It is in the nature – it is, indeed, the delight – of discussions that they travel in directions that are unexpected, that the interaction of voices forms its own identity or, as it were, develops its own voice. And, so, yesterday, in the discussion of Stephen Greenblatt, Poggio and Lucretius, I had not anticipated we would end up placing Greenblatt’s The Swerve. How the Renaissance Began within the continuing (or perhaps revived) legacy of Jacob Burckhardt. I should probably have anticipated that something like that might happen, given we were sitting in the refined surroundings of Merton College, under the chairmanship of David Norbrook who had written, over twenty years ago, a seminal article on the associations in Greenblatt’s earlier works with Burckhardt (Raritan, 1989). Convinced, as I am, that Burckhardt constituted a wrong turn for Renaissance studies, I was hoping we could avoid his name, but I should have been prepared for how the discussion swerved. And, it certainly proved a fecund re-direction.
I was there to shed medieval darkness on the light of the early modern: to elucidate Greenblatt’s discussion by placing it within the historiography on Poggio Bracciolini. The outline of my narrative can be easily detected from the handout – talking of Poggio’s influence in England from the time when, while resident in London, he took an English mistress, to outlining the range of Poggios presented by scholarship in the last century: the book-hunter, the inventor of a scribal revolution, the proto-archaeologist – all of which gain some mention in The Swerve. What, I noted, was not present was Poggio the civic humanist. It does not matter for our present purposes what purchase remains in Hans Baron’s thesis of Burgerhumanismus or civic humanism, a concept most closely associated with Leonardo Bruni who was, as James Hankins has put it, Baron’s ‘Exhibit A’ for Baron’s interpretation. What matters is that a cluster of pro-Florentine attitudes – a re-dating of the city’s foundation, a questioning of whether princely government can ever be anything other than tyrannical – these attitudes were championed by Poggio as they were by Bruni. Greenblatt tends to draw distinctions between these two characters (e.g., p. 126), but if there were any duel between Florentine and ‘tyrannical’ humanists, Poggio could have stood as Bruni’s second. The absence of ‘civic humanism’ in Greenblatt’s depiction of Poggio has, yesterday’s discussion suggested, a wider significance.
That absence also, it strikes me now, separates The Swerve from a discussion of Poggio with which, in other ways, it has several similarities: the Life published in 1802 and written by William Shepherd. That Liverpudlian Unitarian Minister constructed his biography over a century before Baron began to envisage his thesis but in his work, as in those of his friend, William Roscoe, there is a pride in the achievements of a mercantile city that creates for them a strong link between their own Liverpool and the Florence of the quattrocento which they admired (but – and this is often counted against them – never saw). While this marks a difference from Greenblatt’s approach, there is a likeness in their style of presentation: Shepherd was criticised for the ‘tedious’ digressions from biography into wider cultural history in his Life – moments we might find the most interesting, and a method that is obviously there in Greenblatt. There are more specific parallels too: both react with a sense of incomprehension against the genre of invective in which Poggio and his contemporaries often immersed themselves; and both find Poggio praiseworthy at the moment that he praises the calm dignity of the heretic Jerome of Prague when sent to die in flames at the Council of Constance.
This is an iconic moment for both authors because it apparently speaks of a tradition of tolerance to which both are sympathetic. Shepherd as a non-conformist in a Protestant country was attracted to any signs that Poggio might have had doubts about his Catholicism; for Greenblatt, it is a moment that relates to the wider theme of his book, to the recovery of a text that he sees as a call to reject superstition or fanaticism – a call, it seems, that Greenblatt senses is very relevant for our modern world.
I have described the urgent call for an end to fanaticism as a product formed in the shadow of the lost twin towers, though, as was pointed out yesterday, that is an added context for an attitude that was present before September 2001. What I sense not just in Greenblatt’s latest book but in other writings to have appeared recently is an attempt to come to terms with not just the bombings of the 11th September but also with the aftermath – the ‘war on terror’, the invasions, the ineffectual increase in security measures. The response is a revulsion with both those political policies and the heritage of western thinking that has allowed them to occur; an intellectual expression of ‘not in my name’ against recent governments and against longer cultural traditions. What I find problematic in this is that ‘not in my name’ is an expression of disengagement, washing one’s hands of responsibility that is, at the same time, a turning away or perhaps even turning a blind eye. Can responsibility be so easily cast off? It would clearly not have been in a culture of civic humanism, where engagement in one’s city was essential to it survival, let alone its thriving. A citizen may suffer exile but to choose to exile oneself, to retreat from the civic space, could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty.
