It was, if my memory does not deceive me, a bright and mild December afternoon in 1997 when I entered Oxford’s Examination Schools in white bow-tie and long academic gown, walked up the stairs that rise to the right of the entrance hall, then made my way across the small balcony that looks down upon the same hall, before entering a room where two distinguished scholars awaited me. They were Prof. George Holmes and Prof. A. C. de la Mare — and let us pause to remember those the world has lost, since they have both passed away in the intervening years. At that point, though, they were very much in good health and ready to begin my doctoral viva.
I remember their kindness to me: George opened the discussion by telling me what their recommendation would be, which helped dissipate any nerves I had had (though, equally, it did little to help me focus for the next two minutes — I wanted to be able to go out, cheer, and then return for the serious work). I also remember feeling cheated at the end of the two hours: is that it? can we not stay here for longer, even if the lengthening shadows suggest it is nearly sunset? When you have lived with a subject for five years and more, it is rare that you can find anyone who is as passionate about it as you are, so to have two learned specialists before you who had read every word of the thesis (my then partner had tried, but she fell asleep, leaving my father being the only other person who had suffered it all) and who at least have to appear interested in your work provides an opportunity you do not want to end.
What I replay most in mind, however, is a question they posed that was not related to the intrinsic quality of the work. ‘And what’, George asked, ‘about publication?’ I responded without a pause: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to publish it as a book’. That, in retrospect, was The Wrong Thing To Say, a career-endangering failure to appreciate the developing dynamic — some would say the duty — to present one’s doctoral research to the world in a monograph. The worst thing is: I stand by what I said.
Appreciate the context: when I began my thesis, the usual expectation was that one would complete it and then move on, leaving the work available for consultation in the relevant university library. Only the exceptional should be put into print and, even then, some of the very best were not, as, indeed, was the case with one of my examiners — Tilly de la Mare’s tour-de-force of a doctorate, on Vespasiano da Bisticci, was never sent to a publisher and, until recently, could only be read by those who visited Senate House in London (it is now, though, available on the web at the excellent British Library ETHOS site).
I should, perhaps, have recognised the changes going on around us and that, by the late 1990s, there was already an increasing expectation that a thesis would see its way into bookshops, that more and more would follow a route once reserved for some of the exceptional, to the extent that being ‘outstanding’ now made one part of the crowd. Certainly, in the last decade, it has become a sine qua non of one’s academic credentials that one should be able to point to one’s doctoral research on the bookshelves — and so the assumption has become that, if a dissertation is not published, there must surely be something really wrong with it.
That dynamic, I would contend, is unsustainable, for two reasons. First, it has spiralled out of control: publishers have noticed the market (niche though it may be) and increased the number of theses they produce, to the extent that, now, university employers take as a sign of quality not whether your thesis is published but where it has been. These shifts have a tendency to be applied retrospectively so that a good thesis published a few years ago with a press now considered to be of dubious quality may be looked on with suspicion. Of course, the true test is not in where it is published — or, indeed, whether it is printed — but in the text itself, though that assumes people would have time to read the words before short-listing or appointing to a job. Bless.
The result of the spiral may well be that the smaller thesis-printing publishers will, over time, find their market dwindles. However, there is another factor that is making the dynamic not just unsustainable but obsolete. That is the increasing desire of institutions to host their alumni’s work on their websites. The number of theses now available through those sites and through ETHOS means that the research is already available, in the original form of the dissertation. It would take the truly obtuse not to realise that, in this new paradigm, making a thesis available in print, even in revised form, will usually amount to otiose duplication.
When that realisation has sunk in, the consequences could be to the advantage of those who have recently received their doctorate. Rather than working away further on the same subject, they can graze in new pastures, developing their knowledge and their skills further. Not that they should never return to the work which saw their first steps in academe but, rather, that they should be able to revisit it later, recast and rewrite in the mature style they have developed in subsequent years.
None of what I have said, though, is intended to assert that anybody completing their doctorate should have taken the self-denying ordinance I did. I repeat: it was, in the objective terms of the job market, probably the most foolish thing I have ever done (and I have done a fair few). But, in my case, it was also the right thing to do. I had never envisaged my thesis becoming a book and, indeed, it was designed for different ends. It was intellectually ambitious, telling two stories at the same time, as a way of attempting to demonstrate my potential range. It was also overlong: an Oxford doctoral dissertation has to be under 100,000 words (including footnotes), unless you have a dispensation for an appendix of original material. I was granted an extra 50,000 words to provide a collection of manuscript descriptions. That added to the work’s usefulness but also would have made it a much less attractive proposition to a publisher.
