice of a conference which I am sure proved stimulating but which I could not attend as I was then in Rome. What caught my attention, however, were the first words of the promotional e-mail:
While Renaissance and Early Modern Studies are focused on the two and a half centuries between 1500 and 1750,…
I must admit that it took me some time to move beyond that comma. Has the Renaissance that I study been abolished? Have we returned to calling Piero della Francesca or Andrea Mantegna ‘Primitives’ and now see art beginning only with Michelangelo and his followers? Since I have been away, has it been decided that humanism now starts only with Filippo Beroaldo the Younger and leaves out the generations of Leonardo Bruni and Pomponius Laetus? More to the point: what Renaissance after 1500? From where I am standing, it is mostly over, bar the shouting (between back-biting editors) – and that soon turned into the burnings of the Reformation. What brave new world is this?
When I explain my work, I sometimes describe my area of study as that part of the Middle Ages that we call the Renaissance. I do not say it because I believe in the essence of the ‘medieval’ any more than I have faith in the existence of ‘modernity’ but rather because most of the achievements we would recognise as ‘Renaissance’ – think of Brunelleschi’s dome capping Florence’s cathedral, Alberti’s design for the Palazzo Rucellai, Donatello’s statues of David, the art of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Lippi father and son, the new classicising Latin of Bruni or Poggio, the reform of manuscripts begun in the same circle, the establishment of libraries from San Marco in Florence to the Malatestiana in Cesena and the papal library in Rome, the philological work of Lorenzo Valla or Politian, the teaching of Guarino or Vittorino da Feltre the first sales from the Aldine press – fall within the fifteenth century. And that century, as we know, sits in most faculty corridors or on bookshop shelves within that millennium of civilisation that follows the Fall of Rome. Such distinctions necessarily simplify – we might not now believe Italian creativity dies with the invasions from 1494, or even with the re-born Sack of Rome in 1527 – but we might wonder how long into the sixteenth century lasts that cycle of fashions and their fruitful combination that marked the quattrocento.
I will be accused of being obtuse: the term ‘Renaissance’ is surely being used with the meaning of ‘cultural flowering’ which sprouts in many parts of Christendom. But is such ‘flowering’ solely the province of the sixteenth century? Could not late medieval England boast of its tre corone – Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate – and celebrate the architecture of the likes of Richard Winchcombe, or the artistry of Nottingham alabasters? Would not Castile look earlier to the vernacular achievements of its three cultures in the time of Alfonso X? And, in the fifteenth century, the would-be nation of Burgundy has been described as having in its heyday its own Renaissance, and one which with its skill in oil paintings and tapestry found buyers in Italy. In Italy itself, why talk of creativity only in quattrocento or cinquecento terms: are Giotto, the Cosmati family, Pietro Cavallini, Dante and Mussato all to be forgotten? It does not seem obvious to me that these was unprecedented creativity that marks out the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – new markets, following the economic reorganisation created by the Black Death, and new technologies, most notably in print, certainly, but not necessarily new genius after a winter (or an autumn) of cultural decay.
Of course, it may be then said, the ‘Renaissance’ was a particular type of cultural flowering which began in Italy and slowly oozed out of the peninsula, eventually to stain all of Europe (meaning, most often, western Europe and paying less heed to culture in, say, Krakow or Buda). This is a claim with a long tradition – the Italian humanists themselves, like Polydore Vergil, liked to talk of the translatio studii which had transferred learning from their homeland to whichever country they were then visiting (following in the footsteps, it must be said, of earlier humanists). There was certainly an export of a type of education then becoming popular in Italy and eventually giving its name to humanism; that export was made possible, in large part, by the creation of a trade in printed books. Yet, was there really a similar combination of artistic fashions with interplay between them in Shakespeare’s London, say, as there had been in early Medici Florence or in the papal city of Nicholas V and Sixtus IV? Even if the answer to that was ‘yes’, the question would then be how much that particular cultural flowering – the Shakespearean moment, one episode in many – directly owed to the earlier activities in those Italian cities? Do we use the term ‘Renaissance’ more by analogy than by association?
Ah, says the early modernist, that is the point: our Renaissance need not be the young relative in the shadow of your quattrocento events; it is its own man. So be it: use the term as you choose. But, if it is to have a specific relevance to a particular part of one vernacular tradition, it cannot simultaneously be employed in some general sweeping definition, that can encompass all of the cultural activity of the sixteenth century or (even more incongruously) later. Hispanists perhaps are more fortunate: they can talk of their literary ‘Golden Age’ without straining to define it in unavoidably Italianate terms. Perhaps other nations need a similar separation. For late sixteenth-century England, then, who would like to invent a term?