It might, of course, be said that Poggio’s civic humanism was a comfortable position in support of the status quo, taken by someone who could distance himself from it, anyway, by his long-term presence in the ultimate court of monarchy, the papal curia. All this is true, though that should not let us sidestep the question of whether disengagement can ever be a responsible act. Meanwhile, if that criticism of Poggio has any traction, it in itself raises issues about Greenblatt’s depiction of him. The discussion yesterday highlighted elements that I glossed over or perhaps tried to screen out: it was emphasised how Poggio is presented as a masterless Renaissance individual in the Burckhardtian mould. This is harder to sustain if you focus on Poggio’s political career: his continual pursuit of a master, his achievement of status as a papal secretary in which role he wielded a significant influence. Here was not someone struggling to break free of the chains of tradition – something which Greenblatt perhaps senses and which explains his own ambivalent attitude towards his main character. If Poggio did achieve his own distinctive voice (as Riccardo Fubini describes it), it was in his own dialogues and what surprised me most in Greenblatt’s work was how these did not take a more central position, for their complex use of rhetoric and their use of irony makes them open to the sort of analysis at which Greenblatt excels; with closer attention, their ‘philosophy’ (for Poggio was often seen, in his writings, as a philosophus) could have provided a more subtle understanding of how this humanist related to and transformed the traditions in which he worked.
However that may be, let me conclude by lingering on the relationship between Greenblatt and Burckhardt. If is true that the latter is the context in which we should place the former – a context, I have admitted, I struggled to avoid applying to him but which the seminar discussion demonstrated was relevant – we would foreground the tale of individuality, though not as one triumphantly achieved in Poggio’s life. We would, however, also have to concede that there is something quite anti-Burckhardtian in The Swerve. In The Civilization, Burckhardt notoriously wanted to re-define humanism away from its classicising definition, emphasising it as an individualistic mindset which happened to be demonstrated through engagement with ancient texts. Greenblatt’s claim turns this on its head: Lucretius, his work implies, was so different, so other, that, if it did not sit on the desk before one, its contents would be unthinkable; present, it could unleash the changes in mindset that Burckhardt describes. In short, specific classical texts were not incidental to the Renaissance, but, rather, the Renaissance was impossible without them. If, though, this were true, and if we were to take a sober look at the limited influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento or, indeed, in subsequent centuries, we might have to ask when the Renaissance is going to happen.
Lucretius is the name on everyone’s lips at the moment. Not only is there Alison Brown’s slim Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence but also Stephen Greenblatt’s lively and readable The Swerve, with its different sub-titles depending on which side of the Atlantic you live: in the big, brash United States, the tale of the ‘rediscovery’ of Lucretius is about ‘how the world became modern’; among the diffident British for whom periphrasis is a way of life, it is merely ‘how the Renaissance began’.
Merely? Even the British sub-title involves a grand claim. And if we are to associate the Renaissance with one newly popular text, most would not choose the admittedly seductive poetry of Lucretius but the helpful guides to oratory of Quintilian or Cicero, or some of the latter’s speeches. But, then, it seems that Lucretius is seen to speak to our atomised post-po-mo selves, wracked with fears and self-loathing as we struggle to make sense of our place in the shadow of the lost Twin Towers.
With Lucretius, of course, must come reference — if only passing — to the humanist who brought him back into the world, Poggio Bracciolini, with whom I have long acquaintance. What Greenblatt provides is more than a cursory nod: Lucretius is the hero of his book, but Poggio is certainly its main character. His book has been reviewed well, if not kindly, in The Washington Post; I myself am attending a discussion on the book, chaired by David Norbrook, this afternoon. I will be beginning the proceedings, in fact, with a short discussion on ‘Stephen Greenblatt and other English-speaking admirers of Poggio Bracciolini’ — I will not second-guess what I will say, but I will provide you with a copy of my handout.
I have been chided for not adding anything to this site recently. It is not that I have refrained from writing; simply that the well-turned phrases are composed in my mind. That, and the recent distractions of being in Rome, albeit briefly.
