bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The stories manuscript tell: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 October, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is monumental. The British Library has become accustomed to putting on ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that cram its gallery with items — and visitors — to the point of sensory overload: feasts for the eyes which go beyond an elegant sufficiency. At the end of any show, its curator must have an acute feeling of the passing of a moment, but when this exhibition closes, something more will happen. Never before has it been possible to look at the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book side-by-side, or to stand looking at the diminutive Cuthbert (formerly Stonyhurst) Gospel and then turn to ninety degrees to see the outsize Northumbrian masterpiece, the Codex Amiatinus. A sweep of manuscripts that takes us from the first known book in England, the St Augustine Gospels, to Great Domesday, and beyond, with the exhibition’s coda being a stupendous case placing the Utrecht, the Harley and the Eadwine Psalters in dialogue with each other. An exhibition where the Lindisfarne Gospels are reduced to a walk-on part, upstaged by the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels near by them. Those who saw the Bodleian’s recent Designing English will be insouciant about the Alfred Jewel and the Alfredian translation of Gregory the Great being together (and, in truth, Oxford did that combination better) but they will not have had the chance see the treaty between Alfred and Guthrun close by, or Beowulf in the same rooms, or items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Plus, mingling with books and objects, there are single-page letters and charters which enliven and deepen the story. Never before and, given the ravages of time exacerbated by the present resurgence of petty nationalism, most likely never again. When the curators oversee the exhibition being dismantled, it will be difficult for them not to have a tear in their eye because they will know that something unprecedented is being irrecoverably lost. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is not, in the usual publicity parlance, a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience; it is once in the life of the world.

This is an exhibition, then, that cannot be judged by the usual standards. If it were, we might set the litmus test: does it make best use of the materials to hand for its stated aim? How good is it at telling the story of the English lands from the fifth to the eleventh century? I am not the person to answer that, and not just because my expertise lies much later than the Anglo-Saxon period. I have only, so far, had chance to make one visit of two-and-a-half hours. I will surely appreciate different elements when I return again and, hopefully, again. On this first occasion, my palaeographical interest informed my viewing: there before me, in the flesh, were so many of the manuscripts that I have mentioned to students and encouraged them to study, online or in reproduction. It was like having a bibliography of must-see manuscripts that reside on disparate shelves all flutter down and come to rest in one place. This makes it for me and (I have heard tell) for other scholars, an exhibition with a massive emotional punch. I admit all those points but, at the same time, I believe the items themselves dictated my response: in the vast majority of cases, each manuscript opening was so rich with information that it commands your focus, only for its neighbour to redirect you, at which point you step back and appreciate the contrasts and the comparisons between that coupling. And so on, taking the manuscripts and charters as small groups, sometimes separated between cases, sometimes making you move back and forth in the rooms to the annoyance of others present. That is to say, I did not so much ‘take in a show’ as wallow in its exhibits.

Not all the manuscripts hold equal allure: Beowulf is an unprepossessing volume, whose attraction is perhaps enhanced by the damage it suffered in the Cottonian fire of 1731. But why it should contrast substantially with the grandeur of others shown before and after it in these rooms is itself an interesting question. In other words, while the layout of the gallery encourages a singular linear progress, the items on display propose other itineraries: they encourage you to make the museumscape your own. I emphasise this because it provides for me a partial solution to a problem I have with exhibitions of manuscripts. Here is the issue: a book is not an art object in the same way as a painting or a statue — those latter artworks are intentionally single and, in the right conditions, can be observed as a whole. The virtue of a book, in contrast, is that it is plural, that it is intended to be picked up and its pages turned: it has kinetic energy. To put this another way, it is less an object than a performer. When it becomes an object is as part of a gathering of books: a library impresses by the quantity of packed shelves, and teases by its owner taking out just one of the volumes and opening it before you. The library offers the possibility of reading, but the exhibition display (as we know it) cannot. It reduces the books to being like other art objects; it captures these performers in tableaux.

So, for me in an exhibition of manuscripts, there is often a frustration at the static presentation of these mobile, plural items. That, though, would be too begrudging when faced with what is, in effect, the ultimate pop-up library, an unrepeatable conglomeration of outstanding codices. Each, yes, is forced into a single pose but at least each is open alongside others. As a palaeographer, I would have preferred fewer openings highlighting illumination and instead ones foregrounding the fundamental artistry of a book which is its script. Yet, with what we have here there is so much to read, not simply in the sense of deciphering words but, more widely, in looking at the object. At the most basic level, this is about matters of size: the exhibition ranges from the pocket-book to the all-too-heavy Amiatinus. The sense of the individual shape — I was surprised by how relatively thick the Cuthbert Gospel was — is brought home by each being placed in relation to the others. Issues of magnitude relate also to the script used. Some of the opening cases bring in close proximity fragments of the letters of Cyprian (BL, MS. Add. 40165A), the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict (Bodleian, MS. Hatton 48) and the earliest known charter of English origin, made by Hlothhere, king of Kent, at Reculver in 679 (BL, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2). They are all in a script we would term uncial but the differences between them and, in particular, how small and delicate the module is of the charter’s writing, are what is most noticeable in how they are presented here.

London: British Library, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2 (top part), Reculver, 679

The history of script is very much on display: the grandeur of uncial and half-uncial; the practical importance of insular minuscule; its later replacement by what we know as Anglo-Saxon minuscule, itself increasingly informed by and challenged by the presence of caroline minuscule, and the changes that bookhand underwent at the masterful fingertips of Eadui Basan and Eadwine — these can be traced through the exhibition, if you care to find them. Attention is not drawn to these issues by the captions but what matters is the material is available to allow you to investigate these elements.