Those manuscript descriptions have been on-line for some time now, and I am always grateful to scholars who contact me to say they have found them of value. It is time, I have decided, that they should be accompanied by some prose that is over fifteen years old. Today, I am uploading nearly the entirety of my thesis onto this site, for those who may be by some chance interested. I am doing it because a very few people have asked to see it, and it seems to me best, as I have gone to the trouble of turning old World files into pdfs, that it should be freely available. There is a disadvantage: with the hard-copy in the Bodleian, one signs the register of readers before consulting a thesis and that is not possible on-line. What I ask is if you do look at it, send me word so I know you exist. I am doing this, then, because it seems to me that the virtual world of the web is the appropriate half-light in which a thesis should appear. I am doing this so that it never need be published in print.
To access the chapters of the thesis, go the dedicated page on this website.
Holidays are still, in some residual sense, holy days. Even without working hours vacated, apart from the chore of site-seeing in the sun, there remain some duties, some acts of respect that order the days. Site-seeing itself is a habit of reverence, not an adherence to any faith more stringent than the cult of culture, perhaps, but certainly a recognition of others’ faith. We step out of the sunlight into the shade of a church and may not comprehend the deity who once inhabited there (and may do still); we may consciously contrast our cerebral engagement with the cultish goings-on that have had their home there but by our visiting presence – like it or not – we are conforming to an appreciation of the power the place has had and, by conforming, extending its after-life.
The reverence we show, of course, is not confined to locations of the religious. There are plenty of sites for secular pilgrimage, whether they be the homes of famous figures or temples to the arts. I have talked before of my experience of Arquà Petrarca in the Euganean hills, complete with his stuffed cat (these places are often the sites of relics all as dubious as the medieval splinters of the True Cross). One of the artefacts on display there were the visitors books, recording the grand tourists who had come to pay their respects to the little god who was the house’s long-dead inhabitant; I saw last week in Ferrara an equivalent in the house of Ludovico Ariosto, where the page rests permanently open at the signature of Giuseppe Verdi – we bend forward (the natural movement of the supplicant) to take a closer look of when opera met epic.
But being in Ferrara on my summer break, I was not there as a true believer in Ariosto. As you might expect from my interests, I was more interested in the physical remains of the studia humanitatis. In particular, it would have seemed an act of impiety not to seek out the memorials to Guarino da Verona who, as his name demonstrates, was not a local son but who, invited here to lecture at the university by Leonello d’Este stayed for most of the rest of his life, dying in 1460. Indeed, it was his reputation as a schoolmaster and a scholar – much more than Angelo Decembrio’s verbose idealisation of Leonello’s court or even Leon Battista Alberti’s transient association with Ferrara – that made the d’Este city a site of significance on the humanist map. Considering that I have recently polished off an article suggesting we should rethink the construction of Guarino’s reputation (building on comments I made in Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe), some might suggest that my search for Guarino was more an act of penance than simply of reverence. If so, I think I can say I have expiated for my sins.
What I found remarkable was that, despite all the cobbled streets with the red-bricked houses being so evocative of the city’s Renaissance past, there was little trace of Ferrara’s best-known humanist. There is, of course, the inscription in memory of him in the church of San Paolo – a copy of the original which was destroyed in the 1570 earthquake that shook the city; I remember seeing and transcribing that inscription when I first visited the city eleven years ago but by the 450th anniversary of Guarino’s death, when I was again briefly in Ferrara, the church was closed for restoration, and it remains so. Perhaps, in part, because that was inaccessible and so could not sate my interest, I wanted to find other evidence. But in a city which has various methods of marking their monuments and their characters – the municipal yellow street signs announcing in terse fashion the details of a palazzo or a church, the older inscriptions written into a building’s wall remembering the notable birth or other event that occurred therein, the red-lettered plaques erected by Ferrariae Decus – there is precious little outward and visible sign of Guarino’s presence. In a city which marks on its tourist map the house not only of Ariosto but also of Ercole d’Este’s favourite architect, Biagio Rossetti, and where Ariosto has certainly become the favourite son, celebrated in the name of both a piazza and a street (let alone one named after his masterpiece, Orlando Furioso), and where the city’s troublesome export to Florence, the fiery friar, Girolamo Savonarola, is commemorated by a statue in the shadow of the castello as well as the road running past (ironically) San Francesco, there is no place for an external plaque or memorial to the humanist who is credited with having given life to Ferrara’s Renaissance. There is a via Carbone, presumably named after Ludovico, the humanist who saw himself as Guarino’s successor and who delivered his funeral oration; the street is now known for its cinema. There is also, outside the city walls, a modern via Pannonio, perhaps after Janus Pannonius, Hungarian student of Guarino, later bishop and rebel against Matthias Corvinus, as well as being the author of bisexual erotic poetry. Where, though, is Guarino himself?
