bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Never read once

Posted in Academic Practices, Reading by bonaelitterae on 30 March, 2020

I have a morning when what I have published is unwriting itself. I am working on a long-overdue article which should be a simple write-up of a plenary lecture given two years ago. In challenging myself, however, to think deeper and go further, I am realising how superficial I have been in what I have already allowed to go out to the world. Reviewers to date have been very kind to The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain; I would be much harsher.

The first chapter of that book is entitled ‘The Eloquent Page’, which encapsulates a point central to my argument: the Quattrocento humanists in reforming how the page looked did so in the belief that the presentation of a text was not extrinsic to its meaning but essential to its expression. For words to be beautiful, they need not only to sound so (in the mind’s ear) but also to be pleasing to the eye. If, in other words, one wants to write with eloquence, it is not just about a phrase being well-turned; it must be also be well turned out on the page. In pursuit of this visual expression of eloquence, the humanists believe they had found their paradigm via a re-invention of an earlier style of script. Their assumption was that, just as a particular idiom of Latin was, for them, the best method of communication, so this new old bookhand, the littera antiqua, was not simply a good possibility but the best.

I stand by all these claims but what has struck me today is how much more persuasive I could have made them. The article I am writing touches on how humanist texts praise of the built environment. What I have come to appreciate and regret is that I missed a trick in Renaissance Reform in not drawing a parallel between ideas of a well-designed building and what we can call the architecture of the page. Fundamental to both of them is the sense of proportion, and it was clearly that perception of balance, through which comes harmony, that attracted the humanists to their littera antiqua.

I could say, in my defence, that making such an association would have been in danger of disrespecting chronology: in the development of the revived styles, the page came before the Palazzo Rucellai or the Pazzi Chapel. The humanists did not need to think — indeed, could not think — of architectural prototypes for their reforms, whereas later Brunelleschi or Ghiberti could not but have been conscious of the re-design of the page as setting an exemplar for their own innovations. I might also say that, perhaps partly in response to developments in the art of the built, a hyper-sensitivity to the proportions of the page appeared in the second half of the fifteenth century, when scribes like Bartolomeo Sanvito began to show a concern for the golden ratio. A perception of the importance of proportion, then, was integral to the early humanists’ reform, but turning that into a science came later than the main focus of my discussion.

Either of those defences, though, is weak when set against my obvious failure. The associations had been expressed with exquisite eloquence by Ernst Gombrich in his classic essay ‘From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of Arts’. When I say ‘classic’, I mean both in the public sense that it is often republished and highly regarded and also in a more private way: it is an essay which I read first early in my days of doctoral research and which was fundamental to my intellectual development. I remember cheering its anti-Hegelianism, being enthralled by its delineation of a human community, feeling the thirst to read as much Gombrich as possible. I have still on my wall a quotation from him, which I have written out in a tidy script which I stopped being able to achieve quarter of a century ago:

I learned what I should have always have known, that the past was not people by abstractions but by men and women

If I turn, though, to my recent monograph and check the bibliography, I find no mention of his name. It is true that you will also not found there a reference to Michel de Certeau, who is another (but more recent) strong influence of what I have written. Perhaps it is the case that the deepest debts are the ones that cannot be expressed. I still accuse myself, though, and find myself guilty of ingratitude. I take some comfort that I am alone in this specific oversight: there is an important recent doctorate on the humanist reform of script and one which we should hope soon appears in print, by Philippa Sissis, and she provides ample citation to Gombrich. At least my failing is peculiar to me but that does not exonerate me.

I also know how this failure occurred: I read as I live life — I savour and then I move on. I rarely return to re-read, and if I do re-read it is sometimes because I have forgotten I ever seen it in the first place. I know, in this instance, that I did return to Gombrich’s article several times, so it transfused itself into my mental apparatus, but I must to have come to assume that my recall would be perfect and I would have nothing to regain by revisiting it again. Perhaps, in privileging further reading, I have lived by the assumption that it is better to have read and lost of the memory of it than never to have read it at all. Today, in contrast, I have come to realise the truth of the famous passage in Seneca’s Letters:

Distringit librorum multitudo; itaque cum legere non possis quantum habueris, satis est habere quantum legas.

He is surely not talking of reading as the eye gliding over the page but the sort of intensive study which comes only with frequent re-acquaintance. Perhaps it is better than never to have read than to have read only once. Maybe this should be an article of faith for the virtuous pursuit of slow scholarship.

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