bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The source of Sources

Posted in Historiography by bonaelitterae on 3 October, 2013

Sitting in the BNW – the brave new world, in Miranda’s sense, not Aldous’s – I read a phrase that caused an unbidden epiphany. Reading guidance to history undergraduates, I came across the term ‘secondary sources’ and I was involuntarily transported back in my mind to a late morning in the autumn of 1991, when I was bushy-haired and narrow-faced. I was sitting in St Hugh’s, the weak sunlight from Oxford’s Woodstock Road falling across the desk at which both my newly appointed supervisor and I sat. I remember George Garnett picking me up when I used exactly that phrase to refer to some historians I had been reading: ‘how can something secondary count as a source?’ I think were his words, looking at me through his thick-rimmed glasses with his characteristic look that could have been either quizzical or mocking (I was never quite sure which and that uncertainty lasts to today).

I blustered because I could not deny the logic: if a source is – as historians believe – the place from which information originates, then the work of an historian analysing that information cannot itself be the fundamental source. Indeed, if that latter-day historian is the source – if there is no prior, contemporary statement to the ‘fact’ – then there is something suspect about the information. So, since that supervision, I have avoided the solecism and, in my usage, taken care to distinguish between ‘primary sources’ and ‘secondary material’.

A quick look on-line, though, shows that George and I are in a minority. ‘Secondary source’ is the accepted phrase, especially in North American English with several universities, including Princeton, providing their students with a definition: ‘a secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources’. We might justify this use by saying that a textbook or monograph may be someone’s source of information, even if it is not the origin of the information. We might also note that the terminology is certainly not confined to the States and Canada; it is there in John Tosh’s and Arthur Marwick’s textbooks on historiography, and it appears also in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Life, though, is not as simple in the OED itself, where the phrase itself has no place but where there is a draft addition, dated September 2007, which talks of ‘secondary’ in a broad academic sense of ‘designating a text with another text as its subject’. That draft dictionary entry might alert us to the fact that there is a history to the development of the historian’s usage.

There is a history and also a peculiarity to the historian’s usage – the lawyer, for example, would talk of ‘secondary evidence’ as that which is supplementary to the primary or main evidence. My impression also is that, in historical writing in the nineteenth century, ‘secondary’ often had a similar meaning of supplementary or, rather, subsidiary. In another instance, I see a Victorian classicist referring to an ancient Syriac translation not being made from the Greek but ‘from some secondary source’, where the meaning must be ‘at one remove’ or ‘via an intermediary’.  When such meanings become drowned out by present usage I have not ascertained – a brief glance of Collingwood’s The Idea of History (1946), for instance, suggests no engagement with the dichotomy we use, but that may say something about his own prejudice rather than common practice at that point – and would welcome your insight, gentle reader. My own train of thoughts have moved in a different direction.

Our speech is moulded by metaphors so deeply embedded that we fail to recognise our prose is often poetry. A ‘source’ is the origin of information is an eighteenth-century transformation of an older term with a clear primary meaning: the fountainhead of a spring, the point where water gushes from the earth. I am reminded of a short poem by Philip Larkin where he says that if he was called upon to construct a religion, he would make use of water. We historians are unwitting believers in that faith. But, if we are going to talk of where we find our evidence with aquatic metaphors, why should we use this particular sylvan imagery? We could talk of drawing our information from a well of knowledge, which might truthfully suggest that we take a mere bucketful when we could drink more deeply. Or might we refer to standing ponds or lakes and reservoirs to signify the mass of information – but we would have to recognise that to adopt such terminology would imply a concept of evidence as undifferentiated, gathered together into smooth conformity when we know quite the opposite is true, its conflicts, inconsistencies and downright incoherence being more like eddies, whirlpools and life-threatening weirs.