So, I will end these musings with two pleas. One is to future curators of exhibitions: you will not be able to repeat the unforgettable success of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms but when you are looking for a successor worthy of its achievement, do think of having an event which takes a single period in western history and looks at its manuscripts primarily through their scripts and, more generally, through their physicality. Such insights are necessarily there in the exhibition and perhaps providing visitors with suggested multiple itineraries would be one way of encouraging them to see the multiple perspectives this display allows. As it stands, the viewer needs to make the exhibition their own and so my second plea is to anyone going to London: be like walkers in the city and when you are in the gallery, find your own routes through it, not expecting to travel in one required direction but, instead, toing and froing through its riches. That assumes, of course, you do visit it. If what I have said has not been explicit enough, let me be clear: your grandparents could not imagine this event, your grandchildren will envy you your tales of it. Go, go, go.


Mandrakes in the Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 6 November, 2017

One of the items which belongs to the Library of Christ Church, Oxford, is a silver box, in fine filigree, possibly an early eighteenth-century Parisian product. In it sit two mandrakes which look so much like miniature long-faced humans, complete with unkempt hair, that it is hard not to think of the sunken heads from a very different tradition that sit across town in the Pitt Rivers Museum. These mandrakes fascinate viewers but they also disconcert. That is not just because they hint at the magical qualities that lore claims these roots hold but also because their presence in a library seems so out of place. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, when the circumstances of their arrival in the Library was recognised, what was considered worthy of attention was the box in which they had been donated; the mandrakes themselves were all but ignored.

Christ Church Library Mandrakes

Christ Church Library’s mandrakes in their filigree box

The mandrakes set us a challenge. That they should have been given to a library and that the Library of this learned foundation should keep them — both facts seem decidedly odd. We know that a library, particularly in such a place of education, is a home for tomes, carefully classified and arranged on shelves. What shelfmark could a mandrake be given? How dare they offend the order of the place? It is not, though, these things alone: coins, clothing, instruments (scientific and musical), paintings, pottery and toys, all have come to live in Christ Church Library. All may appear incongruous interruptions or, worse, blemishes, specks of dirt in the system. To think like this is to find our sense of order colliding with that of the space itself, its genius.

The challenge, in other words, is to question our own perception of what makes a library. We know that it is formed not only of books; the volumes have to be corralled into order, with labels and a catalogue. We expect also furniture: shelves, desks, chairs. We know there must be sources of light (without endangering the books), so windows and, nowadays, electric lamps. We also know that other items are considered appropriate: works of art, for instance. If these things, then why not others? The decisions about what is suitable will change with time but a constant will be this: the other items put the books in context; the un-books make this book space. They are not in conflict with the library; they are constitutive of it.

The mandrakes and their box did not arrive alone. They were part of a bequest given in 1686 to the Library by the executors of Christ Church’s late dean, John Fell. He, who had presided over the building of Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, had himself been a towering figure in Oxford. His whole life had been associated with Christ Church: he was the son of Dean Samuel Fell, who had been ejected from his position at the end of the Civil War. John never gave up his royalist and Anglican allegiances, making him a suitable candidate to be eventual successor to his father following the Restoration. He set about constructing Christ Church’s identity as a bastion of the restored establishment, committed to both tradition and educational advance. He continued as dean even when he was promoted to the role of bishop of Oxford in 1676. His passing was the end of an era.

What his executors considered a suitable bequest to the Library was eclectic. The donation included three printed books, as well as the ‘Two Mandrakes in a Silver Box’; in addition, there was ‘The Picture of King Henry 8th’ and ‘Libr. palmeum ling. Selanensi’, that is, a book on palm leaves in the Ceylonese language. The list suggests something of the range of items that were thought appropriate for a library. Its walls could be adorned with portraits and there was no more fitting act of piety than to display an image of Henry VIII, founder of the institution (if, though, there was not one in situ before this gift, that would be striking). Likewise, its books did not have to confine themselves to the Western tradition, and thus the book on palm leaves could take its place in the collection. This should give us pause for thought.

ChCh MS. LR 1 fol. 198a

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. LR 1, fol. 198a (detail): part of the record of the bequest from John Fell, 1686

We know a library is about the possibilities of intellectual interaction with the written word. We recognise that there might be volumes in its collection which may be in a language or in a style of writing we cannot decode but we are confident that they are there because somebody else will. What happens, though, if that polyglot decipherer of texts does not arrive? What if the words are so obscure to be permanently illegible? In the case of Fell’s Ceylonese book — which was perhaps testimony to his encouragement of missionary work — we can certainly doubt that he, with all his wide learning, or anyone else in Oxford at the time, could have sat down to read it. That being the case, was it status so very different from that of an object like the mandrakes? This book too borders on being an un-book. If this is so, it did not stand alone in the collection. To acknowledge that the supposedly out-of-place items in a library have a rationale for being there is to begin to ask how many of the books are considered merely or primarily repositories of texts and how far they had greater charisma as objects.

These are the questions which the new exhibition in Christ Church Upper Library is addressing. The display coincides with the publication of the Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Manuscripts, up to c. 1600, in Christ Church, Oxford by Ralph Hanna and myself (published by Oxford Bibliographical Society). It grows out of the research undertaken for that work’s introduction, in which the changing place of the western manuscripts within the wider collection was reconstructed. The exhibition, curated by Cristina Neagu and myself, gives a sense of the array of objects that have, over time, become part of the Library’s identity and asks visitors to consider what that history can tell us about what we expect a library to be.

Darkness legible

Posted in Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 15 January, 2017

Can an object really ever be out of place? Is it not us who are out of sorts when we find something misplaced? And that jolt which occurs as the mind fails to put it where we think it should be is the sensation of liberation as we discover and think anew.

