William Roscoe and the Wonders of Not Travelling
A thought came to me as I moved from slumber to wakefulness this unEnglishly warm Sunday morning. As the title suggests it is about William Roscoe, the Liverpudlian banker and Renaissance scholar at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
It is nearly a year since the day-conference dedicated to Roscoe in his hometown, at which I spoke on his friend and Poggio’s first modern biographer, William Shepherd. The proceedings of that conference are to be edited by the indomitable Stella Fletcher. A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in organising a rather different workshop, in Oxford and under the aegis of the Europaeum, on historical approaches to Europeanisation. At that workshop, fleeting mention was made to the Grand Tour as a process of Europeanising — and that set me thinking about our Liverpudlian friend.
If Roscoe’s name is remembered, it will be — I suspect — most often recalled for the curious fact that the author of two volumes on the Medici never set foot in the city of their birth or even visited any part of the Italian peninsula. I say ‘curious’: for some scholars, it seems simply inexplicable, for others, it is a source of gentle mockery. For much of his life, Roscoe had the money to travel and he expressed the desire to see Florence but he never put the effort into actually crossing the Channel and heading towards the Mediterranean. He relied on friends to visit archives and gather information for him in Italy. How could, it is sometimes implied, a man who had never seen the Palazzo Vecchio or the Medici church of San Lorenzo consider himself competent to write about them?
A recent attempt has been made to answer that question; it can be described as the diachronic justification. Roscoe may have chosen not to travel across Europe; he could not but fail to travel across time. And the inability to visit Florence or Rome as they actually were in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a much greater barrier to comprehension than not touring contemporary Italy. Roscoe, on this analysis, was little more hampered than all historians in appreciating the subject of their studies.
That argument may be correct in logic, though it fails to grapple with an intellectual context that would see a cityscape as the reflection of its people’s spirit. In other words, walking the Florentine streets, however transformed they were from their pristine Renaissance state, would still be able to imbue the perceptive viewer with a sense of the identity that was moulded by and, in turn, moulded its inhabitants.
I do not know whether Roscoe read or knew of Herder, and whether he subscribed to similar ideas of a people’s genius — he certainly did have a sense of Florence’s particular identity, in a way which is a forerunner to Hans Baron’s concept of civic humanism. And he could develop this thinking at a desk far removed from the location about which he was writing. There is, it strikes me, another and more positive way to describe Roscoe’s failure to travel: he may have perceived that culture had developed so far that he did not need to make the journey. After all, his mercantile contacts could ensure that Italian ‘primitive’ paintings could arrive at his door, as could other objets d’art as well as continental books. Those paintings, including a beautiful-beyond-words Simone Martini now hang in the Walker, not directly by Roscoe’s gift but by the generosity of those who purchased his estate when he fell into dire financial difficulty. The rationale for such a gallery, public or private, as with museums of the same period, was to have available artefacts evocative of distant lands: why would one need to travel abroad when the foreign travelled to England? Or, to put this another way, is it Europeanisation when cultural commerce is so vibrant that Europe can stay at home?
There is the over-used passage from Machiavelli’s letters where he describes retiring in the evening from his daily chores, putting on (metaphorically, we understand) classical garb and conversing in his study with the ancients. He conjures up an image of time-travel through solitude. Perhaps, for Roscoe the non-conformist, there was a similar retreat into contemplation, surrounded by the things of the other world which he visited in his imagination, as he evoked pen-potraits of a place he had seen only in his mind’s eye — if ‘only’ is the right word.