I press the point so we think more deeply about the dominant metaphor we ourselves use. Leave aside the oxymoron of a ‘secondary source’, a ‘source’ itself is problematic. No historian works with one vein of evidence and, when faced with multiple accounts of one event, is likely to be so struck by the incongruities that any similarities between them can seem suspicious. In its basic definition, a ‘source’ would provide a spring of inspiration that would widen into a stream and then join with other tributaries into a river – that sense of compatibility which is a symbol of consensus is surely not how we experience our encounters with the evidence. At the same time, though, there is perhaps one wonderful insight provided by our master, the metaphor: just as the evidence we have is not the ‘fact’ itself, but a witness to something (to what, though?), the spring’s source is a reminder that its own origins – the truth from which it bubbles out of the ground – lie subterranean.

What is palaeography?

Posted in Historiography, Manuscripts, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 21 November, 2011

‘What is palaeography?’ asked a young Albinia de la Mare, and the rest of her career demonstrates that she stayed for an answer. But not only that: her own work transformed how we should answer the question. It is an appropriate time, in the days following the Warburg conference commemorating her nigh on ten years after her death, to repeat the question she ingenuously asked at the beginning of her graduate career.

The simple answer – one I have given in the Oxford Companion to the Book – is that the term now signifies two activities, both intellectually valid. The first concerns the process of localisation and identification of scripts, using the panoply of evidence available in a codex, and thus encompassing those skills called codicology as well as the study of its handwriting. Within this definition is the ability to make alien scripts readable, which is the first way in which many students first encounter palaeography – or ‘adult literacy’ as I have heard it called. The second approach to palaeography is to place the book itself in its cultural context, to see the codex – and other graphic evidence – as a way into the mentalities of previous generations.

In an understated way, the research of Albinia de la Mare (Tilly, as she was known) wrought magic in palaeography in both its senses. The conference paid repeated tribute to Tilly’s ‘prodigious photographic memory’ aided, as Jonathan Alexander pointed out, by the invention of the photocopy. Supported by her copies of images and her capacious collection of notes (now under the tutelage of Xavier van Binnebeke), Tilly developed an ability to identify particular scribes and – a source of even more awe – to date manuscripts within a scribe’s career. These skills made her an oracle to many scholars in different disciplines, some of whom were involved in the conference that has just taken place. A question that remained unasked within the community of Renaissance scholars who gathered at the Warburg was how transferable was Tilly’s skill. I mean, in the first place, whether there is something particularly revealing about humanist scripts which makes them open to analysis in a way that may not be possible for other scripts. To some extent, it must be true that gothic bookhands, where the emphasis is on uniformity of letter-forms, also have a further homogeneity of aspect – in short, that they are less individual than the manifestations of humanist bookhand known as littera antiqua. At the same time, from what little work I have done on French fourteenth-century manuscripts, it seems to me that the possibility of a similar process of identification is present, if only the full range of details – codicological as well as narrowly palaeographical – are used.

But the question of how transferable were her skills should also be taken another way: to put it bluntly, who else can do what she could? I do not pretend to judge who can consider themselves her heirs – and (what the scholarly community might find even more entertaining) who not. Instead, I express this as a warning about the curse of the legacy of genius. Tilly demonstrated that, in naturally gifted, trained and experienced hands, a manuscript could offer up its secrets to an extent that few had imagine. In her wake, it is natural to hope that what she achieved should become the standard rather than the apogee. The result, though, can be dangerous: over-confident identifications of hands on tenuous grounds will take scholarship down corridors of the labyrinth that are no more than wrong turnings, leaving the next generation to unravel previous errors before it can actually make progress. Let us remember that Tilly herself recognised the importance of being tentative and (as her notes on her late masterpiece ‘New Research’ demonstrate) changed her mind. Even Tilly would not live up to the ideal that others would claim for her and for themselves.