Not, it should be said, where he is claimed to be. The city does have a via Guarini, so-called because it begins at the corner of the Palazzo Guarini-Giordani, designed by Biagio Rossetti and far up within the ‘addizione erculea’, the grandiose town-planning project of Ercole d’Este to extend the city north of the original walls of the city that ran alongside the Castello (a scheme perhaps as egotistical but undeniably more successful that Æneas Sylvius Piccolomini’s renaissance of his home village as the papal retreat of Pienza). Above the doorway into the Palazzo, now part of Ferrara’s university (much expanded since Guarino’s day), there is what I take to be a nineteenth-century notice celebrating the palace’s famous inhabitants; it names as the first of those Guarino da Verona himself. So, here we have the evidence for which I am searching – except it is so obviously implausible, Guarino having been dead for a half a lifetime before the building was begun in 1496. It was, in fact, designed for one of Guarino’s many sons, Battista, who followed his father in his scholarly pursuits, but he lived to enjoy his new house only for a few years, dying in the high summer of 1503. The Palazzo and the road beside it are, in reality, named after the dynasty that could trace itself back to Guarino, rather than the humanist himself.
Recognition of the error made me want all the more to find as precisely as possible where Guarino actually resided in his adopted town – where, that is, he lived, slept and ran his private school, his conturbernium, which the likes of Janus Pannonius attended and where English travellers like William Gray, future bishop of Ely, and John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, would presumably have visited him. My pursuit, I must admit, drove my darling mild-mannered wife to distraction.
Some brief searching (not enough to interrupt the rest of the holiday) showed that we do have some written evidence of the humanist’s residence, largely thanks to the researches of the incomparable Remigio Sabbadini: we know that he lodged at the house of the Strozzi and that, as the Dizionario biografico degli italiani states, ‘andò ad abitare nell’attigua casa dei Boiardi, in via S. Michele, che prese in affitto per tre anni e che poi acquistò per 3500 lire marchesane, 550 delle quali donategli dal marchese’. There is a slight complication: there is not now in the street plan of Ferrara any record of a road of San Michele, but there is a church, closed, deconsecrated and in poor repair. The route to it is now called the via del Turco (after the medieval Turchi family) and it was at the upper end of this road, near the via Cortevecchia, that Guarino had his house. The casa Strozzi was pulled down long ago, replaced in the seventeenth century by a wooden theatre which itself was replaced by a brick building in the nineteenth century which later became a cinema. The picture-house, in contrast to the successful one on via Carbone, has closed for business and the empty building shows a lack of loving care. As Guarino’s more permanent home – known as the casa Boiardi after the noble Boiardo family, forefathers of the poet Matteo Maria – was next door to the casa Strozzi, we can identify its location and view the spot, but much of it has now disappeared: there is a break in the building line, with an area now used for parking. Behind that, though, there are houses and they include one Renaissance lintel above a low doorway. Perhaps this is one small remnant of the building Guarino called home.
There is not, you will be unsurprised to hear, any plaque or notice to record the connexion of the site with the learned humanist. As I have suggested, this is not because the Ferrarese are adverse to advertising their heritage. Indeed, further down the same street, a modern apartment block has retained one stone of an older building, which records the Pico della Mirandola stopped there. I enjoy the juxtaposition of notices that now festoons that wall.
It is, of course, understandable that Guarino has become overshadowed in the city of Ariosto; the poet has long been the talisman of Ferrara’s contribution to culture. In 1933, the ‘centenario ariostesco’ was celebrated, for instance, by a significant exhibition of local Renaissance art including the likes of Cosmè Tura and Garofalo. I think we can anticipate with some confidence that there will be a menu of cultural events as rich as the local dish of salama da sugo organised to mark the next significant Ariostean anniversary in twenty-one years’ time. But rejoicing in that maestro of the volgare should not mean that a Latinate scholar who was also important to Ferrara’s identity need be forgotten. Perhaps in the years running up to 2033, the Ferrarese could find a moment to remember the achievements of their most famous schoolmaster – 2029 would mark the sixth centenary of the arrival of Guarino da Verona in their city. If they did arrange such an act of pietas, I for one would willingly make the pilgrimage to their doorstep.