So it is with an art exhibition like Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery. As I write, it is about to close its doors for the last time, allowing the paintings it brought together to return to their more accustomed surroundings. Most are familiar, some because they are burdened with the title of masterpieces, and several because they did have far to travel to take up their accommodation in the Sainsbury Wing: those exhibits are ones which are more often to be found resting upstairs against the walls of the main gallery. But what their temporary residence allowed was to see them afresh and it is about one of those I write now.

It is easy to understand why Adam de Coster’s ‘A Man singing by candlelight’ was thought appropriate for an exhibition named after Caravaggio. It is a bravura display of chiaroscuro in the style we relate to the Roman artist and to Georges de la Tour.

Image result for adam de coster singing by candlelight

Adam de Coster, ‘Man singing by Candlelight’, c. 1625-35 (National Gallery, London)

I must have passed it several times on previous visits to the National but something about its positioning in the exhibition arrested me. Perhaps it was the fact that, even in comparison with the other candlelit scenes displayed in the room, there is something audacious or downright odd about this painting. How many early seventeenth-century artists would be willing to place at the very centre of their picture what, in effect, is black space? If it were a century later, we might compare it with the blank pages in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. As it is we are more likely to ignore it and to concentrate on the artistry of the light thrown on the man’s face. We might even consider the invisible music book as an interruption or a blemish. What, on the contrary, struck me on this occasion was how that blackness unlocks the painting, how its illegibility helps us read it.

What, it seemed to me, standing before it in the over-crowded room (more on that another time) was that it spoke of an inverted world, a place in which we are the shadows. We are invited in, encouraged to imagine that we are there before the musician — for who else could be his audience? — but also kept at a distance. We are on the other side, where the light does not fall and where what we assume are words and notes is blackness. What cave is this we inhabit? One where we are incapable of reading — oh, but surely that is precisely what we are doing, explicating the painting as if its surface was a text. Except, of course, that we, in effect, are attempting to read in dark; we are in the wrong position to dicipher fully. So, let’s draw nearer and enter the painting’s world. But if we try that, our own penumbral status would melt in the warmth of the candle; we would lose our place. We believe — we have to believe — that we are more real than the image we are facing. After all, we have our senses. We know there is, in truth, no book and no space, just daubs of paint on the canvas. We can proudly say we have eyes to see. We can see, at the heart of the picture, precisely nothing. Is that achievement? Or is that the beam in our eye which makes us see absence? We also have ears to hear but do we hear the music? If we do not, is that the painting’s failing or ours?

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the RA

Posted in Art, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 30 December, 2014

Chance meetings are one of the little pleasures that enrich life. As the streets grow ever more crowded and their occurrence thus rarer, they become all the more precious. And as, we are told, our population increase is, in part at least, thanks to immigration and so, as a society, we want to reflect on the benefits that brings, let us add this to the blessings it offers our island.

And so, stepping onto the pavement near Marble Arch in the days before Christmas, I happened to meet my friend of many years, now the reviews editor for History Today, Philippa Joseph. She was off to the office, while I was on my way to the Royal Academy and the exhibition on the mid-sixteenth century Bergamese artist, Battista Moroni. On hearing this, Philippa asked me whether I had seen the review of the show by Piers Baker-Bates – that I had not was not a surprise, considering it appears in the January issue of History Today at that point just being published. As we boarded the Underground, Philippa, with characteristic generosity, presented me with a copy of the magazine and left me to do my homework on the tube, during the short trip to Piccadilly.

This was a moment of triple serendipity – seeing Philippa, reading a review of an exhibition I was about to see, and that written by another friend, for Piers and I have crossed paths both in subterranean pizza joints in Cambridge and before the fire-place at the British School at Rome. His review (I hope this acts as no spoiler to those who have not read it) is effusive in its praise and I can certainly see why: there is much to enjoy in this densely packed exhibition. It has some gorgeous works on display, skilfully presented with a strong logic to the arrangement – in fact, too strong. That, as I will explain, is one reservation I have, but all my comments are intended not to denigrate what is there and, rather, to suggest how we can deepen our appreciation further.

As Piers points out, Moroni was once a painter in fashion – not only in his lifetime in Bergamo in the 1560s, but also when the Victorians bought up his portraits. That his name is less known now has made some newspapers call the decision to put on this show ‘brave’, though I am not sure the element of virtus that is courage has much to do with it and, certainly, on my visit, the subject’s relative obscurity did not seem to have dented the exhibition’s popularity. It had, though, affected some of the choices of how to present the material. It seems that, concerned to sell their painter to an audience that they appear to feel needed direction, the curators allowed the caption-writer to descend into an imperiously didactic mode which wreaks of old-style connoisseurship. ‘No detail in the painting can divert attention from the piercing gaze fixed on the spectator by the young woman’, the visitor is directed in front of the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’. Well, for this viewer, there are details that capture the attention and – I submit – enrich the portrait. Bear with me for a while before I explain why.


‘The exhibition takes us chronologically through Moroni’s career and illustrates clearly how his artistic trajectory developed’ – thus Dr Baker-Bates in History Today. This does, indeed, seem to be the rationale, except that the last room, packed with impressive pieces, breaks the logic. It includes the portrait of a doctor or magistrate leaning back in his chair (there is something of Lorenzo Lotto here; it is now in Brescia); it dates itself by the ruse of a note on the letter the sitter holds to the year 1560 – that is, at a time when Moroni was the in-vogue painter of Bergamo, as shown three rooms earlier in the exhibition. The title for this last room provides another explanation for its organisation: it is called ‘The Beginnings of Modern Portraiture’. Here grand claims are made for Moroni’s achievement, explaining that in his ‘final decades’, when he had returned to the town of his birth, a few miles from Bergamo, he mastered the production of portraits ‘with [such] startling realism, tonal effects and strong characterisation [that they] anticipate the work of such seventeenth-century artists as Caravaggio and Velázquez, through to Ingres, Degas and Manet in the nineteenth century’. Is this sort of writing still acceptable in art history? It sounds more like journalese, where the newspaper has required an ex cathedra statement from an academic because that is what they are meant to say. It ignores causation – did Caravaggio, let alone Velázquez, study Moroni’s work? – and context – were there no artists from whom Moroni adopted techniques?