I said a moment ago that Tilly worked her wonders with palaeography in both its definitions. I remember when I was a graduate student her reminding me of the importance of not looking only at the letter-forms but at the whole page – a truth I pass on to students by describing palaeographical investigation as a repeated change of viewing, for the ductus to the aspect and back again. If, by analogy, we can talk of palaeography in the first definition as the ductus, then the aspect, the larger picture, is provided by the discipline in its second definition – a consciousness of what manuscripts can tell us about the culture in which they were created. This is where the level of specificity that Tilly achieved – localising manuscripts to specific towns and to specific decades – could be so fruitful. As Vincenzo Fera described at the conference, her interest from the time of her thesis in Vespasiano da Bisticci opened up a world populated by scribes, certainly, and their patrons, but also by the book-sellers and readers of these manuscripts. From the residue of ink left upon the prepared skin of a dead animal it became possible to conjure up a sense of human associations that was not a mere handmaid of history, it was the stuff itself. If, as historians, we fail to appreciate the evidence not just of the words but of the book in which the words appear, we will only be able to tell an impoverished and hollow history. In this sense, we have a duty to follow Tilly’s example, even as we are humble enough to realise that we cannot emulate it to her level.

What is palaeography? It is, I would suggest, a box of skills, of talents and of insights which can so enrich our understanding that the revelation of them is akin to the gift of fire – a simile that (I realise and do not blush to write it) makes Albinia de la Mare our Prometheus.

The Unacceptable Face of The English Face of Machiavelli?

Posted in Historiography by bonaelitterae on 29 August, 2010

I notice that Routledge have reprinted Felix Raab’s 1964 The English Face of Machiavelli – at a price that only the best-heeled institutions could afford. Its republication is testimony to its status as a classic, frequently cited as required reading in scholarly footnotes and undergraduate bibliographies. It is also, of course, a classic tinged with the tragic.

The English Face began life as Raab ended his. He had come to Oxford from Melbourne, the son of Jewish emigrés from Nazi Austria, as a graduate student. Late in 1962, he submitted his doctoral thesis, entitled ‘Machiavelli and secular political thought in England during the seventeenth century’, and went off for a walking holiday in Italy. It took a month for his body to be found after he fell fatally into a ravine. He could not, then, defend his thesis at a viva – we can only imagine what the conversation might have been – but he was posthumously awarded a doctorate. Raab’s name was kept alive in his first university by his father’s donation of his son’s book collection and by the establishing of a prize named after him; in Oxford, his thesis received what was, at the time, the unusual honour of being seen quickly into print, with a foreword by his former supervisor, Hugh Trevor-Roper. The adjective often used for the foreword is ‘affectionate’. It is a memoir of Raab, describing, for instance, the time that he arrived at a supervision and sat down opposite Trevor-Roper: the latter pushed across the table Raab’s latest piece of work and said ‘You know this won’t do’; Raab responded by pushing it back across the table and declaring ‘Yes, it bloody well will!’.

Knowledge of the author’s fate impinged on the minds of reviewers, who felt the need to resort to an elegiac tone. The comment of an historian of a similar surname, Theodore Rabb, can stand as an example:

Few books have illuminated major changes in intellectual history, as this one does, by exploring a strictly limited subject. Even fewer have been, like this one, a doctoral thesis, written with skill, grace, and wit, and published without revision. The tragic mountaineering accident which ended Dr. Raab’s life shortly after the thesis was finished has deprived intellectual history of a penetrating scholar. [Renaissance News, xix (1966), p. 41]

The published volume, he concluded, was ‘a fitting monument to a fine mind’. The English Face was, in short, quickly accepted as a significant work, in both the learned community and in the wider press.

