bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Andrea Ammonio, protégé of Pietro Carmeliano

Posted in Manuscripts, Renaissance Studies, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 9 November, 2016

History without palaeography is a story half told. Here is a small example from the first decades of the sixteenth century. It comes from my monograph on The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain which I am presently completing. I present to you, in part, because I want to invite you to comment on the evidence I have for you.

It is often said that the Brescian humanist, Pietro Carmeliano, was the man who introduced the italic hand into England. The situation, as I explain in my book, is rather more complicated than that, but that is not the issue today. It is also said that he was the first person appointed as the king’s Latin secretary in the mid-1490s. It is true that he revelled in that title, though quite what it signified is open to discussion. He certainly produced a substantial quantity of correspondence for Henry VII; the first sign we have of his acting as a royal scribe (this evidence seems to have been overlooked) is from 1488. If you want not just to see his elegant script but to own a specimen, you may be lucky: not all are in public collections and some do appear for sale. One was up for auction last year and by the look of the note added at the top it somehow strayed (presumably in the nineteenth century) from the Archivio di Stato in Milan. Lot 951 - A rare letter to Da Vinci’s patron, with a full signature HENRY VII: (1457-1509) King of England

Another letter written by him was sold at Christie’s a few years ago; the auction house kindly tells me is now in private hands.

The story also told is that Carmeliano’s fortunes withered in the wake of Henry VII’s death. Other humanists celebrated the accession of his son as a new golden age. One of these poets was Thomas More, though, as I argued many, many years ago, his praise of the young Henry VIII was not as straightforward as it at first appears. Its classic statement, though, was provided in prose by an Italian, from Lucca, who called himself Andreas Ammonius (and who is now known as Ammonio). In a letter to Erasmus he ghost-wrote for William, Lord Mountjoy, Ammonio declared that this would be a new era of liberality, and he himself benefitted from it. In an act which is seen as a symbolic changing of the guard, he took on the role of the king’s Latin secretary, being first mentioned as that in 1511; Carmeliano, it is suggested, was yesterday’s man.

Let us leave aside that Carmeliano did not quit the scene and continued to be referred to as Latin secretary himself. That is significant for what I have to say here only in as much as it suggests that the position was not an exclusive one — and earlier evidence suggests that there was more than one secretary for Latin correspondence in earlier years. These men, in fact, included Andrea Ammonio himself.

There do not seem to be many images of Ammonio’s script available on the web (if you find one, please tell me) but here is one:

A royal letter, signed by Andrea Ammonio, dated 24th June 1515.

A royal letter, signed by Andrea Ammonio, dated 24th June 1515.

This, as you will see, is dated from June 1515, four years after the first reference to him as Latin secretary. This script, though, appears in earlier unsigned letters. At this point, I am going to have to ask you to open another tab and visit the wonderful Portal de Archivos Españoles site. On the page Inventario Dinámico choose the Archivo of Simancas, and under their Colecciones, choose Patronato Real. You are then looking for ‘Leg. 54’ and for two particular items in it. The first to find is document 99. It is a letter to Ferdinand of Aragon dated 30th July 1509 and signed by the new king Henry VIII (it also appears as item 52 in the catalogue of the 2009 British Library Henry VIII exhibition). Look at the script and compare it with what you see above: can you see the similarity? If not, take time to survey the details: look at the tick used sometimes on final e, and the left-turn on the foot of p and q, or look at the shape of the g, or the st ligature. There are so many shared characteristics in detail and in overall aspect that I am confident in proposing that this is by Ammonio as well. If you do not share my confidence, then your next challenge is to tell me: who else could this be at this date? Incidentally, note how fitting it is that he should be employed for a letter on behalf of Henry’s friend and the person from who Ammonio drafted the letter to Erasmus, William, Lord Mountjoy.

This, though, is not all. In 1509, Ammonio had already been resident in England for four years. Now find the document known as Leg. 54, Doc. 70. You will see that this is dated 18th October 1506. Your first impression might be that this is by a different hand from the others you have just seen and certainly the script is thinner, more upright and less assertive — it seems to be by a person learning their trade. Then look more closely, comparing the 1509 and 1506 letters together: look for the ornate ‘quam/quan’ abbrevation, or the placing of the suspension mark for ‘que’ or, indeed, the styling of the serifs. This, I suggest, is once again by Ammonio, not yet settled into his role and essaying his own humanist cursive. In developing his practice, he would have turned to exemplars he had to hand or to a colleague — that is, most likely, to Pietro Carmeliano. The implication of this evidence, in other words, is threefold. First, Andrea Ammonio was involved in the production of royal letters alongside Carmeliano. This, in turn, suggests that we might need to rethink our impression that there was a simple sequence of office-holders: it seems more likely that the title of secretary was an honour given to those who produced the letters, rather than being an exclusive post available only to one person at a time. Finally, what these letters also suggest is that Ammonio may well have owed his first entrée into working for the crown to Pietro Carmeliano. This, of course, does not mean that a rivalry may not have later developed, though we should also not assume that Carmeliano was cast out into darkness when the sunshine of Henry VIII’s munificence shone on Ammonio. In later years, Carmeliano was a rich man. What is more, though he was Ammonio’s elder, he outlived him: the younger humanist succumbed to sweating sickness in the summer of 1517. In 1520 (and, again, this has been undernoticed), Carmeliano was describing himself as secretary to Henry VIII.

The point of this tale is to remind ourselves as historians that reading documents, however subtly, is not enough if we want more fully to reconstruct events like those around 1509. By close attention to the palaeography, with due care and attention to its pitfalls, of course, we can move towards a richer understanding. This might be expressed as a paradox: to delve deeper, we have to appreciate these sources at their face value.


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  1. […] in large thin gothic letters below the beautiful italic of his secretary, Pietro Carmeliano (whom I have discussed on this site recently). In such instances, the royal writing looks ungainly in comparison to the script above […]

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