bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A novel graphic

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 14 February, 2013

What follows is the response to two highly stimulating lectures that have recently taken place in Oxford. The first of them was delivered a few weeks ago by Jeffrey Hamburger, who gave as his title ‘Script as Image’. His topic and his suggestive discussion left me wondering about what separates the two, script from image, and whether western letter-forms can ever have the force of a picture. We might think of S, say, as a suitably snaking shape for its sibilant sound and we might be able to recall illuminated initials where it transmogrifies into a grotesque beast but is it ever in its nature to be inherently representational? The meanderings of my thoughts, I have to admit, have been listless but were given some more direction by the second lecture, which took place just last Friday. It is always an event when Bill Sherman speaks; he packs into fifty minutes learning and insight with elegant delivery. What made it all the more of a delight for me to hear was that his subject was one that fascinates me: marginalia.

Bill Sherman’s purpose was to make us alert to how early modern readers conceived reading as a necessarily visual practice. A master-image for him was the presence in one book of annotations that included not only a finely crafted manicula but also an eye. The book in question is an incunable of the Epistles of Pliny the Younger now in Stanford and of which Bill has had the good fortune to discover the provenance: it has not only the coat-of-arms of but also dense marginalia by Bernardo Bembo (1433 – 1519). It was Bembo who added the pointing hands and eyes – what, as I have suggested before, we probably should call an ocululi. In my experience, there are a few cases of the use of a disembodied eye as an annotating symbol before the mid-fifteenth century, so Bembo’s are early examples of what never became a very frequent presence in the margins of books. The dating of the examples we do have, incidentally, would allow the possibility that the earliest examples were inspired by another example of a graphic eye — Leon Battista Alberti’s winged eye emblem; but that would assume that Bembo — let alone the others before him — knew of that emblem and, indeed, that he consciously transformed it, for what makes his practice all the more unusual is that his ocululi are drawn in profile, facing towards the text.

I was pleased to hear more of this volume, because Bill had shared with me his discovery a couple of years ago and I had been able to help in a very small way with the explanation of one note Bembo had added in the bottom margin of one folio, complete with both a manicula and a cornucopia. It proved to be a record of a piece of contemporary gossip, added to a passage where Pliny was talking of fama. It is highly suggestive of the self-conscious manner in which Bembo used the text before him. But it is another couple of pages from the volume which Bill showed yesterday that, on this occasion, have stayed in my mind’s ocululus and have set me thinking further about the associations between script and image.

The relevant pages are fol. 20v-21 of the volume which you can see for yourself, thanks to the generosity of Stanford University Library. It is the opening in this edition which presents Pliny’s epistle describing his villa, the Laurentinum (II.17), where Bembo writes in large letters across the margin: Laurentum suum grafice pingit. An idiomatic translation would be ‘he vividly portrays his [villa, the] Larentum’ – a celebration of the Younger Pliny’s talent at ekphrasis, which he shared with his uncle. But this is one case where the idiomatic misses the point, for there is something more – a lot more – going on here.

Bembo’s verbal phrase is one found frequently in Renaissance Latin, but more rarely in their classical sources. When he wrote this, he was surely conscious of one precedent: the chapter title to Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae, XIV.4 where is said that ‘apte Chrysippus et graphice imaginem Iustitiae modulis coloribusque verborum depinxit’ – Chrysippus vividly depicted in words an image of the virtue, Justice. ‘Vividly’ or, more literally, ‘graphically’. In our culture, we are perhaps more used to employing ‘graphic’ in its sense of the visual, as in ‘graphic novel’ rather than in its sense of the written, as in ‘calligraphy’. Crucially, both senses are there in the Greek terms that are the origin of the Latin transliteration: ‘graphice’ as the art of drawing and ‘graphium’ as a writing style. Think of graphite, the material of a pencil – a term only invented in the late eighteenth century to describe a particular form of carbon but created in conscious imitation of the Greek ‘graphein’ (to write) and ‘graphis’ (a pencil or pen – the implement of both writing script and drawing images).

The sense of words as drawing is present in the phrase from Aulus Gellius and, it seems to me, it is implicit in Bembo’s imitation of it. It is even heightened by the dropping of one syllable: Gellius’ depingere (to paint) becomes pingere (to represent pictorially, or to draw with, Lewis & Short tell me, ‘pencil or needle’). Bembo, then, is saying that Pliny has drawn a life-like pen-portrait; words can draw.

The graphic, that is to say, does not distinguish between the image and the letter; it is defined by being the product of carbon or, by transfer, of ink. Bembo’s ‘graphic sense’ encompasses both the drawn and the written in a manner which is highly self-conscious, at times achingly so. Looking at these pages, it is hard not to imagine a reader who is playing – in the best sense of serio ludere – at reading through his graphic response. I cannot help ask myself whether Bembo is telling us that the writing of script is part of the art of drawing.