The Rinascimento a Roma exhibition, held in the cramped space of the Palazzo Sciarra, tells the familiar tale of exuberant creativity in the generation of Michelangelo and Raphael, followed by despair in the wake of the Sack of Rome and then the renewed religious fervour we call the Counter-Reformation. To be fair, some of the show’s display might raise questions about that well-known narrative: the desolation of 1527 did not stop Maarten van Heemskerck travelling there a few years later and painting a penitent Jerome surrounded by a capriccio of the gargantuan remains of ancient Rome; Paul III saw no conflict between austere piety and the ostentation of his family residence, the Palazzo Farnese. But the exhibition appears comfortable living in a familiar world of clichés.
A cliché about clichés is that there are oft-repeated because they have a kernel of truth. So it may be: an early section of the exhibition talks of Rome in the early sixteenth century being the centre of the world, the caput mundi. I had seen evidence to support this statement just a few days earlier. Within the embrace of the ancient circular church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, out on the Celian Hill, beyond SS Giovanni and Paolo, there is a memorial slab to a member of the curia, the Hungarian Janos Lazai, who died on 17th August 1523. The inscription beneath his feet draws attention to the fact of his foreignness and asks the viewer not to wonder how he came to be here — for Rome is the homeland of everyone.
Rome as a universal homeland — acknowledgement, surely, even in the first years of the Reformation, of its long-standing status as caput mundi. And, yet, what struck me was that the author of the lines imagined that the viewer might be surprised to see a Hungarian here, and might need to be told Romana est patria omnium. Was this particularly trite when it was written or was it expressing a truth only then becoming to be acknowledged?
Of course, Rome as the centre of the then only church had a long charisma. Even in the Avignonese years, it was still a centre for pilgrimage and it was promoted as such by the declaration of a jubilee in 1350, when travel to the relevant sites would gain the pilgrim plenary indulgence. And during the Schism, still the devout would make their way to worship at the apostolic shrines — so much so in 1400 that, in effect, an unofficial jubilee occurred.
Yet, at the same time, the papacy’s grasp on Rome was weak and liable to slip, as it did when Eugenius IV had to feel the city up the Tiber, his boat being pelted with stones. It was over a decade before he returned to his ‘capital’. His successor, Nicholas V, worked to glorify the city in architecture and ritual — he declared a jubilee for 1450 — but this did not save him from the threat of conspiracy in 1453. His courtiers celebrated Rome as the centre of the world; his successors continued his policy but one wonders how permanently a pope felt secure in his palace in a restive city, which for most of them, was alien. Perhaps, even in the early sixteenth century, the repeated statements of Rome’s pre-eminence were less an expression of an obvious truth than an aspiration, a pious desire never quite rid of doubt. Rome was as much a project as it was a place.
‘What is palaeography?’ asked a young Albinia de la Mare, and the rest of her career demonstrates that she stayed for an answer. But not only that: her own work transformed how we should answer the question. It is an appropriate time, in the days following the Warburg conference commemorating her nigh on ten years after her death, to repeat the question she ingenuously asked at the beginning of her graduate career.
The simple answer – one I have given in the Oxford Companion to the Book – is that the term now signifies two activities, both intellectually valid. The first concerns the process of localisation and identification of scripts, using the panoply of evidence available in a codex, and thus encompassing those skills called codicology as well as the study of its handwriting. Within this definition is the ability to make alien scripts readable, which is the first way in which many students first encounter palaeography – or ‘adult literacy’ as I have heard it called. The second approach to palaeography is to place the book itself in its cultural context, to see the codex – and other graphic evidence – as a way into the mentalities of previous generations.
In an understated way, the research of Albinia de la Mare (Tilly, as she was known) wrought magic in palaeography in both its senses. The conference paid repeated tribute to Tilly’s ‘prodigious photographic memory’ aided, as Jonathan Alexander pointed out, by the invention of the photocopy. Supported by her copies of images and her capacious collection of notes (now under the tutelage of Xavier van Binnebeke), Tilly developed an ability to identify particular scribes and – a source of even more awe – to date manuscripts within a scribe’s career. These skills made her an oracle to many scholars in different disciplines, some of whom were involved in the conference that has just taken place. A question that remained unasked within the community of Renaissance scholars who gathered at the Warburg was how transferable was Tilly’s skill. I mean, in the first place, whether there is something particularly revealing about humanist scripts which makes them open to analysis in a way that may not be possible for other scripts. To some extent, it must be true that gothic bookhands, where the emphasis is on uniformity of letter-forms, also have a further homogeneity of aspect – in short, that they are less individual than the manifestations of humanist bookhand known as littera antiqua. At the same time, from what little work I have done on French fourteenth-century manuscripts, it seems to me that the possibility of a similar process of identification is present, if only the full range of details – codicological as well as narrowly palaeographical – are used.
