bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In praise of multiplicity: Ludwig Pollak and Bartolomeo Nogara

Posted in Practices of Scholarship by bonaelitterae on 8 July, 2022

When you look in the mirror how many yous do you see?


As I have recently been on holiday, I have been able to enjoy something which I can rarely find time to do in the frenetic everyday: reading for pleasure. On delight has been to immerse myself in Pollak’s Arm, a novella by Hans von Trotha which is desperately moving and which I warmly recommend to you, if you have not immersed yourself in it already. I admit that I read it in the recently published, elegant translation by Elisabeth Lauffer, even if, for a Briton, it itself required some translation (for instance, to these English eyes, the obvious meaning of ‘to tear up’ is to rend something into pieces, not — as intended — for one’s eyes to well). It is a work of fiction but its material is all too real: it is set on 15th October 1943, the night before the Nazi round-up of Rome’s Jews, and reflects on the life of Ludwig Pollak, the German-Czech Jewish art dealer and antiquary who was a long-term residence of that city. Its sources are mainly Pollak’s own diaries, and the narrative unveils his career, including his best-known triumph which gives the book its title: the remarkable discovery — announced to the world by Pollak in 1906 — of a fragment of the ancient Laocoön, one which had not be refound with the rest of the statue exactly four hundred years, a defining moment of the Renaissance in Rome.

Many of the characters mentioned by Pollak as he relays his biography had, for me, a ring of familiarity but one, in particular, I was not expecting to find in this novella. Pollak’s review of his life mentions a friend and supporter he has in the Vatican, and, in fact, the last pages of the novella are not fiction but a translation of a letter written by this friend in October 1943 in praise and defence of Pollak. The letter’s author was Bartolomeo Nogara. I am acquainted with him because of a book he edited which was published in the Vatican Library’s learned Studi e Testi series: what Nogara called the scritti inedita e rari of the Quattrocento humanist known to the Anglophone world as Flavio Biondo (and to Italian scholars, Nogara included, as Biondo Flavio). I have my own copy of that gray-covered volume in front of me, bought, I see, on a trip to the Vatican made in April 1998, four months after I was awarded my doctorate. I recall where I bought it: the was a shop for Vatican publications in St Peter’s Square itself, near the top of the north arm of buildings to the side of the cathedral façade. Some of the texts in that volume have been recently re-edited, and others are gaining more attention: while Biondo is best known as a promoter of Rome as a worthy capital for Christendom at the point the papacy was attempting to secure its returned position there, one of the texts Nogara presented shows the humanist’s fascination with the Ethiopian delegation to the Council of Florence, even seeing their description of the homeland as disproving the ancient authority of the geographer Ptolemy (it is a passage I have translated, from Nogara’s edition, for my Renaissance students, while we await Samantha Kelly’s fuller discussion of it).

I was vaguely aware of Nogara’s significance beyond this edition, in as much as I knew he was the Director General of the Vatican Museums — that is stated on the title-page of the volume — but I had not envisaged his wider life. When we read works, we sometimes conjure up the voice and the style that we imagine that author would have, and we can be disappointed to find the ‘real’ person is not like the image we constructed. Just as frustrating can be when we find we quite warm to someone we meet whose writings have not impressed us. This dissonance struck me now in a different way: that Bartolomeo Nogara, the person I knew as an editor of humanist Latin works, stood up against anti-Semitism during the pontificate of Pius XII increased my admiration for him, but made me question: are these the same man? In a simplistic sense, of course they are: this is not a case of a Doppelganger. But they present such disparate elements cohabiting in one body that it made we wonder about how our assumptions of a person’s individuality can mislead us — how, as it were, we concentrate our gaze on the single figure before us to the extent that we become blind to its multiplicity. It is like seeing a person standing surrounded by a set of mirrors: we take as the real the corporeal presence but there is a deep solipsism to that, assuming our two eyes reading one image is what provides the ‘true’; instead, the many reflections and refractions bring us closer to an appreciation of identity. This is not a change of perspective but a pluralising of perspectives.

Refractions but not fractured. It may be that I have been led down this avenue of thinking by von Trotha. Late in his novella, he has Pollak describe how, having been fêted by the Hertziana — the German art historical library near the Spanish Steps — for his discovery of the arm of the Laocoön, he was in the 1930s ostracised, and asked not to enter its doors. Specious reasons were given; the reader is left to infer that the underlying objection to him had become his Jewishness. In the new ideology, Pollak’s failing was that he could not stop being Jewish and it was assumed that this infected his every action, his every writing. The irony is not lost on Pollak that he was being barred from an institution that had been founded by a Jew, Henriette Hertz, whose name was also dropped from the foundation in this period (it has, of course, been reinstated).

The fallacy into which Pollak’s enemies fell was the assumption that a single element of identity can form the essence of a person. It is true that Pollak describes himself as becoming more Jewish or, rather, that, in his later years, he became more conscious of his Jewish heritage (a similar trajectory as to that followed by Isaiah Berlin, as described by Michael Ignatieff). This, though, does not make the fallacy decreases in error — rather, it makes it yet more fallacious. For, if at any single moment, there are several aspects in play, that number increases and their combination shifts over the course of time, through the impact of circumstances and of the life-cycle. Imagine the mirrors around a person not being static but forever in motion, so that identity is continually refracted as if through a kaleidescope.


A recent invention of scholarly bureaucracy is the ORCID, the persistent digital identifier which allows one scholar’s works to be correctly attributed to that individual, whatever differences there are in the published citations. This is a noble initiative but let us not forget the within any ORCID can bloom a range of flowers, providing a cacophony of colour — and that the identity behind that identifier is yet more multiple than their writings can ever suggest.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: