Vanity publishing, the early modern way
Here is a jolly scene of music-making:
This early seventeenth-century Dutch painting sits at the end of one wing of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen. Amidst that gallery’s riches – including a superlative Gerard David – the rather generic scene could easily be overlooked. What caught my eye (it may not surprise some who read this blog) was its depiction of books. In their rush to create a workable environment, the musicians had created an impromptu pile of books, intended to prop open the long, low shape of the score at the right page. Limp leather bindings sit one upon another, but look also what is underneath them. At the bottom is a sturdy wooden book-rest but that did not suffice for our lute-player who, to gain the right distance from his music, had placed open a heavy volume – we see the thick binding which looks as if leather over wooden boards, replete with two substantial clasps – at the edge of the rest, and layered the other volumes on top of it. That cannot be good for its spine. Here we have an example of that well-attested phenomenon, the abuse of books in art.
This is not the only example in Rouen’s collection – in another Dutch piece by Lambert Jacobsz, St Mark rests his heavy elbows on some pages. What made me stop to think about de Keyser’s picture, however, was the juxtaposition with it of another small canvas in the same room. Turn ninety degrees and this memento mori stands before you:
The skull presides over a scene reminding the viewer of the futility of human endeavour. The globe at the left wills us to ask ‘what shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?’. This man, though, has perhaps only dreamt of distant lands, and whiled away his time in the frivolity of violin-playing. The transient nature of the sound of music is reinforced by the flimsy score on which the skull lies, its pages and limp binding dangling over the side of the table, creating a trompe l’œil. Its material echoes that of the ragged broadsheet on the wall: paper is used as the epitome of impermanence.
The juxtaposition brought home to me what I should have realised in the first place: de Keyser’s scene is not simply a naturalistic rendering of a domestic setting but is freighted with similar moral messages to the ‘Vanitas’. The event it depicts is not simply a moment of happiness but, in its show of careless abandon, is one of danger to the soul, in which the frivolous is privileged and presses down upon the weightier, as the limp leather bindings sit and obscure the heavier tome.
The reason I share this with you is not simply as an exploration of a single painting seen on my holidays. It raises larger questions about how early modern users of book responded to different types of construction, how conscious they were of the quality of paper, what signification a style of binding may have had in their mind. Did a sense of their own ephemeral nature touch them as they fingered the pages of a thin, limply bound booklet? Did they expect true learning to come in thick-set folios? If so, what failure to appreciate the vanity of life must have lain there! This is to say, does an ordering such as that presented, by inversion, in de Keyser’s painting, collude in a belief that some human knowledge has more chance of being lasting? Thus we hide from the enormity of death.
This takes me to my final point: history, it is sometimes said, is about an attempt to cheat death, to live on beyond our mortal span. Historians, certainly, are memorialisers entrapped by previous generations’ attempts to be remembered. We are part of a cult of permanence or, rather, of the forlorn hope that we may be able to escape being ephemeral. As, though, we cannot, has not the time come that we should write the cultural history of impermanence? That could be a truly monumental volume.