At this point, a little context is helpful: Bernardo Bembo, like other Venetian patricians, was educated at the University of Padua. He was there in the 1450s, and among his acquaintances was the young scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito, who, indeed, produced manuscripts for Bembo. Sanvito went on to become the leading exponent of a new bookhand, which we now know as the italic; it raised a version of the humanist cursive script to a new calligraphic level. Judging from what I have seen of Bembo’s own penmanship from these years, he was not simply a consumer of Sanvito’s experiments, he was a participant in them.

Let us return to Bembo’s ‘grafice pingit’ note and consider it now not philologically but palaeographically. First, the script: at first glance, it is written in what we would call capitals, the ‘upper case’ (in printing terms) letter-forms, made up of separate forms from ‘lower case’ or minuscule letters: so, in ‘grafice’, G not g, R not r, and so on. The use of capitals, rather than simply larger forms of the ‘lower case’, which are called majuscules or litterae notabiliores, echoes classical inscriptions, chiselled rather written ‘script’: in a word, epigraphy. Yet, Bembo’s commitment to this style is not complete: in ‘pingit’, the i on both occasions has no serifs and is dotted – it is, in other words, a littera notabilior. There are other ways in which his writing here distances itself from the epigraphical: the letters are thin, not shaded to be thick and monumental and, similarly, what serifs there are tend to be short and slanted, except on the final T which has a prominent straight foot, as if marking its concluding status. What Bembo is providing is an outsize note, drawing attention to the passage, which, at the same time, does not attempt to be an epigraphical display script.

He also draws attention to the passage by the curious placing of this note, written turning a corner, as it were, so that it forms a right angle at the bottom left of the opening. Consider, for a moment, the mechanics of doing this: he must have read the text, picked up his pen, and turned the book on its side to write the even letter-forms of ‘LAVRENTVM’ which run down the margin. This is annotating that literally and physically moves the reader away from the task that defines him. However, the point I wish to emphasise is not about the individual letters but the overall impact of this placing: it creates a bracket for the main text and it serves the purpose of a paraph-mark. To put it another way: the placing of these words gives them the force of a non-verbal marking.

We tend to think of marginalia being delightfully disordered interventions on the page and, certainly, the overall impact of Bembo’s additions to the opening is a haphazard feel. Yet, there is something artfully constructed in both the placing and the execution of his ‘grafice pingit’ note. His graphic sense is so developed that its thoughtfulness was probably instinctual. But, to return to the question I set myself, this does not turn script into a sub-set of drawing. His letter-forms may be consciously designed and can be attractive, but they never slide from their symbolic nature into something pictorial. Both drawing and writing can evoke images but they do so in fundamentally different, if complementary, ways. The distinction which we should draw (if you pardon the pun) is one to which I have just alluded: it is between the two elements of writing, the verbal and the non-verbal.

The pen can move across the page to form letters which placed together create words or it can make markings that have meaning without being part of the alphabet: punctuation falls into this category, in which we should include the paraph-mark. There are others that may seem more decorative:  to mention again a friend of Bembo, Sanvito was keen on using at the end of texts or as a mark of separation between words in titles a hanging leaf motif – the hedera – the ultimate origin of which lies in the epigraphy of Roman memorials. With such an intervention, we have crossed the boundary into the realm of the representational, though it must be said that some of these practices live on the borders and can often retreat into the purely symbolic: the annotating sign of a trefoil is often such an impressionistic combination of dots and a curve that it could hardly be said to be a leaf at all; this, indeed, is the form Bembo deploys. Similarly, many manicules are so rapidly drawn to lose any representational power. But when they are lovingly drawn, as Bembo’s are, with long forefinger and cuff, their main purpose remains to provide meaning non-verbally to support the text. They have, if you will, something of the hieroglyphic to them. They are image as script.

The empire that is Latin script is not, then, populated solely by letters; the other shapes that are its subject peoples can be highly refined, as they are in Bembo’s maniculae, ocululi and his cornucopia – markings employed by the reader to add meaning or, at the least, inflection to the text. Of course, these additions do not exhaust the range of Bembo’s interventions in his Pliny, which also involve fully-fledged drawings of faces, as well as combinations of text with image. At base, what all his practices share is the nature of the graphic: the accumulation of pen strokes that together conjure up a meaning or a presence, whether by representation or by symbol. Of course, all such handiwork is a sleight of hand: Bembo’s ‘eyes’ are an optical illusion that, in a blink, can disintegrate into their constituent flecks of ink. Likewise, the strokes that congregate to form a word can, in an unfamiliar script, be incomprehensible. For all that similarity, though, there is an irreducible distinction between letter-forms and depictions. Letters can have artistry and beauty, and can, at times, be designed to have the appearance of a depiction but that is not fundamentally how they convey meaning. At the same time, as I have said, writing does not convey meaning by letters alone. Writing is not a sub-set of drawing; rather, those elements of the graphic art which are drawing can be a method of extending and expanding writing’s domain.


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  1. […] I have commented before, a nagging query in my mind concerns whether western script can act with the force of an image. The […]

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