Thanks to those very nice people over at the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, I can provide a brief update on the volume that has just appeared. In their wisdom, they have decided to make a sample of the latest Medium Ævum Monograph, Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe, available on-line for free (none of this nonsense of Open Access at a price) and the sample provided is the front matter plus one chapter — my own on ‘The Structures of Contacts‘. That essay attempts to provide an interpretation that could knit together the other contributions to the volume (though, at times, a critical reader might feel, it unstitches a few of those chapters). The interpretation centres on the concept in which I strongly believe: that quattrocento humanism was, from its inception, an international enterprise, with a cast-list of participants or, at least, collaborators that was cosmopolitan, as were the locations both for humanist invention and of audiences for these works. In discussing this, I attempt to cover the geographical range of the volume, but concentrate on highlighting a series of themes: the differing nature of travel of humanists (the émigré, the migrant, the migratory), the eclectic nature of the community of humanist scribes in Italy, the role of merchants in the humanist enterprise (using a particular example relating to Bartomoleo Facio), and the chronological change over the century and, in particular, the impact of the intervention of print. I end with a side-swipe or perhaps rather a gentle cuff around the head for those early modernists who imagine the Renaissance is theirs. Read on…
Saturday saw the launch in Durham of a book I have edited for Medium Ævum Monographs: Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe. It is a set of essays covering much of the geographical span of Christendom, from Hungary to Scotland and from Castile to Poland. In order to make it all the more useful for readers, it also includes a collection of just over sixty potted biographies of humanists mentioned in the volume — an appendix which I compiled with the globe-trotting Oren Margolis.
The launch itself was a jolly affair, rounding out the Annual General Meeting and Lecture of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, who publish the journal Medium Ævum and the Monograph series. The Annual Lecture was given by Prof. Helen Cooper and was a scintillating discussion of ‘The Ends of Story-telling’, reminding us how at a most basic level story collections sought to comprehend, to come to terms with or to cheat the final end of existence, through the character of the story-teller. The volume I have edited occupies similar chronological territory to Helen Cooper’s lecture (though she ranged beyond one century or even one millennium), but deals with a set of scholars for whom death was to be defeated by their achievement of fame, in their own country and elsewhere.
The launch was presided over by Anthony Lappin, both President of the Society and its managing Monographs Editor, with a response — brief to avoid keeping the audience away from the alcohol that followed — by myself. As you can tell, even if the speakers were not elegant, the setting of the Senate Suite in Durham’s Castle certainly was.
As I explained in my short speech, the volume is part of a new story for the Society — a collection of essays rather than a single-authored volume and one which has developed out of another new initiative, the Society’s one-day conferences. At the same time, it is in ways a return to an old story, for the casus belli for this project was the related one of creating a new on-line edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, a book which was itself one of the very earliest (old series) Medium Ævum monographs.
One thing I did not have time to note in my comments was that this volume is the thirtieth Monograph in Medium Ævum’s ‘new series’. The fact that the number appears in Roman numerals allows all sorts of possibilities: I could claim that this is a volume which is XXX-rated, which could boost sales (available from the Society website at a very reasonable £40 – or just £20 if you join the Society). Or perhaps it should signify that you shouldn’t give a XXX for any other study of humanism in fifteenth-century Europe.
I have broken my New Year’s resolution. At the start of 2012, I promised myself that I would have twelve months off reviewing. It was a commitment to enforced abstinence: I enjoy reviewing books, I like the challenge of both summarising and engaging with a work in the space of a thousand or 1,500 words. But it is time consuming: it does not involve just making the space to give the book sustained reading time (a challenge, as it is); it also requires research in itself — sample-checking the author’s primary evidence to gain a sense of trust, or otherwise, in the scholarship, reading those secondary works that have been central to the construction of their argument but which one has not yet had chance to read. And then you have to wonder how many people pay attention to your wise comments anyway.
So, I had good intentions to avoid all reviewing this year. It did not last long. The offer to write on a volume in which Cristina Cocco edits one of the comedies of Tito Livio Frulovisi had a double attraction: first, the text being printed was by an author with whom I have more than a passing acquaintance, having written about this wandering humanist in the English Historical Review and elsewhere. Second, it was for the The Medieval Review, an on-line project housed at Indiana University. Its website is not as elegant or as user-friendly as that the Reviews in History site of London’s IHR, which I have had cause to mention recently; but it is a worthy project and one which surely has the future on its side: for how long can print journals continue to justify taking up space with notices of individual volumes which often appear long after publication? I can see an ongoing purpose to hardcopy review articles, and to more combative debates aroused in response to a single work, but the shorter review is something to which the internet is best suited.