There was one discordant voice: a long review appeared in the Italian journal, Il Politico, by Sydney Anglo. It can be called nothing other than a merciless demolition of Raab’s work. It derides the book’s refusal to look more broadly than English-born writers, giving no space, for example, to Alberico Gentili’s writings, produced while in London (and now, incidentally, being studied by Diego Pirillo) – a ‘national’ methodology that, Anglo insisted, is simply unacceptable in the study of intellectual history. The review also picks apart, time and again, some of the specific interpretations of texts. But what we would consider most damning comes in its first pages when Anglo points out that Raab had been ungenerous in his brief acknowledgement of his debt to a 1908 London D.Litt dissertation by J. W. Horrocks when ‘well over a third of Raab’s material comes straight out of Horrocks’s thesis’. He points out how English Face picks up quotations from primary sources second-hand via Horrocks’ work. The most excoriating line comes next:

However, plagiarism is by no means wholly to be condemned, for a borrower can often put another’s material to better use – as Raab himself has claimed. It is then even more unfortunate that the material so painstakingly collected by Horrocks has been marred in the reworking [S. Anglo, ‘The Reception of Machiavelli in Tudor England: a re-assessment’, Il Politico, xxxi (1966), pp. 127 – 38 at p. 129]

Anglo does not return to the accusation in his text, though his footnotes include other examples of what he sees as unacknowledged copying in, for instance, Raab’s claim that Innocent Gentillet’s anti-Machiavellian writings had little influence in England.

Anglo’s review was brought to my mind by a conversation I had the other week in which I could not remember where it was published. In hunting it down, I was struck by how difficult it was to find references to it. It is a review that, in many quarters, has suffered a strange death. In 1990, an Annotated Bibliography on Machiavelli scholarship appeared, but, as one reviewer noted, it did not mention Anglo’s article (the reviewer does not give a full citation). It is symptomatic that an important recent piece reconsidering the ‘Myth of Gentillet’ [N. W. Bawcutt in The Modern Language Review, xcix (2004)] takes question with Raab on an issue previously raised by Anglo, but without reference to the latter. It is only very recently, with Sydney Anglo’s own volume on Machiavelli’s reception (2005) and mention of the matter in Alessandra Petrina’s Machiavelli in the British Isles (2009), that the article and the issues it raises have been resurrected; many, meanwhile, continue to make uncomplicated reference to The English Face. Most often, the book has been cited on its own, without mention of the early, trenchant and potentially utterly destructive criticism. On a some occasions, the book and the review are mentioned alongside each other but rarely with any sign that the former should be read with consideration of the latter’s criticisms. That could be done by a simple ‘but see’, as was the case in the Pelican Guide for Readers edited in 1984 by Boris Ford. Geoffrey Elton found another mode of expression. He had been part of the chorus of praise for The English Face when it appeared; in his 1970 Modern Historians on British History, Elton tempered that with the comment that the book ‘provides many insights but also some bad slips’ [p. 177], elliptically mentioning the review in the footnote.

‘Some bad slips’. My point is not about whether Anglo was right or wrong to condemn Raab for plagiarism – I have not done the checking to corroborate or deny the accusation. What interests me is what the frequent ignoring or overlooking of that claim tells us about our own standards or ethics. We now teach undergraduates that plagiarism is one of the most heinous of academic crimes, though we also debate the relevance of the concept to previous centuries. We also collude with a wider inflation in use of the term, which can see it stretched to include so much that it can end up meaning so little. That inflation — or perhaps it is deflation — could allow for some charges of plagiarism to be dismissed as trivial – but that can not be with Anglo’s examples which would suggest a heavy unpaid debt. A defence perhaps could be that Anglo’s comments focus on the Tudor period, when Raab’s main interest lay in the seventeenth century – but does that mean our culture would accept a breaking of the rules in one part of a work if it is offset by genius shown elsewhere in the same volume? Considering our society’s preoccupation with a work’s originality – and honesty – surely an accusation of largescale unacknowledged copying demands some response, some rebuttal or acceptance, rather than the silence it usually receives. As the claims, readily available, stand unchallenged, does that mean those who continue to refer to The English Face without a blush complicit in an act of plagiarism? Or should we conclude that we expect higher standards from our students than we would set for ourselves?