It also, of course, assumes a ‘progress’ towards later-life perfection. How we all hope we can achieve that! Yet, the exhibition itself suggested something else to me. The captions repeated talk of the intense gaze of the person portrayed but I must say that it seemed to me that Moroni was a master of the dead eyes – there is rarely an attempt to bring the irises alive; his art is more in the posture, the inclined head and the hands. These are figures which are, most often, statuesque, painted as if they are patiently positioned very still. But not always – for me, those portraits which come alive are those that depict not as much the person but a moment: the second, for instance, at which the Lateran Canon turns to the painter and his lips being to curl in a smile. Or the portrait of the child (surely a difficult subject to keep in one position) which captures her playing with beads. Or – to return to one which we have mentioned before – the portrait of a young lady at the moment she is about to spread her fan to cool her face.

None of the three paintings just mentioned is firmly dated: the latter two are tentatively attributed to the early 1570s, while the Lateran Canon (now in Rotterdam) is thought to be about 1558. That is to say, there is no certain line of development: we are not necessarily seeing increasing skill or deepening insight over time, but rather an artist who can ‘do’ both the statuesque and the more informal, the more human. Even this dichotomy does not sum up a range which also, as this exhibition shows, includes altarpieces with at least one very striking ‘Last Supper’ (from Romano di Lombardia) where the servant pouring the wine – with all the theological implications invested in that vase – upstages the central figure of Christ. There is not a single style on display in these rooms – and there is not a single way in which they should be viewed.

This is a stimulating exhibition, for more reasons that I have had chance to explain here. It is about to close – so, go now, and help convince the Royal Academy that it is such a success they did not need to patronise the viewers with de-haut-en-bas captions and an over-simplified narrative. The curators and the Academy are to be thanked for arranging it – and, myself, I have to thank Piers and Philippa for increasing my enjoyment of my visit. And, of course, the benign gods that bring us immigration. Long may it continue.

Art under Attack at the Tate

Posted in Biblioclasm, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 6 January, 2014

I went to visit a turkey last week and I do not even like turkeys. Tate Britain’s ‘Art under Attack’ was declared by The Independent to be the museum world’s ‘turkey of the year’. It is not difficult to see why it has received such unwanted accolades – but it deserved a better reaction. It is disjointed – jumping from the ‘long Reformation’ to later modern attacks on statues – and incohesive, attempting to combine suffragette hacking at art with post-War theories of creative destructivity. Its title is also a triple misnomer – but even a problematic exhibition that cannot but fail to live up to its ambitions can be thought-provoking, and this one was certainly that.

I said that its title, which in full is ‘Art under Attack: histories of British Iconoclasm’, is a misnomer thrice over; here is why. First, an exhibition that includes New York destruction of royalist monuments during the American Revolution takes the definition of Britain to its edges but when it includes similar attacks on statues in post-independence Eire, it stretches beyond acknowledged limits. Second, if iconoclasm is the destruction of images, then this show is a celebration of its failure: it necessarily catalogues survivals, sometimes partial, sometimes near-complete. It documents damage and disrespect rather than full-scale loss. Indeed, in some cases like when the suffragettes took the cleaver to gallery exhibits the intention was clearly not to end the work’s life but to violate it. In that context, there was certainly an acknowledgement that what was being attacked was art – as the exhibition shows, idealised female beauty was being made to submit to the ugliness of the culture in which it was venerated – but in other milieux was it ‘art’ that was at stake?

In the reconstruction of battles over public monuments, for instance, were the high-up statues involved considered ‘high art’ and attacked as such? The battle was surely over the creation of a public memory manipulated by the positioning of a monument which was also vulnerable precisely because of its accessible location. The statue’s artistic merits were not the issue – this was primarily conflict over space not beauty.

Of course, it could be said that iconoclasts uncover the anti-beauty in the image which they find so provocative it requires a violent reaction. So, whatever the delicacy of a pre-Reformation devotional object, an evangelical or later Puritan saw that dwarfed by a larger truth: the image tells an ugly lie. But, as this exhibition showed, the reaction was not always complete dismemberment but maiming by slashing or cutting out of an offending element. Perhaps, then, iconoclasm should be re-defined as the intentional disendowing of an object of its value as an icon.

The irony is that the process of disendowment does not entirely remove the artistic: it can only change its focus. The stand-out work on display – worth, as they say, the entrance fee alone – is Thomas Johnson’s 1657 depiction of Canterbury Cathedral (in private hands), shown because it depicts the Puritans at work, smashing glass and searching out wall-paintings but inevitably leaving a shadow of the former art within a structure stunningly reproduced by Johnson’s brush, with all the love of detail of his Dutch contemporaries. The tiny specks of men are at work but it merely redirects attention. The attack on some art endows other art with more power: the charisma of the icon shifts.