But the question of how transferable were her skills should also be taken another way: to put it bluntly, who else can do what she could? I do not pretend to judge who can consider themselves her heirs – and (what the scholarly community might find even more entertaining) who not. Instead, I express this as a warning about the curse of the legacy of genius. Tilly demonstrated that, in naturally gifted, trained and experienced hands, a manuscript could offer up its secrets to an extent that few had imagine. In her wake, it is natural to hope that what she achieved should become the standard rather than the apogee. The result, though, can be dangerous: over-confident identifications of hands on tenuous grounds will take scholarship down corridors of the labyrinth that are no more than wrong turnings, leaving the next generation to unravel previous errors before it can actually make progress. Let us remember that Tilly herself recognised the importance of being tentative and (as her notes on her late masterpiece ‘New Research’ demonstrate) changed her mind. Even Tilly would not live up to the ideal that others would claim for her and for themselves.
I said a moment ago that Tilly worked her wonders with palaeography in both its definitions. I remember when I was a graduate student her reminding me of the importance of not looking only at the letter-forms but at the whole page – a truth I pass on to students by describing palaeographical investigation as a repeated change of viewing, for the ductus to the aspect and back again. If, by analogy, we can talk of palaeography in the first definition as the ductus, then the aspect, the larger picture, is provided by the discipline in its second definition – a consciousness of what manuscripts can tell us about the culture in which they were created. This is where the level of specificity that Tilly achieved – localising manuscripts to specific towns and to specific decades – could be so fruitful. As Vincenzo Fera described at the conference, her interest from the time of her thesis in Vespasiano da Bisticci opened up a world populated by scribes, certainly, and their patrons, but also by the book-sellers and readers of these manuscripts. From the residue of ink left upon the prepared skin of a dead animal it became possible to conjure up a sense of human associations that was not a mere handmaid of history, it was the stuff itself. If, as historians, we fail to appreciate the evidence not just of the words but of the book in which the words appear, we will only be able to tell an impoverished and hollow history. In this sense, we have a duty to follow Tilly’s example, even as we are humble enough to realise that we cannot emulate it to her level.
What is palaeography? It is, I would suggest, a box of skills, of talents and of insights which can so enrich our understanding that the revelation of them is akin to the gift of fire – a simile that (I realise and do not blush to write it) makes Albinia de la Mare our Prometheus.
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.
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?
I am briefly once again in Rome, thanks to a grant from the Bodleian as part of a partnership with the Vatican Library. So, I am spending my days in the marble-floored Sala manoscritti of the Biblioteca Apostolica, with the late-summer sun shining onto the roof-top cortile to my left. And sitting in that room, consulting codices made in this same city five hundred and fifty years ago, a nagging question that has disturbed my mind before, only to be put to one side, now returns, all the more insistent and demanding of attention. It is this: how come so many of these manuscripts can be elegantly written on fine quality parchment, with ostentatiously wide borders empty except for tasteful illumination, and often in an appropriately expensive binding – how come these books that so look the part can be, in truth, evidence for what can only be called sloppy copying?
I will name (but not with the intent to shame) a particular scribe, whose products I have recently been studying: step forward Johannes Caldarifex, as he sometimes signs himself, a Latinisation of the name he was born with, Johann Kessler. A German and a cleric, he spent a large part of his career here in Rome, for some of it at least in the household of Antonio de la Cerda, Spanish cardinal and dedicatee of works by both Rinucius Aretinus and the future Pius II (Cerda himself is worthy of much more attention than he deserves). In that household, Johannes acted as a scribe, specialising in large-size codices, on thinnish, smooth parchment which he ruled with a dry point, often so heavily that it nearly tears the surface. He produced copies of recent publications like George of Trebizond’s translations of Aristotle and of Eusebius, as well as traditional texts in fashion among humanists, like Lactantius or Cicero’s Familiar Letters. This last is the earliest dated manuscript we have by Johannes, to 1448, and it shows him already master of humanist littera antiqua bookhand; there is – aside from changes of detail – a notable consistency in his script. In some of the codices, he makes the text accessible by providing running headers and foliation which inform the contents lists he compiles and places at the start of the volume. He also, in some cases, shows signs of personal interest in the texts he is transcribing, adding nota monograms and other annotations in, for instance, his copies of Josephus and of Jerome. These are all imposing, highly presentable volumes but – let us whisper it – textually accurate they were not. We have reason to suspect a scribe’s Latin when he ends a work with a colophon that reads ‘Qui scripsit scripta sua manu sit benedicta’, suggesting (if it were to make any sense at all) that the scribe had changed sex. More importantly, however, the body of the work is characterised by being strewn with errors. For instance, in the codex he constructed of Cicero’s Letters – a volume that opens with an impressive full border in the bianchi girari style, inhabited by two disconcertingly out-size birds – the first owner, the bishop of Brescia, Pietro del Monte, clearly considered the text deficient for he felt the need to correct obvious mistakes with his own suppositions of what the reading should be.