And so, reader, I succumbed to temptation. And now the review is available on-line. I will not repeat here what is freely viewable elsewhere on the web. But I do want to mention here two facts about Frulovisi one of which appeared in that review and another which seems not to have received recent scholarly attention.
The first is a discovery I made a while ago; I have alluded to it both in print in Studi umanistici piceni and on this website but not discussed it in full. It is the fact that the sole copy of Frulovisi’s comedies, a holograph manuscript which is now Cambridge: St John’s College, MS. C. 10, includes evidence of its early provenance. Alfonso Sammut tentatively attributed the manuscript to the library of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, but knew of no corroboration of his assumption. In fact, using a UV light in the darkest corner of the college’s upper library, ten years ago, I was able to decipher an ownership note that had been remarkably succesfully removed by rewashing — and it was, indeed, the duke’s mark of ownership, recording that it was a gift of the author. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Frulovisi presented to his barbarian patronthis manuscript of comedies most written for performance before a Venetian audience — a manuscript itself produced in England — raises questions about perceived cultural distance within quattrocento Christendom.
The other piece of information is one that seems not to have been mentioned in recent discussions of Frulovisi and which, indeed, revises my own chronology of his time in England. It is the fact that we can state with some certainty the date of the humanist’s departure from London for Italy. In the collection of papers Mediceo avanti il principato of the Archivio di Stato of Florence which are now magnificently available on-line (and I have to thank Angelo de Scisciolo and Fabrizio Riccardelli for bringing this resource to my attention) there is a document written in an English script which is a letter of introduction from Henry VI for Frulovisi to Cosimo de’ Medici. It explains that Frulovisi at that point was returning to his homeland (in natale solum ire); the letter is dated 26th August 1440.
The letter mentions Frulovisi’s services to the king and to his uncle, that is to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester — suggesting (against the tendency of recent scholarship) that he was by no means persona non grata in Greenwich, but also implying that the humanist had gained the attention of Henry VI, which he had so clearly craved. The dating of the letter is also notable, not just because it post-dates Frulovisi’s final departure by at least year from what is usually credited; it is so close to the time of the departure of the papal collector, Pietro del Monte, from England, that one wonders whether they travelled together, despite the somewhat fraught relations between the two as revealed in del Monte’s letter-book. Finally, the letter ends with the monogram of Thomas Bekynton, then secretary to the king, and it raises the question of whether Bekynton himself conjured up the prose the described Cosimo as someone who loved lettered and well-behaved men (literatos et bene moratos viros) — or were the words put into his pen by Frulovisi himself? That opens up a broader discussion about the presence of humanist Latin in the English chancery, something on which I have been writing recently and about which I could discuss further now, if only the length of this short post had not already become as long as a book-review.
Wherever we step, whatever building we enter, the past is our host. We are merely the latest guests in spaces already crowded with resonances, with others’ memories. We tend to cold-shoulder these ghosts, taking possession of ‘our’ office or ‘our’ home as if the sole purpose of its existence was to serve us; life is more liveable that way. There are some places, however, where such blindness is impossible, where we can sense in the air some of the previous breaths that have preceded us. A church is that sort of place, par excellence, with its monumental witnesses to a few of the dead who form part of the continuing community.
I was recently in the English cathedral-city of Bayeux, part of the Norman lands that ensured the Lancastrian regnum of the early fifteenth century was not confined to north of the Channel. The cathedral, long before its construction had been completed, saw Thomas Becket say mass; and, more than once in later centuries, the cult of that archbishop found a home in the cathedral’s carvings and murals. My scholarly interest, however, was precisely in Bayeux’s English years, when international politics ensured the bishopric was given to a well-connected Italian, Zanone da Castiglioni, who arrived in his see with a secretary, the Milanese humanist, Rolando Talenti. For his part, Talenti’s time in Bayeux was enriched by the presence of his own brother, Antonio; they both were to be canons of the cathedral and were to die there within five years of each other in the 1470s.
