bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The English in Rome

Posted in Grand Tour by bonaelitterae on 26 February, 2011

If I led another life, I think I would spend some convivial time compiling the tale of the English in Rome, constructed as a guide book for those weary of the usual trails. And, so, this is witness to a book that will not be written.

The guide would certainly include the monastery of San Gregorio Magno, which could boast — if only the Camaldolese monks in whose tutelage it is would stoop to such folly — of its views of the Palatine. It is not surprising that a foundation dedicated to the pope who despatched Augustine to Canterbury should be the resting place of Englishmen, but as it happens it was at a particular moment in the history of England that two men came to remembered there. Their monuments now stand near each other in the atrium, creating a corner that is forever English.  The two men were both diplomats and died within eight years of each other, in the 1560s. Their service to Philip and Mary is particularly recorded — and that is the context for their spending their last years far from their homeland, dismayed at yet another turn of events that came with the death of Mary and the accession of her half-sister, Elizabeth.

Monument to Edward Carne, S Gregorio, Rome

The finer tomb is of the older man, Sir Edward Carne, who represented the English court at the papal curia in the mid-1550s. He was summoned home by Elizabeth, but, despite his own protestations, he may not have been too disappointed to be kept in the sun of Rome by Pope, Pius IV’s decision to appoint him warden of the English Hospice. He retired from that post the following year, in 1560, but he lived on for less than a year. There is an interesting detail to his tomb: if you look at the very bottom, you will see a coat-of-arms with a pelican pecking its breast to feed its young with its own blood. That is a symbol of piety and of Christ’s selflessness but it also has a particular English connotation: it is the image chosen by Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, for his Oxford foundation of Corpus Christi College. Carne himself was an Oxford man, but slightly too old to have been educated at Corpus. Perhaps, though, that image remained in his mind with nostalgic resonances in his final days.

That, of course, is to assume that he had some say in his tomb — and that may be an unwarranted assumption. It is an interesting element of the inscriptions on both monuments that they record two friends of the deceased who acted as their executors and took on the task of commissioning the monument. Those name-checks perhaps intentionally give a sense of a small, close-knit group of Englishmen in Rome, showing their virtue by their care for one another, at a point when their loyalties to crown and to religion were pulled asunder.

It is the second tomb which has the more illustrious names, because it cites as an executor a bishop, Thomas Goldwell of St

Monument to Robert Peckham, S Gregorio, Rome

Asaph’s, though he was very little there and rather more in Milan, with Carlo Borromeo, and in Rome. The person whose monument he oversaw was called Robert Peckham, who died in 1569. He was the son of a diplomat and had himself been on missions. His tomb declares his determination to die a catholic and thus in exile. But there is a final irony that he did not break with England completely: in the medieval tradition of dividing one’s body to be buried in different places one held dear, his heart was removed and returned to England, to be interred in the church of St Mary’s, Denham, Buckinghamshire. Even if in life, Peckham, like Carne, consciously distanced himself from his homeland, in death he effected a sort of miracle of being both absent and present in two places at the same time.

The Cult of Petrarch and the Art of Graffiti

Posted in Grand Tour by bonaelitterae on 13 April, 2010

Speaking last week in Padua at a conference expertly organised by the excellent Alessandra Petrina, I took the opportunity in the following days to follow where previous secular pilgrims have done: for the first time, I visited Arquà Petrarca, which sits in the embrace of the Euganean Hills. The village — or, as the tourist information would have it, borgo — only took its double-barrelled name in 1868, when it added the reference to its most famous former inhabitant, Francesco Petrarca, who lived out his final years here.

Petrarch’s tomb stands in front of the parochial church, and the house in which he lived is now a small museum. Its display bears witness to the cult of the poet, in particular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, there is a print depicting the opening of Petrarch’s tomb in 1834, when his remains were checked and a rib removed for separate burial (one example of a fashion for exhumations which could, in itself, be a topic worthy of an historian). The house also contains an example of the ‘Codici di Arquà’, begun in 1787 as visitors’ books. The purpose, the museum explains, was to end the previous practice of etching one’s name into the walls of the small villa. Now there remain examples of these graffiti (the most legible being by Austrian students from 1564) on the fireplaces and on the baroque wall-monument to what is supposed to be Petrarch’s mummified cat.

This history of graffiti interests me. Their presence demonstrate that, while the casa was in various private hands, it was also open to visitors. ‘Pilgrims’ would, presumably, turn off the road from Padua to Ferrara at Monsélice, and climb into the hills purposely to visit the village. Some would then wish to record their visit — they did not attempt to leave their mark on the marble of the tomb but thought it appropriate to etch their name in the stonework or plaster of the house. The owners, for their part, must either have been continually unobservant or (more likely) have been tolerant, if not welcoming, of such graffiti. In other words, such inscriptions were, until the late eighteenth century, an accepted activity for at least some tourists. If this is so, it puts in a different light the graffiti found so often elsewhere — in churches, for example, cut into alabaster figures or marked on frescoes. It has struck me before that these could rarely have been acts of a moment but must have been more deliberate and painstaking. In that situation, such graffiti must have had a resonance different from those with which we would associate the activity: not akin to vandalism, it was an act that lay somewhere between the desire to commemorate one’s own presence and a wish to pay homage to the place or the long-gone person in whose presence you were. Petrarch, perhaps, would have understood.