This shift may require us to have a broader view of ‘art’ that ‘Art under Attack’ at times allows. One room is given over to discussing the replacement in forward Protestant churches of visual images with written text. This is most strikingly demonstrated with one exhibit, a part of a black-on-white text where the whitewash has faded away to reveal beneath some of the figures that were once integral to the rood screen of which this piece of wood had once been. But the dichotomy is surely too simple. In a culture where the majority would have been illiterate, were the sentences of the commandments placed on the church’s wall merely read? Or was the interaction with these words often itself visual? In two of the items on display, what caught my attention was the care taken with the presentation, which in itself created something fictive. In one case, the triptych of texts, presented closed, where the black lettering against white background, placed within a red-brown surround, was clearly intended to evoke the page of a bound book. In contrast, the other piece used deep hues of red and green on which to write a careful italic-influenced but idiosyncratic, ostentatious script written in gold – a new use for chrysography. The directly pictorial has been removed but these are still images or representations, the art of depicting the concept of the Word. Art, when under attack, has the ability to imitate Proteus and to take on new forms.

Similar points can be extrapolated to other sections of the exhibition. Behind some of the earliest exhibits here lie stories of protection, benign disregard and eventual revival. Too often, we can only speculate whether a near-complete statue outlived Reformation hatred and still exists because it was consciously hidden in order to survive, or simply forgotten and discarded. In some more recent cases, something more happens: the misfortunes of an art work might actually enhance its iconic status. So, the Rockeby Venus gained attention through the slashes across her back inflicted by Mary Robinson in 1914 – a response similar perhaps to the yet-greater status imposed on the Mona Lisa after its disappearance and later damage, or the ‘fresco’ (though, notoriously, not painted with the accepted technique) by the same master in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Last Supper. Is it a function of the impact that iconoclasm has had that we are conditioned to find our art particularly evocative when it is imperfect or incomplete? Such objects allow us to engage through our imagination: in miniature, they are like a walk through the open-roofed nave of a long-dissolved abbey, allowing us to re-construct our own original in our personal idealised form. It is much easier to do that than to think on the absolute loss that has at times occurred – the entire destruction of both object and its memory. If ‘Art under Attack’ fails because it simply cannot let us engage with such obliteration, perhaps that failure – concentrating our thoughts instead on what has lasted and what might have been – is, in itself, art’s Pyrrhic victory.

Time and the Scribe

Posted in Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 16 December, 2012

The Silk Road exhibition — Sulla Via della Seta — at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome is one of those shows that make a few items go a long way. It uses its space to place those ceramics and cloths in a context, conjuring for the visitor an evocation of Xi’an, Samarkand and Baghdad through image, replica, sound and smell. In other words, it belies its American origins, for it seems to me that a characteristic of the great museums in the States — in contrast with most in Europe, excepting (tellingly) the V&A — is that they wish not just to present objects but to capture a whole civilisation. That principle of display is combined, in this exhibition, with elements created especially for its Italian manifestation, and it is, to my mind, at its strongest when, in the first room, it gives a summary sense of the Italian merchants who travelled the extended trade route and, in the last room, it places specific ‘tartar’ silks beside late medieval Italian devotional paintings, making us look at familiar images with new eyes thinking how incongruous it is that, say, St Bartholomew should be wrapped in a cloak with Chinese decoration.

What, though, most caught my attention was one artefact from the section on Baghdad, there to represent the learned and technical success of that city. It was an example of the water-clock designed in the late twelfth century by Abu’ al Izz ibn Ismail al-Jazari. It works as an hour glass does with sand, though this measures a whole day, by the water dripping into the bottom basin and its movement turning the top of the clock which acts like its face. What struck me was that on the ‘face’ sat a turbaned scribe, a preternaturally long pen stretching before him, and it is the movement of his pen which marks the passage of time. What an association between time and writing! How alien from European mores, where a scribe can be the preserver of the divine or the royal — the essential workman of history itself — but where those activities rarely have a heightened temporal consciousness. Palaeographers look for the dated manuscripts in the hope that the can map for us the development of script but, even in the Renaissance where such specificity was more fashionable, only a small minority carry a year, let alone a day, of production. Even rarer are those books that record the passage of time incurred in their preparation — leaving us to guess how long it took a scribe to complete a folio. And these concerns hardly touch what al-Jazari’s turbaned scribe can represent. I wonder what he would say if he could speak to us:

Cursed be those who claim that because I sit cross-legged I am lesser than those men who stand tall. Can they trace the arc of time as I do with a pen that sits like an extension of my finger? Without my profession, there would be no certainty of law or memory; even the Holy Word would be intangible. The words I write entertain you, teach you, direct you — and define you. But more than any of those achievements is my mastery of time. Without the movement of my pen, you could not measure the parameters within which you live. You would be left squinting at the sun. You come to me and say ‘write down my words so they will last, so after I am dead I will be remembered’. You should also come to me to learn about the passing of the days — for with the movement of my pen so passes the time you have left alive.

Yet, of course, when this scribe is the recorder of time, he is least like an expert in script. For, in Baghdad, the round city, he denotates the passing hours by drawing a circle. This, it could be said, is beyond the expression of words: the circle holds the mystery of infinity. When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that only a madman or a genius (is there a difference?) can draw a perfect circle; it was, I was told, Leonardo da Vinci’s calling-card to chalk on a friend’s wall a circle to show that he had visited when his would-be host was not at home. The seated, unmoving scribe does this every day, and every day is defined by the fact the scribe does this. Thought of in this way, al-Jazari’s clock could stand as the victory of Plato over Heraclitus, the movement of the water becoming the servant to the sublime perfection of the circle.

Give me, though, the imperfection of words over this higher skill. However ephemerally words are recorded — on flimsy paper or even less tangibly on screen — they speak of a person. And the scribe who sits each day drawing that sublime circle is denying that which makes his work most intriguing: the individuality of the script. The drawing of the essential circle may be an essential task but, if you ask me, it is wasting time which could be better spent on the delights of the non-essential.