So, Castiglioni would have stood at the west end of his cathedral taking in the prospect of the Romanesque nave giving way to the gothic choir. He and his secretary would have taken part in the annual display of the musty over-long strip of cloth recording events of nearly four hundred years earlier, when the Normans first became English: how would they have responded to the tapestry’s artistry? Castiglioni also chose to be buried in this building, behind the high altar – but any trace of his tomb has gone. His is a presence we may sense but cannot touch.
With Rolando Talenti it is interestingly different. On the west wall of the first chapel beyond the south transept, there is an inscription recording him and his brother, and their endowment of that particular chapel. The carving of the letters in classical style, however, should make it clear to us that this is no fifteenth-century monument. The wording of it too can hint at that: it mentions that Talenti was ‘variorum opusculorum auctor’. This is certainly true, though Talenti could hardly be described as a well-known author. His oeuvre has attracted the attention of only a few scholars: in the late twentieth century, the leading expert was Tino Foffano. He worked from the main source for Talenti’s writings, a now-mutilated manuscript which was the property of the Chapter Library which stood a few yards to the north-west of the chapel endowed by the Talenti brothers. You can study it yourself on-line (and my purpose on Bayeux was to check it in situ, in its present home of the Bibliothèque Municipale); you will see that it is not written in a humanist bookhand but in a French script. The evidence of provenance it includes also reminds us how a presence can be revived: the book was not originally part of the cathedral’s collection and only reached there at the end of the seventeenth century, the donor presumably considering the Chapter Library a fitting home for the products of one of its former canons. By that stage, it was already mutilated and may have suffered further indignities – there are signs of water damage – in the following decades. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was, as it were, reborn again. The then canon librarian, Jean Laffetay, came across it and paid to it more attention than it had received for a long time, perhaps for all its life. At the start of the volume, he writes a brief biographical note of the author whose opuscula are in the manuscript, noting that there was an inscription in the floor of the chapel west of the south transept which recorded the Talenti brothers. Laffetay expresses some wonder at the inscription’s survival into his own lifetime but it was not to last much longer: presumably with his involvement, the chapel was renovated and covered with new tiles. As an act of piety, it would seem, Laffetay encouraged there to be a replacement inscription, similar to that which had been found, but with a change to record also Talenti’s authorial activities.
In other words, the process of remembering Talenti was also a process of forgetting, of removing earlier evidence. There is a final irony. Laffetay is still remembered for his histories of Bayeux and for his study of its Tapestry; but in the cathedral where he, like Talenti and Castiglioni before, worshipped, he is now present indirectly, through the work he did in remembering others, rather than any celebration of himself. He is one of the quiet ghosts of the place we can too easily ignore.
A small change has been made to the page listing the publications of David Rundle: I am today able to add as published an article on Antonio Beccaria appearing in the Italian journal, Humanistica, for 2010.
Of course, I would like the year in which my wedding took place to last for many moons, but my wife assures me that 2010 is long past. Certainly, this is not the first occasion on which the journal in which an article of mine appears sports a different date on the cover than it does in its publication details. In some ways, I have an affection for this quaint demonstration of how we all can fail to live up to the strict demands we set ourselves — better that world than the one in which publication is an urgent requirement if one is to be perceived as an active researcher (a culture that mis-defines research as dissemination), one in which there is a Manichean opposition between the published and the damned.
What, though, strikes me more is how this article has not done what every good wine should do and matured as it has sat in the publishing house. The article considers Antonio Beccaria’s production, during his long stay in England, of a collection of translations of the Church Father, Athanasius – a collection more extensive than anything produced by Ambrogio Traversari, whose own version, I suggest, Beccaria had on his desk in England or, to be more precise, in Greenwich, in the palace of his employer, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. I use this example to emphasise how humanist creativity was not confined to its supposed ‘centre’ of Italy and note, indeed, how these texts were imported to Beccaria’s hometown of Verona on his return there in the mid-1440s. There is another central argument to the piece which I now feel I expressed too softly and wish it had gained extra gusto of its own accord while waiting to appear in print: that argument is that the period that Beccaria took to produce his translations — a period of over six years — does not allow us to assume a single cause for the work, or a single message they are trying to convey. What, in particular, is unlikely is that Beccaria produced them conscious of one political context in which they might be useful for his master: the codicology of these manuscripts make them appear to be his own pastimes which he happened to present to Humfrey, rather than a demand placed on him each year by the duke.
If I wish I had been more forthright, there is another detail in which, following a recent visit to re-view the relevant manuscript in the Vatican (MS. Vat. lat. 413), I think my assertion is downright wrong. It does not change the overall argument of the article at all — it is a side-point to that discussion — but it is a hostage, an error I will need to unpick in my next publication (berating my own scholarship more harshly than I would anyone else’s, in print at least). This, then, is an article that has not matured and even, in one tiny element, is past its best. But, I hope, if you, most learned reader, care to look at it, you will not judge it has turned to vinegar.