Modern publishing practice demands that when an article is found to be cribbed, it is not removed or destroyed; it remains available, but with each page stamped ‘retracted’. I doubt Routledge considered doing that when they reprinted The English Face of Machiavelli.

In Praise of the Simple: an open letter of C. S. L. Davies

Posted in Historiography, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 November, 2009

Dear Cliff,

To review a review article might seem to be like being the flea on the back of the insect on the back of the lumbering mammal, but it is what I am about to do. I have just read your piece in the latest English Historical Review on Kevin Sharpe’s Selling the Tudor Monarchy. It is a sign of how stimulating I found it that I can not resist writing to you about my immediate reaction.

I particularly enjoyed seeing you develop further your Tudor-sceptic line, first outlined in the Times Literary Supplement. It is a salutary reminder that descent but not dynasty mattered, that what concerned these monarchs was precisely not the accident of a surname they did not use. You neatly respond to the mental  shrug of shoulders that some might have when realising the sixteenth-century English vocabulary is poorer, in effect, by one word. But, I must say, I think you still sell it short, so to speak: that the Tudors did not see themselves as Tudor, that 1485 was neither presented or remembered as a change of dynasty, should make us stop and think about our concepts of periodisation. Bosworth, which can be claimed to have seen the death of a tyrant, is itself a tyranny, dividing ‘medieval’ from ‘early modern’, with the following 118 years perceived as having some sort of internal coherence. We might need periods as a heuristic tool, and as a way of sorting out office space in university corridors, but we rarely stop at that: we begin to believe they reflect some deeper reality, and so slide back into Hegelian notions of the ‘age’ and its geist. Personally, I would prefer that we emphasised that change is a piecemeal process, that even if a paradigm shifts, life tout court does not — that there are no absolute dividing lines. But if we must order ourselves into chronological segments, at least it helps if we change their shapes as deftly as clouds change theirs. Your debunking of what we will have to call the ‘Tudor myth’ helps us to think again about what we would see as significant ‘turning-points’ — the equivalents (to echo your use of modern parallels) of 1989 or 11/9 — in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. If we take 1485 as a moment of relatively minor dislocation, with the fortuitous settling of a rekindled family squabble, we can look elsewhere for key moments when the pace of political and cultural (note that combination — to which I will return) change quickened, when innovation and concomitant destruction went hand in hand. At the latter end, we would have what you have dubbed the ‘Eltonian decade’, the 1530s; but, at the other end, how far would we retreat — to 1422 and the reality of a minority which challenged the nature of the political order, to 1399 and another non-change of non-dynasty? I would put down a marker for the 1460s, when I sense the language of English politics begins to alter in a way soon catalysed by the importing of print in the same era. But wherever we place the goal-posts, we must remember that it is a game, not a fixture.

I like even more than your de-Tudoring of the subject the line of thinking to which that led you in your piece. If not a dynasty, what was there to sell? The individual monarchs, of course, though there was, I would stress, little about this process that was ‘individual’. You pick up on the talk of ‘negotiation’ between sovereign and people, and highlight the importance of ‘reception’, particularly in its resistant or unintended modes. I am hugely sympathetic to this: we need to seek out, as it were, the graffiti artists defacing the official image — if, that is, the ‘official’ has meaning for this era. Image-making was, both of necessity and of choice, so often out-sourced, so remote from the individual it supposedly ‘projected’, that there was no officium masterminding representations. The displays at royal entries, for instance, were obviously not designed to a palace blueprint, even though the guilds and other organisers were attempting to depict what they thought would be appropriate — that, in other words, there was a straining to identify and to reinforce a shared language. This was surely less about projection than ‘imposition’, the dressing up of the monarch in garb chosen for him or her by those around and beyond, as in the image of the undressed and dressed Louis XIV discussed by Peter Burke. Image, I am arguing, was so susceptible to intervention, to redirection, as well as to misunderstanding and hostility, that it was very rarely under control. The messages that can be conveyed with any success are, in the first place, as you mention, ones that are repeated time and again, in coins, in services, in what you, and John Cooper, term the banal. But I would add the most subtle of activities can provide a message that is all headline and no fine print and this brings me to something about which I know a little: princely libraries.