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Hang them high

Posted in Art, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 5 July, 2012

This a brief plea to exhibition curators. I am spurred to it by having experienced the impressive temporary display at the Prado, El Último Rafael. It could, equally, have been called ‘Early Giulio’ because its second half is dedicated to Raphael’s protégés, particularly Giulio Romano showing a restraint that abandoned him when he had licence — and licentiousness — at the court of the Gonzagas. The exhibition begins, in contrast, with a series of imposing altarpieces by Raphael and his workshop and it is those that are the focus of my comment.

It is certainly a privilege to be able to stand in front of, say, Lo Spasimo, fresh for restoration. However, that is also my quibble: we, the viewers, stand immediately before the painting, looking the tortured Christ, as it were, in the eye. But this surely is not how the work is intended to be seen: Raphael did not imagine its viewers would dare to look straight-on at the action but would rather approach it in humble devotion, an adoration inspired not so much by his skill but by the work’s original purpose. This work — and, indeed, other altarpieces here, like the St Michael painted for Francois Ier — are simply too low on the wall. And what we have lost is not just a sense of reverence.

The captions to the paintings are keen to discern the hand of the master in details and in the design of the work. But what is lost by the fashionable low-hanging style is actually the full impact of the perspective of the image. By lowering St Michael to the viewer’s level, the power of movement, the sense of action as the figure protrudes from the picture, disappears. Equally, I would contend, with Lo Spasimo, the religious message of the art is weakened by the present display: viewed straight-on, we see a mass of people cluster around the tripped Christ but viewed from below, the impact is so much greater: we look up to Jesus as the most immediate point, and share with him in his suffering and, then, raising our eyes further, we can see the suffering lifted for Christ by the intervention of Simon of Cyrene — a metaphor for how the Crucifixion itself will lift the burden of certain death from our own shoulders.

My request, then, is simple: raise these artworks on the wall, hang them high. And, until that happens, I have advice to the visitor: be not afraid to kneel in front of one of these altarpieces. I suspect the local aficionados, born to a culture traditionally as hot in its religious fervour as in its weather, consider the curious sight of a mild-mannered Anglican on his knee before Lo Spasimo with curiosity and amusement. But don’t worry about how it looks to others: the reward for those who do approach these paintings from a position of reverence is a revelation of the genius of the late Raphael.

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Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 November, 2011

When is a manuscript royal? Is it solely when it was commissioned by a monarch? Or – a slightly broader definition – when it is called into existence by the will of a member of the royal family? Is it one which was made with the intention of entering a royal collection? Or one which, whatever its creator’s plan, did end up there in the Middle Ages? Or, indeed, one which reached the British Royal Library after the medieval period? It is a question worth asking because examples of all of these types of books are on display in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’ exhibition at the British Library.

On one level, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition answers the question: John Lowden begins the introductory essays by stating that the definition used includes ‘any manuscript for which there is evidence of a royal connection at any point in its history’ (p. 19). It is a definition so capacious that it invites sub-division, a process that Prof. Lowden himself undertakes in the pages that follow. But it is also a definition not immediately on display to those who visit the exhibition, relying on the brochure, captions or audio-guide to help lead them through the more than 150 manuscripts laid out in the cabinets. They are told, instead, that manuscripts ‘associated with successive kings and queens of England … include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries’. A set of associations are implied, linking ‘royal’ with ‘manuscript’– associations which the visitor without a catalogue can (like Miss Lavish wandering Florence without her Baedeker) have the thrill of discovering for themselves.

The visitor may find it is easiest to define ‘Royal Manuscripts’ by what it is not: in the first place, the exhibition does not attempt to provide a detailed history of the library of the English monarchs. It is the case that, after a useful brief section on the creation of a manuscript (where parchment and vellum are bravely distinguished), the exhibition proper opens with a section on Edward IV as founder of the royal library, showing samples of the outsize Burgundian manuscripts that he bought. Beyond that, though, there is little here to hint at the difference between the Plantagenets and their French counter-parts: the development of the library of the Louvre from at least the reign of Charles V had a sense of books as part of the royal patrimony, whereas in England, until the late fifteenth century, manuscripts were as likely to leave the king’s ownership as to enter them, the books he came to own being seen as appropriate diplomatic gifts, ripe to be alienated from his property. Nor is there any mention in the captions of the purchase of the residue of the French royal library by John, duke of Bedford in the earl 1420s and its likely transfer across the Channel. This is simply not a tale the exhibition wishes to tell.

Similarly, the exhibition is not about the physical allure of the written word captured on parchment. The display includes some rolls – of prayers and genealogies – and, in one instance, presents an indenture of Henry VII (a manuscript made for the king to give away to Westminster Abbey: BL, MS. Harl. 1498) bound as a book within its binding and chemise, with heavily-encased seals hanging from it. These, understandably, are the exceptions: after all, the royal collection has suffered the sort of solicitous attention that results in the original bindings being removed and thrown away, though they (as many a presentation miniature reminds us) would have been the most noticeable element of a book to its early owners. Nor is there a discussion of the development of script in these volumes, nor a sense of what import different textual presentations may have been intended to carry. The sub-title for this show tells us where its main interest lies: in that element of a book’s construction that was its illuminations.

