There was an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Roman
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.