One of the requirements of the Paul Mellon Centre fellowship I currently hold is to give a public lecture at the British School at Rome. This took place last Wednesday. It is always a pleasure to speak at the BSR — and the dinner afterwards is always a lively affair!
Asked by the vivacious Deputy Director of the School, Sue Russell, for a lecture title at the start of the year, I could think of nothing better than the title of my present research topic and so called it ‘The English Hand in Rome: Barbarous Britons and the Renaissance Arts of the Book’. As it turned out, my talk was just as much about Scotsmen as it was about anyone south of the border that divides Great Britain. That was because I have been finding interesting information about Scottish scribes active in Rome in the 1450s. So, the Englishman, Scotsman and Roman mentioned above were John Lax, George of Kynninmond and — this is rather a cheat — Flavio Biondo.
John Lax was, some contemporaries would have claimed, Lax by name and lax by nature. He was a controversial figure but at the height of his fortunes, in the mid-1450s, he was a papal secretary and a lynch-pin of the two English hospices in Rome. That is well-known, but what has been less noted is his mastery of humanist cursive and his use of it in manuscripts, combining it, sometimes on the same folio, with sections in a gothic cursive script. One of the questions I set myself for my lecture was why he, as it were, flick-switched between the two scripts.
George of Kynninmond is also a known, if minor, name — a scribe who was active in Rome in the 1450s who mastered the fashionable littera antiqua. I have recently had the good fortune both to be able to track down previously unnoticed manuscripts signed by him in the Vatican, and to reconstruct more fully his career. But I have had even better fortune in making contact with Daniela Gionta of the University of Messina, who has made a yet more exciting discovery that sheds further light onto his intellectual interests. I will let her tell that part of the tale herself, in her article forthcoming in Studi medievali e umanistici. Suffice it to say that it connects him to other humanist activities, alongside and complementary to his acting as copyist.
Calling Flavio Biondo a Roman would, of course, be to rob Forli of one of its sons — but, then, Biondo’s time in the papal curia and the nature of his writing, much of which described and praised the city of the popes, ties his identity close to Rome. The interest to me of Biondo was as a way in to understanding the significance of the British presences in quattrocento Rome. The city was the location of the popes but, of course, that was not as secure as we might think with hindsight — the long ‘captivity’ in Avignon, the Great Schism, the flight of Eugenius IV less than twenty-five years after the return of the unified papacy to Rome and, indeed, the Porcari Conspiracy of 1453 all should remind us how uncertain mid-quattrocento observers may have been about the popes’ continuing presence there. But — and this is the point — any such insecurity is hidden in Biondo’s praise of Rome; his Latin may often be criticised for not acheiving humanis elegance but he had mastered the persuasiveness of their rhetoric. And one crucial way in which he praised Rome was by claiming that it attracted people from all the world — even from Britain — to it, with those foreigners accepting that Rome is the mistress of the world.
Biondo’s description may tell us more about the way in which humanist constructed the concept of what is praiseworthy than the social ‘reality’ of Rome. In particular, it evokes a sort of imperialism, with other peoples’ submitting to Rome’s supremacy. It constructs humanism itself as an international enterprise but one which is centripetal, dragging others into Rome’s ambit. This is one element of what is occurring but it strikes me that what he, and other humanists, claim also hides other elements of that international enterprise — and one of those elements is how the cosmopolitan community that came to define Rome engaged with or intervened in the core humanist practice of book-creation.
I hope, at some point soon, to write up my paper as an article (or two). In the meantime, I am putting on-line my handout so that it can see some of the materials I used in my discussion.
Now there’s a title liable to cause a spike in viewing figures. But, for those of you in search of some visual titillation straight from the flowering of Italian culture, you will be disappointed. There is not even a reproduction from I Modi to provide momentary stimulation. You will have to be more committed an onanist that Martin Amis’s Mr. Self to find appropriate inspiration here.