But the openings presented belong not only to manuscripts made for kings or queens. The second section of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Christian Monarch’ describes, through the medium of illuminations, the long association of kingship with religious devotion, from Athelstan to Henry VIII. Some of these books were created as instruments of royal worship, while others entered princely hands only a few generations after their first construction – a distinction neatly summed up by the juxtaposition of two Psalters, both owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, with one made for his private worship (BL, MS. Royal 2. B i, noting that the presence of the duke’s notes in the calendar at fol. 4v works against the exhibition’s hypothesis that he intended the book for his nephew’s edification) and the other, the so-called St Omer Psalter, owned by him but produced in Norfolk nearly a century before it reached his hands (BL, MS. Yates Thompson 14). Yet others are included for their depictions of kings rather than being definitely royal in ownership – an example is the eleventh-century Rule of St Benedict from Christ Church, Canterbury with its fine miniature of three Anglo-Saxon kings joined by a swirling scroll that also lifts up the monk who reverently lies beneath them (BL, MS. Cotton Tiberius A iii). The section gives a sense of the habits of devotion and the duties they placed upon royalty but it also raises a question that lies at the heart of the rationale for this exhibition: was there a particularly royal type of illumination?

In some cases, the exhibition strains to associate a book with a royal patron. This is the case with the poster-boy for the show – God creating the world, as depicted in a Bible historiale (BL, MS. Royal 19 D. iii). It is a magnificent piece of work, its blues and reds a mass of delicately realised sets of wings – angels depicted à la Fouquet, if a few decades earlier. The audio-guide at this point echoes the catalogue in suggesting ‘it would not be a surprise if [the manuscript] were made for a royal owner’ but it goes further in suggesting the identity of that prince was likely to be Jean, duc de Berry. What interests me is the reasoning for this suggestion which, on the audio-guide, stresses the lavish nature of the illustration and implies that this would be most likely to be paid for by a member of a royal family. And yet, there are enough examples of resplendent manuscripts on display in this exhibition that were not commissioned by princes – from monastic and ecclesiastical establishments or from aristocratic families and (in the last century or so of the period) confraternities. The fact that some of the products made for such institutions or individuals later entered royal hands reminds us not only that princely collections were often inhabited by the second-hand but also that those same princes did not disdain handling manuscripts illuminated for the lesser-born. In other words, we would be best to avoid assuming that richness of decoration had particularly royal connotations at any point in the period covered by the exhibition.

The implication of this is that in their ownership and use of manuscripts, kings and queens were participating in a wider bookish culture. Rarely was it one of the factors that set them apart from their subjects but, instead, showed them sharing others’ interests. If this is so, we might wonder how far royal patronage defined what was new or what was best in manuscript production, rather than simply partaking of those fashions. Did princes earmark a larger proportion of their wealth on manuscripts than did other book-owners? Or did they reserve their cash for more ostentatious methods of conspicuous consumption? And, when they looked at a book, what drew their attention: did they turn to the illumination, seeing it as light relief from the over-supply of words that they were expected to decipher? Or did they let the volumes rest closed, so that the rich bindings were on show, at the expense of the masterful painting hidden inside? How did they hold these books and turn their pages? It is in the nature of a block-buster exhibition like ‘Royal Manuscripts’ that the objects are static, held open at a single folio for the duration of the display – no equivalent here to the daily turning of the pages in the Piccolomini Library of Siena’s Cathedral. What we are offered, in effect, is a snippet view rather than the whole book. The images can be enthralling, but the books in which they sit are not mere containers for artistic genius – each of these manuscript has a dynamism, an incorrigible plurality of its own, that can only be imagined when it sits under glass. We should savour the exhibition, with its juxtapositions and its insights, while we can; we should relish all the more the day these manuscripts are again available for consultation, folio by folio, opening by opening, in the Reading Room upstairs.

The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

Posted in Exhibitions, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 October, 2010

Like it or not, Oxford’s name can not escape from being associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, in the loose sense of the mid-nineteenth century British artists who claimed inspiration from pre-Mannerist Italy. It is appropriate, then, that the first show in the new temporary exhibition space in the revamped Ashmolean should be on the likes of Ruskin, D. G. Rossetti and Burne-Jones. It is a significant change of location from the old exhibition room, where about twenty years ago, I remember seeing a previous display on the Pre-Raphaelites. There is more space and more spaciousness, assisted by the vista over the new central lobby from the main window in the middle of the three rooms. The lighting in the first room is so low that, while the pictures themselves can be seen, the captions often remain shrouded in gloom. That, though, can be remedied: the new rooms themselves are surely a success.

I should have started: like it or not, and I don’t. I am no fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and I did not go to swoon at them; I was there for the ‘and Italy’ of the exhibition’s title. I stayed for two hours because what it had to tell of Italy was engrossing – what was on display was an Italy that was more imagined than remembered, that was simplified from the clutter of its many lives, and celebrated in its passing rather than for its future. Let me clarify those aspects by reference to one painting for each.

I. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante Drawing an Angel on the Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853)

A year after its painting, Ruskin wrote to its creator congratulating him on his ‘glorious work – the most perfect piece of Italy, in the accessory parts, I have ever seen in my life’ (my italics). The phrasing suggests a way of seeing which might be alien to most of us who go to this exhibition: we soak up the stories the images we want to tell, but some contemporary eyes saw something greater, an evocation of a nation, not just an event. Those accessory parts are, one presumes, both the vistas of seen through the doorway and the window – a verdant garden and a waterside cityscape – and the interior décor of the room, with its drapes and angel-head carvings. None of those, of course, could have been painted from life or from memory: Rossetti’s Italian name hid the fact that he had no more first-hand knowledge of Italy than did William Roscoe. The latter, as I have said before, is mocked for daring to write on Florentine subjects without setting foot there; Rossetti receives less censure.

The distance between a viewed Italy and an imagined one is perhaps summed up by the cityscape Rossetti depicts in the distance: it seems to avoid any attempt to emulate the physical Arno and its banks. The image is removed in space and also, obviously, in time – and yet, for Ruskin, it conjures up a ‘perfect piece of Italy’, a concept of a place more intriguing for being idealised – and nearly as dead as Beatrice.

