bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard V: Bruni against the Goths gothicised

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 May, 2018

I realise that the tradition of the postcard privileges messages of few words. I note also that I have, in my recent posts, underachieved in that respect. This post is an attempt to rectify that. It comes without a description, for the manuscript discussed here has been well described in print by Laura Light. What I want to draw attention to is how this codex is witness to a humanist text escaping from the confines of humanist presentation and taking on another identity.

It is not unusual to have the work by a humanist copied in a gothic script. Indeed, the previous post discussed one such manuscript produced in England. The Houghton’s MS. Lat. 170 is a particularly pungent example of this habit for two reasons. First, while the copy of Bruni’s Ethics translation discussed last time is in a cursive script, this thin volume provides a case of the less common practice: a text written in a classicising style to be rendered into a textualis, that is a gothic bookhand needing to be produced with care and so at a slower pace. MS. Lat. 170 has suffered over time, mainly because of water damage, but it is clear that the scribe wrote with deliberation and a concern for detail, shown in particular with the frequent hairline strokes adorning the letters (look, for instance, at the h). The block of text is compact, with little space between the lines, in an aesthetic quite different from that promoted by the early humanists — the only similarity with their style of mise-en-page is the substantial blank borders around the text, which is, in fact, also to be found in the ‘pre-humanist’ circle of Coluccio Salutati. The illumination in this manuscript also shows no concession to the fashionable preference for bianchi girari initials. It is as if the scribe was unaware of the humanist agenda but that certainly cannot be true.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. lat. 170, fol. 18v

This brings us to the second point: the text that is being presented here. It is a work of Leonardo Bruni, the acknowledged doyen of the first generation of Quattrocento humanists; what is more, it is his history, De bello adversus Gothos — the Italians’ war against the Goths. Here we have an Italian scribe providing a humanist text that discusses the Goths but doing it in a style that the humanists would have described as ‘gothic’. Did the scribe enjoy the irony?

I see that the text above could not fit on a postcard, unless perhaps I used a tiny gothic script.

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