Johannes’ manuscripts, it must be said, are not an egregious and atypical case of bad copying. We can not simply write it off as the work of a barbarian northerner corrupting Renaissance culture: a list of Italian scribes who were equally susceptible to making mistakes would be extensive. Let me give another example from the collection of Cardinal de la Cerda. A humanist scribe, who does not identify themselves, provided him with Leonardo Bruni’s recent translation of Aristotle’s Politics; the copyist – who writes the titles in gold, on one occasion, stating the book is the work of ‘Aristelis’ – so mangled the text, however, that an early user went to the lengths of comparing it with another copy and adding corrections to nearly every page. In the Spanish cardinal’s library, poor quality texts in high-grade manuscripts were the norm, not the exception. And we should wonder how unusual his library was.
We might, of course, wonder why we should wonder at this: after all, we know that in a manuscript culture each transcription was liable to introduce error and take the text further from its pristine state. Yet, there is something particularly counter-intuitive about this tendency within codices that conspicuously display their commitment to humanism, that culture of the book which we now describe as the first, heroic phase in the history of philology. What is more, the script of humanism was itself the forerunner of the Roman typeface and so, for us, may resonate with the perceived aspirations of the enterprise of the text in print. Those aspirations – the commitment to accuracy manifested in the stability of the printed page – are undoubtedly themselves a mythology and, for many generations, Gutenberg’s technology provided imperfect texts which held out the prospect of only being perfected by the intervention of you, the reader, yourself. This is a recognition which has become all the more possible as we enter into a second information technology revolution where the text becomes even less stable and the mistaken or the downright inaccurate has its place in the democracy of the internet. However that may be, it is certainly the case that our understanding of early print culture has developed to bring it closer to the dynamics of the world it only gradually replaced. If, then, we have to accept error as a recidivist reality, a sort of ghost in the non-mechanised machine, we can also recognise that tactics intended to provide confidence in textual quality often provide illusory reassurance. And so it must have been with the humanist aesthetic for the book: the emphasis on the uncluttered page drawing attention to the clearly-written words – all this was little more than a false promise to the reader who came to realise that the transcription they had before them was untrustworthy. Did they see this as a paradox, or as an inescapable fact that had to be tolerated? What strategies could they master to negotiate a culture of inaccuracy?
It is certainly the case that mistakes were tolerated. Error on the level perpetrated by Johannes Caldarifex seems certainly not to have placed a break on his career: we see him at work for well over a decade. Nor can we explain his success simply by noting that he was employed by one cardinal who may have shown commendable Christian charity towards his servant’s mistakes, for Johannes certainly made works for other leading clergymen as well – aside from Pietro del Monte’s collection, there were manuscripts by this scribe to be found in the libraries of Filippo Calandrini, half-brother to Nicholas V, who made him a cardinal, and of Bessarion, the papabile and learned Greek. Certainly, we know that some owners did not care what was written on the line as long as the page itself looked splendid; but readers – humanist readers – who were concerned to be able to approach the text clearly learnt to live with imperfections. We might wonder what level of error was considered acceptable. We might even ask ourselves whether they, perhaps, quietly relished a corrupt text which tested their ingenuity for correction.