Instead, this post is a belated celebration — belated because its subject has been on the market for several months now. Wrapped in the pale blue uniform of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, the object in question is the parallel text of Panormita’s Hermaphroditus. Now, alongside the Platonist reveries of Ficino or the advice on education of Pier Paolo Vergerio and others, can rest on the bookshelves a collection of neo-latin poems so scurrilous, so devoted to all sorts of sex that, as its editor and translator, Holt Parker announces in his introduction, it is blessed with a loathsome reputation. For those who prefer their humanists pure, single-minded scholars avant la lettre, this is a volume best kept out of sight, but if we want to develop a fuller understanding of these authors and their milieu, it is precisely by not flinching to watch them when they spit venom or tell dirty jokes or wallow in sexual licence that we are going to create a more rounded analysis of those we often see as our intellectual forefathers.
One aspect that interests me is how this is a work that generations have wanted to burn. I have, as more attentive readers have may have noted, been working on a small piece concerning William Shepherd, early-nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, advanced Liberal, friend of William Roscoe and biographer of Poggio Bracciolini. In his Life of Poggio, he mentions the Hermaphroditus, because Shepherd’s ‘hero’ — himself no stranger to sex or to lewd humour — had censured Panormita (Poggio’s letter appears in the useful appendix to the I Tatti volume). Shepherd goes on to mention how, at the Council of Ferrara in 1438, ‘the cause of decency and morality was vindicated by the passing of a solemn censure upon [the] Hermaphroditus, which was ignominiously consigned to the flames in the most public part of the city’. Even for such a Liberal, an opponent of arbitrary rule and of the censorship that comes with it, the destruction of books has its place in civilised society.
With the horror of Kristallnacht engrained in our psyche, the burning of books — be they rude poetry or someone else’s holy book — holds a greater ability to shock than the book itself. But this should not let us complacently imagine that we have become a model of tolerance: Panormita still has such an ability to offend it can be censored. I can prove this with a more recent anecdote, that comes from the time a decade ago when I was editing the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I asked a colleague to write an essay on homosexuality, and she, understandably, quoted the Hermaphroditus in it, ending her contribution with one of its epigrams (in the edition as poem XII). I found myself called in to the publishers to talk to their editor who insisted that the words could not be used — it would offend the audience and she, the editor, had to defend Hutchinson’s good name. I remonstrated and asked what else she might decided to cut. I pointed out that there was an entry on Matteo Colombo and a mention of his famous ‘discovery’, the clitoris — ‘do you’, I asked, ‘have anything against the clitoris?’. ‘No, I have nothing against the clitoris’.
Reader, she had her way: the published volume did not quote Panormita’s words, but rather delicately paraphrased them. Now that Panormita has achieved the respectability of being in the I Tatti series — a respectability he himself might have loathed — perhaps such periphrasis will no longer be necessary. Somehow, though, I doubt that.
I must admit it had not occurred to me until my wife mentioned it yesterday that this October sees the 620th anniversary of the birth of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. In my defence, the six centuries and one score years is not necessarily the most memorable occasion which requires celebrating but this autumn does see the Duke having his own little local renaissance.
First of all, on 10th and 11th September, there is going to be a small conference on Humfrey, at which I am speaking alongside such luminaries at Alessandra Petrina and Derek Pearsall. Then, just under a month later, the Bodleian is having what it has dubbed ‘Duke Humfrey’s Night’ as a fund-raising event. One can sponsor an object or its conservation, though not one of the few Humfrey manuscripts now in the Library’s possession. The event is explicitly advertised as commemorating the anniversary of:
the birth of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose generous donation in the mid-15th century of a large collection of classical manuscripts transformed the original University Library established by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and led to the construction of the beautiful reading room now known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.
My eye was caught by the description of his ‘donation’ — in fact, at least four donations, with the two most significant being in 1439 and 1444, and with a total of about 300 books being given to the University. The range of manuscripts included biblical commentaries, some scholastic texts, some legal works, a notable assortment of medical texts, some classical works, a few of them rare, and a smattering of new humanist writings. It is interesting to see, in Oxford, his gifts remembered for being a ‘collection of classical manuscripts’ — a partial recollection of the collection that perhaps says more about our generation’s interests than about his eclectic library. Humfrey is most celebrated for his patronage of humanists like Pier Candido Decembrio (though he claimed not to have received his dues from him) and Tito Livio Frulovisi, biographer of Henry V (though Tito Livio soon left the duke’s employ). It was via the Milanese Decembrio that Humfrey gained most of the rare classical works in his collection — refound texts like the Panegyrici latini. This, though, is in danger of overlooking the range of activities going on at his court around the duke, if not always with his close involvement. Then again, I can hardly complain about a concentration of interest in his ‘classical manuscripts’ — my own work, I suppose, is stoking that tradition. I must remember to make amends.