II. Henry Roderick Newman, South Door of the Duomo, Florence (1881)

It is stating a commonplace to recognise that outsiders’ concepts of a nation provide an imagined country. But it is interesting to ask how a vision became constructed and so to notice what locations inspired those Pre-Raphaelites who did, unlike Rossetti, have the opportunity to visit Italy.

A vagary of any exhibition is the unintended impact of the selection of material it has, by necessity, to show in its confined space. The images on display in the Ashmolean suggest an interest in Italy that centred on a few places – Venice, certainly, and Verona also, as well as Florence, though Lucca seemed to receive as much attention. Other cities have walk-on roles – Pisa or Padua, say – but it still interesting what is not here. Nothing of Siena, nor of Arezzo. Umbria is notably absent, as is Emilia Romagna or Lombardy. The selection, as I say, skews the evidence but it does hint at how the appreciation for ‘Italy’ was highly selective and partial. There was not an attempt to grasp the variety of the peninsula but rather to extrapolate from a smaller set of stimuli, declaring those inspirations to be the mark of what had been Italian genius.

It also mattered that it was a genius that had had its glory days. Again, it is Ruskin’s enthusiastic reaction to an image that is revealing. The American Newman was praised for ‘exquisitely [rendering] the colour of the marble … still uninjured by restoration’. The idea of restoration as damage still has its pull for us: we tend to prefer our history delapidated and romantically suggestive, rather than prosaically complete. Ruskin encouraged others on a sort of ‘rescue archaeology’ campaign of depicting the monuments of his favoured cities before they were cleaned and renewed. One wonders how he imagined the buildings would have looked in a century’s time if restoration had not occurred.

III. Arthur Hughes, That was a Piedmontese (1860)

What makes the nostalgic element so notable is its political context – a context, of course, to which the Pre-Raphaelites rarely paid direct attention. Most of the pictures in the exhibition, when they are populated by humans at all, are home to medieval figures. In some of the architectural drawings, a reclining peasant or Florentine bourgeois might be allowed to appear, but very few paintings on display touch on contemporary life. One that does have a political relevance is the image by Arthur Hughes. Intended to depict Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Court Lady’, it shows an injured soldier, who has etched ‘Italia’ into the wall beside his bed, as the tricolore flutters in the sunshine seen through the window in the background. Maurizio Isabella discusses in the exhibition catalogue the British enthusiasm for Italian nationalism – for a state both unified and liberal. That political support might have been deeply sincere but what sort of Italy did these artists expect the new nation to be? Indeed, did such details matter to them? Was it, rather, that unification mattered less in their minds for what ‘Italy’ might become than for its affirmation of what they perceived the Italian genius to have achieved? In that sense, unification would be an ultimate accolade for past greatness – national unity as laureation.

I am left wondering about the nature of the love affair the Pre-Raphaelites had with Italy: in some ways, it is the most delicious sort, a love that delights in, rather than recoils from, imperfections but which is, all the same, based on a blindness to the whole, leaving out the elements you do not want to see. In a harsher light, though, can we deny that it was an abusive love, caring little about the object of desire and delighting instead in the emotions and responses it provides for yourself?

Did you make it to the BL exhibition on Henry VIII?

Posted in Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 27 September, 2009

If you did not, you have, of course, missed it now: it ended at the beginning of the month. And if I praise it and describe its riches, that may only serve to increase your frustration. I made it to London only in the last week of the show and what follows is meant not as a review but as a comment on what we can learn from it in terms of future exhibitions.

For this exhibition David Starkey was ‘guest curator’, a designation which could cover a wide spectrum of involvement from the highly engaged to the wilfully insouciant. There were certainly some features of the show that seemed trade-mark Starkey: for instance, the importance, in the early sections on portraits, with the captions attempting to read from the image an insight into the sitter. The exhibition, it must be said, was uneven in its chronological focus, with Wives Three to Six seemingly crammed into the last section, and Catherine of Aragon and her nemesis occupying the (English royal) lion’s share of the space. That, perhaps, reflects both a desire to shape the popular imagination, reiterating the now well-tried line that Henry’s first marriage lasted longer than all the others put together, but also to reflect a popular understanding in which the cataclysmic events of the 1530s were the pivotal moment of the reign. To judge from the evening I was there, and from what else I have heard, the show was certainly a success in terms of number of visitors through the doors. Which is all the more surprising considering what was, for me, the most significant feature of this display.

Being in a library, books were always going to feature heavily in the exhibition, and with that comes well-known difficulties. Books tend to be small items, in scripts illegible to many, around which people cram without quite knowing what it is they are supposed to be seeing. I would not suggest that the exhibition succeeded completely in overcoming those difficulties but what it certainly did do was make the most of these problematic objects. Drawing on the work of James Carley and others, the show emphasised the interest of Henry’s own marginalia in his books. It did this not just be noting their presence in an exhibit, but by providing replica pages next to the item, with a moving light-source literally to highlight the elements to which our attention, like the king’s before, was being drawn. I had not experienced this type of display before and it worked. At times, it was too ambitious: in one corner of the exhibition, where the light was supposed to rise and dim around you to connect a page with the objects shown nearby with which it related, I just could not work out what was meant to happen.  More generally, however, it acheived the tricky task of helping these exhibits accessible without ‘dumbing down’ their content.

It made me think that this could be a prototype for future exhibitions. My dream: let’s have one on Henry IV and his sons, to coincide with the centenary of the first Lancastrian’s death in four years’ time. There are, in the BL, many manuscripts associated with him, with his sons, particularly John and Humfrey, as well as with his grandson. And, as I can point out where Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, annotated his books, the technology they have used could be put to good effect. Is anybody at the BL reading and willing to take up this challenge?