Yet, my interest is more with the scribe himself, who has made a conscious choice to adopt the humanist agenda. Was he unaware of its intended implications for the text? Assuming that he had the understanding, did he feel shamed if confronted with evidence of his own mistakes? More basically, how could he rationalise to himself the reality of error? Perhaps the apparent insouciance of scribes was not simply unthinking, but suggests a mindset, a way of seeing their work that recognises their innate and human inability to produce the perfect text. Perhaps they comforted themselves with thinking that their efforts were not the text itself, but a witness to the text. We might call to mind the Islamic tradition in which the divine wisdom which is the Qu’ran is separate from its physical manifestation, the mushaf. Or we might consider more apposite the Platonic concept of the Form. Or we might think of the x or the y of the philologist’s stemma – the assumed prototype to which the editor attempts to return by reconstruction from the extant copies. Faced with such a presentation of the evidence of the descent of a text, our scribe might with a weary smile acknowledge that what they were producing would sit – could only ever sit – far from the stemmatic head.
We can take the analogy with a textual stemma further, for that diagrammatic presentation necessarily speaks of a multiple of witnesses to a text. Our scribe, similarly, might have been concious that there was not the copy of a work, but only one manifestation among several: that there was, in other words, a community of copies, a republic of literal letters – a republic, they would admit, that was certainly a flawed state, a fallen state. That perception or outlook might not be just a phlegmatic philosophical consideration; in some particular situations, it would be an immediate practical reality. Someone like Johannes Caldarifex – who was not the only copyist in de la Cerda’s household, let alone in the few square miles beyond his palace – would have been well aware that he was one of a plurality of scribes at work not very distant from each other. In quattrocento Rome, like Florence several copyists could each independently make their living by their trade in providing attractive, if inaccurate, manuscripts. This was a context, then, in which the scribe of literary texts was becoming a professional and perhaps this is the central paradox: the process of professionalisation could also be a victory for imperfection.
This is a cautionary tale. It concerns the difficulty of assigning modern nationalities to Renaissance characters. It results from my following up two references in one footnote. I should explain: I have become interested in the practical issues created by the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman curia in the years after the end of the Schism. One article — I won’t mention author or location – makes interesting reference to the critical comment sometimes passed on the accents of foreign preachers or orators in Rome.
The footnote cites two references, the first to Jacopo Gherardi’s Diarium romanum, in which it is said that, in 1481, Guilelmus de Quercu, ‘natione Britannus et principis sui orator ad pontificem, ex Carmelitarum ordine’ gave a good sermon ‘quamvis ab externo barbare pronuntiata’. The article, following the editor of Gherardi’s diary, identifies the preacher as an ‘English Carmelite’, which set me scratching my head as I had not heard of this English representative in Rome. After some searching, the fog of confusion lifted: the reference is actually to Guilelmus de Domo Quercu, then in Rome as the representative of his prince, the duke of Britanny. In fact, his sermon was printed soon after it was given and, indeed, its elegant humanist Latin is available for you to see on-line.
This is not the only occasion of which I am aware where ‘Britannus’ does not refer to Great Britain but to its little relative, the duchy in the geographical area of France. If this raises concerns over how to identify a character, the second reference exacerbates those issues. The article also cites the papal master of ceremonies, Johann Burchard (with a lapsus calami mistaking the page reference). Burchard noted that an English orator’s speech in December 1492 was well composed but not well received ‘propter inexpeditam expressivam’. As that phrase suggests, Burchard was in no position to judge the quality of others’ Latin. That is by the bye, as is the fact that the orator in question was John Shirwood, a collector of humanist manuscripts and printed books, and accomplished author. It should be added that Shirwood died in Rome less than a month after he gave that oration so his ‘inexpeditam’ expression might well have more to do with his age and health than his foreign nature. If this was the last occasion on which Shirwood spoke before a pope, it was not the first — he was in fact a long-term resident in Rome, closely associated with the English Hospice, where he was to be buried. Burchard mentions him several times and — finally I reach the point of this description — on one occasion includes him in a list of significant clerics present in Rome at the time of the election of Innocent VIII. Burchard organises his list by nation; the entry for Shirwood reads: ‘Ex Germanis: episcopus Dunelmensis, orator regis Anglie’.
Now, the term ‘German’ had a wide reference, encompassing much of the Holy Roman Empire north of the Alps. Those from the Low Countries would often identify themselves by their town or diocese and then add that they were of the ‘German nation’. But could the term be used even more loosely? Burchard, of course, was in a position to know better: was his phrasing a reflection of local Italian usage with a designation as ‘German’ being at times equivalent to saying ‘ultramontane’? There may be other explanations for the phrase but it should, at least, give pause for thought before too ready an acceptance or interpretation of fifteenth-century phrasing as mapping onto modern usage.