Once again, I was delighted to see your brief reference to royal libraries and quite agree with your scepticism: they were not built up with an eagle eye on direct and specific political advantage that could be gained from them and their contents.  I don’t deny that some princes read some of the time, but the collecting of a library was not a private pursuit. You say that we do not know much about who had access to the books; in some cases, we certainly do, and can see those around the prince actively intervening in ‘his’ books. I think, in particular, of the collection of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester but what I say for the early fifteenth century also works for at least some of the period you are discussing. But what is as interesting as the use in the library itself is how the books got there in the first place: in a phrase from a thesis you may remember reading back in 1997, book ownership for a prince was an occupational hazard. They might — on the advice of their secretaries and other members of the household — buy books, but a large number were also presented to them. It is often imagined that if a presentation occurred, the prince presumably wanted to accept the book. I do know of a few cases where a presentation failed to happen, but more often, I suspect, the prince felt the need to accept a gift, created and provided unsolicited, for otherwise the accusation of lack of magnanimity would hang around him or her. In other words, authors were rarely commissioned; they produced works which they might think would suit a prince they may have known only through repute, and thus add to the image in partial ignorance. Any recompense to the author was usually only received after the presentation occurred, making the production, particularly of a manuscript, a ‘loss-leader’, intended to recoup costs after the event. But, what matters more in the context of what you were saying, is that the importance for the prince lay less in the book itself but in the act of presentation — a moment identifying the prince as worthy of the respect of the person kneeling before him. In that sense, the books themselves are a recollection of previous events, witnesses to that respect and to an affinity that has existed, however temporarily. The books, in their chests, had only latent power: it was, as you mention, only when they are taken out of the hiding-places, put on display, or on loan, that they made real that potency. Or, I should add, when they were given away — as, for instance, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester did when he had carried away from his palace hundreds of his books as donations to the University of Oxford. It was an outsize action with an outsize message of his generosity and his respect for learning.

And this is the explanation, as I would see it, for the existence of those libraries: they were not necessarily repositories of wisdom to inform policy decisions, but they provided a simple and helpfully vague message about a prince being associated with learning. To try to identify a more precise or nuanced ‘image’ being ‘projected’ is to fall into one of the two traps you describe in your article.  A prince could hardly avoid owning a collection and, as you point out, if a prince was bookless, they would be open to the imputation — from the relatively few — of a lack of necessary virtue. I say the relatively few but this particular audience, of peers (in every sense), of ‘opinion-formers’ domestic and foreign, mattered for a prince’s political reputation. In saying this I come to my last point: I do not see the separation you make between ‘political’ and ‘cultural’. I can not envisage a sphere — beyond perhaps the privy, but even there David Starkey would disagree — when the prince or monarch is not on display, in action, and thus political. A culture of politics suffused their existence, where even past-times were not simply play. This is not to deny the main points that you make, but rather to rephrase it: shrewd calculation of specific political benefits played no role in allowing a room in one’s palace to be given over to the books one came to own, but a library, like the palaces themselves, or the menageries and other exotica that cluttered them, was an element in the cultural impedimenta that were unavoidably part of the prince’s political existence. That owning a book collection had its use — simple, unsubtle, even banal — was an old reality of political life.

My thanks for having set me thinking and distracting me so usefully from the work I should have been doing these last hours!

Best wishes, as always,

David

When was the Renaissance?