There is the moral of my tale. That — and perhaps this: scholarship would be so much easier if one did not check others’ footnotes and took what they said on trust. But, then, no self-respecting academic would dream of doing that. Would they?
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.
Last week saw me at Windsor, to see the exhibition to celebrate the quincentenary of the accession of the tyrant, Henry VIII. If one undertook the trip and paid the entry fee to the Castle just to see this small exhibition, and did not stay to stand in awe within the splendour of St George’s Chapel, or to marvel at the quality of paintings amassed in the royal apartments, one would be disappointed. There are no revelations or new insights into the career of the second Tudor, and, in several instances, original works by Holbein are substituted by later prints or copies. That, in itself, though, set me thinking.
For someone more familiar with the tale of the late recognition in England of the artistry of the ‘Italian primitives’, what struck me was the recurrent high regard in which the German father of English portraiture, Hans Holbein, has been held. ‘Recurrent’ is probably a better term than ‘continuing’ would be: the fortunes of the ‘great book’ of Holbein’s drawings suggest a disrupted journey. In royal hands in the mid-sixteenth century, it was in the collection of Lord Lumley by the 1580s. On his death, it passed to Henry, Prince of Wales, the ill-starred son of the first Stuart. It thus returned into royal ownership, only to be given away by Henry’s younger brother, Charles I. In the late 1620s, he was willing to part with it, in return for a ‘little St George’, which happened to be by Raphael. The fact that the king parted with a whole set of Holbein drawings for this one small image — now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. – perhaps helps us calibrate the distance in standing between the two artists, in the eye, at least, of one distinguished collector.
But the Holbein book was hardly thrown into the outer darkness: it passed into the hands of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, himself a respected and fashion-leading connoisseur. After the Restoration, the drawings were, as it were, repatriated, becoming part of the collection of Charles II. Even then, though, its adventures were not over for, it is said, in the early eighteenth century, it lay discarded until ‘re-found’ in 1727 in Kensington Palace. My suspicious mind does wonder whether this last episode may be one of those myths of loss which can accrue to objects later considered precious and which actually come to form part of their mystique. The claim of underrating can, on occasion, be used to justify a change in the status of the object and that certainly happened in this case: the book was dismantled and, under the guidance of George Vertue, the individual drawings mounted and displayed.
In 1675, it was said that ‘the book has long been a wanderer’ but perhaps its very travels helped it gain a reputation for its artist. The drawings are apparently mentioned in art treatises from c. 1630, soon after it had reach Arundel’s collection. And, certainly, the display presently at Windsor demonstrates that Holbein’s images were considered worthy of copying in the seventeenth century: for example, Robert White produced an engraving of Katherine of Aragon, inscribing it with the words ‘H. Holbein pinxit’. The stimulus to reproduction may, in part, have been the identity of the sitter, but the inscription also suggests that Hoblein’s name was considered known or worthy to be known.
Indeed, Holbein’s reputation could, at times, be a source of misattribution. George Vertue, whom we have already mentioned, painted a portrait of Edward VI in 1745, with the frame stating in gold letters ‘after Hans Holbein 1545′. The original, on display upstairs in Windsor (and on-line), is, in fact, no longer considered to be by Holbein; its present designation is either ‘Flemish School’ or ‘William Scrots’. In other words, the standing in which Hoblein came to be held left some of his contemporaries in the shadows.
What is the moral of this tale? Perhaps it is this: we may tend, at times, to imagine that our own tastes reflect those of our forefathers and assume that the celebration of Holbein in the Windsor exhibition and in earlier ones, like that at the National Portrait Gallery in 1994 (from which I have taken some of the information above) or the ‘Dynasties’ show at the Tate the following year, is the latest stage in unbroken interest, dating back to the artist’s own lifetime. When we begin to realise that this is not quite so, we are liable to replace that ahistorical view with a narrative of the ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘Renaissance’, in which there is a path — not always easy but definitely visible — from forgetfulness to remembrance. But the information we have suggests something less linear and more interesting: a pattern of knowledge and ignorance across and within generations. The vagaries of attention shift back and forth and can only with injustice to the subject be simplified into a ‘direction’. And, indeed, moments of low regard, as might be imputed to Charles I’s giving away of the ‘great book’, could actually spur others to a better appreciation.