Posted in Exhibitions, Historiography by bonaelitterae on 6 August, 2008

When was the Renaissance? It is an old question which came to mind as I was walking around the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood House last week. The temporary exhibition ‘The Art of Italy: the Renaissance‘, is one half of a larger show of works from the Royal Collection, previously presented in London, where it also covered the Baroque. In the smaller but elegant space available in Edinburgh, the display allows us to muse on some memorable paintings, as well as drawings and a very few books. What struck me was that nearly all the items are datable to the sixteenth century: they include well-known portraits by Parmigianino, Agnolo Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, as well as more enigmatic images by Titian and Lodovico Pozzoserrato (whose Italianised name hides his Netherlandish identity); the oldest work was a copy of the masterpiece published by Aldus Manutius from his Venetian press in 1499, the illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Where, I wondered, was the Renaissance of the quattrocento, the fifteenth century, that is home to me?

It is not as if the Royal Collection lacks art from fifteenth century Italy. I remember, about fifteen years ago now, having, in effect, a private view of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court – they had, at that point, been removed from the public rooms, but, being a pushy student, I asked to see them. It was a memorable half hour in front of images remarkable for their classicising style and sheer magnitude, with an equally interesting history to tell as one of the purchases of Charles I from the sale of the Gonzaga treasures. Perhaps the Mantegna are considered too frail to travel for exhibitions, but there are other quattrocento works available as well in the Royal Collection. The Queen can feast her eyes on a work by Benozzo Gozzoli, best known for his lively frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. Up the road and to the right from there, the convent of San Marco hides within its tranquil, contemplative walls the work of Fra Angelico, also represented among Her Majesty’s artworks. The exhibition could also have branched out into ceramics and included the bust by Guido Mazzoni of a laughing child, owned by Henry VII as one of the first Italian Renaissance items in the English royal collection. But all were absent, leaving out at least a century of what I would consider Renaissance art.

The Royal Collection’s decision implicitly to define the Renaissance as sixteenth century is in many ways a return to an old fashion. Many would now use the terms High Renaissance and (though highly problematic) Mannerist to describe the trends in art of the generations of Michelangelo and his followers. But, to the nineteenth century, this is where it truly was: the art of the quattrocento – Masolino and Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna himself – constituted ‘the Primitives’, before the grace and supposed perfection of the early cinquecento so influentially by Vasari. Few, however, would consider that we should return to those designations or that periodisation.

The real question, of course, is whether it matters. After all, the Royal Collection have provided a pleasurable exhibition which fits into the space available. In many ways, it does not matter or, rather, should not – but there are two current issues which do give it some import. In the first place, it relates to the academic division between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’, which, in history departments tends to fall around the year 1500. As someone who studies both sides of that divide and who sometimes describes himself an expert in that part of the Middle Ages called the Renaissance, this is one more example of a tendency which reinforces an unfortunate separation which we should be working instead to undermine.

This, though, is about more than the relatively unimportant matter of how academic departments choose to organise themselves. What is also at stake is how we perceive historical ‘progress.’ There are surely few, if any, historians who would admit to believing that there was some definable shift from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’, a moment or simple process moving from one era of society to another. The passage from past to present is more complex, and much less about a linear vector of development, than that would suggest. But I would want to take this further and to warn against making too close an association between different cultural ‘movements’ or phenomena. Historiography can provide many ‘Renaissances’, particularly clustered in the sixteenth century but – as the case of Italy shows – not confined to that time-period. In popular textbooks, the impression can be given that those Renaissances, usually defined by country, share an identity, as if it were a baton-race from nation to nation. It is wise to be aware of the evident links between these phenomena, but all the more essential to appreciate the disconnections and the distance between them. In the end, we can use the concept as we wish, either confining our own use to the sixteenth century or allowing to range from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in chosen contexts – just as long as we recognise we are always constructing ‘Renaissances’ for ourselves rather than expressing some ineffable reality.

In short, it is tidier to have a Renaissance confined to the sixteenth century and certainly less complicated to imagine it was a single phenomenon which manifested itself across Europe. But, in this case, I am on the side of messiness.