bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe: the structures of contacts

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 25 May, 2012

Thanks to those very nice people over at the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, I can provide a brief update on the volume that has just appeared. In their wisdom, they have decided to make a sample of the latest Medium Ævum Monograph, Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe, available on-line for free (none of this nonsense of Open Access at a price) and the sample provided is the front matter plus one chapter — my own on ‘The Structures of Contacts‘. That essay attempts to provide an interpretation that could knit together the other contributions to the volume (though, at times, a critical reader might feel, it unstitches a few of those chapters). The interpretation centres on the concept in which I strongly believe: that quattrocento humanism was, from its inception, an international enterprise, with a cast-list of participants or, at least, collaborators that was cosmopolitan, as were the locations both for humanist invention and of audiences for these works. In discussing this, I attempt to cover the geographical range of the volume, but concentrate on highlighting a series of themes: the differing nature of travel of humanists (the émigré, the migrant, the migratory), the eclectic nature of the community of humanist scribes in Italy, the role of merchants in the humanist enterprise (using a particular example relating to Bartomoleo Facio), and the chronological change over the century and, in particular, the impact of the intervention of print. I end with a side-swipe or perhaps rather a gentle cuff around the head for those early modernists who imagine the Renaissance is theirs. Read on…

Just published: Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 22 May, 2012

Saturday saw the launch in Durham of a book I have edited for Medium Ævum Monographs: Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe. It is a set of essays covering much of the geographical span of Christendom, from Hungary to Scotland and from Castile to Poland. In order to make it all the more useful for readers, it also includes a collection of just over sixty potted biographies of humanists mentioned in the volume — an appendix which I compiled with the globe-trotting Oren Margolis.

The launch itself was a jolly affair, rounding out the Annual General Meeting and Lecture of the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, who publish the journal Medium Ævum and the Monograph series. The Annual Lecture was given by Prof. Helen Cooper and was a scintillating discussion of ‘The Ends of Story-telling’, reminding us how at a most basic level story collections sought to comprehend, to come to terms with or to cheat the final end of existence, through the character of the story-teller. The volume I have edited occupies similar chronological territory to Helen Cooper’s lecture (though she ranged beyond one century or even one millennium), but deals with a set of scholars for whom death was to be defeated by their achievement of fame, in their own country and elsewhere.

The launch was presided over by Anthony Lappin, both President of the Society and its managing Monographs Editor, with a response — brief to avoid keeping the audience away from the alcohol that followed — by myself. As you can tell, even if the speakers were not elegant, the setting of the Senate Suite in Durham’s Castle certainly was.

Tony Lappin watches in stunned silence as David Rundle turns Humanism on its side.

As I explained in my short speech, the volume is part of a new story for the Society — a collection of essays rather than a single-authored volume and one which has developed out of another new initiative, the Society’s one-day conferences. At the same time, it is in ways a return to an old story, for the casus belli for this project was the related one of creating a new on-line edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century, a book which was itself one of the very earliest (old series) Medium Ævum monographs.

One thing I did not have time to note in my comments was that this volume is the thirtieth Monograph in Medium Ævum’s ‘new series’. The fact that the number appears in Roman numerals allows all sorts of possibilities: I could claim that this is a volume which is XXX-rated, which could boost sales (available from the Society website at a very reasonable £40 – or just £20 if you join the Society). Or perhaps it should signify that you shouldn’t give a XXX for any other study of humanism in fifteenth-century Europe.

A little more information about Tito Livio Frulovisi

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 14 May, 2012

I have broken my New Year’s resolution. At the start of 2012, I promised myself that I would have twelve months off reviewing. It was a commitment to enforced abstinence: I enjoy reviewing books, I like the challenge of both summarising and engaging with a work in the space of a thousand or 1,500 words. But it is time consuming: it does not involve just making the space to give the book sustained reading time (a challenge, as it is); it also requires research in itself — sample-checking the author’s primary evidence to gain a sense of trust, or otherwise, in the scholarship, reading those secondary works that have been central to the construction of their argument but which one has not yet had chance to read. And then you have to wonder how many people pay attention to your wise comments anyway.

So, I had good intentions to avoid all reviewing this year. It did not last long. The offer to write on a volume in which Cristina Cocco edits one of the comedies of Tito Livio Frulovisi had a double attraction: first, the text being printed was by an author with whom I have more than a passing acquaintance, having written about this wandering humanist in the English Historical Review and elsewhere. Second, it was for the The Medieval Review, an on-line project housed at Indiana University. Its website is not as elegant or as user-friendly as that the Reviews in History site of London’s IHR, which I have had cause to mention recently; but it is a worthy project and one which surely has the future on its side: for how long can print journals continue to justify taking up space with notices of individual volumes which often appear long after publication? I can see an ongoing purpose to hardcopy review articles, and to more combative debates aroused in response to a single work, but the shorter review is something to which the internet is best suited.

And so, reader, I succumbed to temptation. And now the review is available on-line. I will not repeat here what is freely viewable elsewhere on the web. But I do want to mention here two facts about Frulovisi one of which appeared in that review and another which seems not to have received recent scholarly attention.

The first is a discovery I made a while ago; I have alluded to it both in print in Studi umanistici piceni and on this website but not discussed it in full. It is the fact that the sole copy of Frulovisi’s comedies, a holograph manuscript which is now Cambridge: St John’s College, MS. C. 10, includes evidence of its early provenance. Alfonso Sammut tentatively attributed the manuscript to the library of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, but knew of no corroboration of his assumption. In fact, using a UV light in the darkest corner of the college’s upper library, ten years ago, I was able to decipher an ownership note that had been remarkably succesfully removed by rewashing — and it was, indeed, the duke’s mark of ownership, recording that it was a gift of the author. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Frulovisi presented to his barbarian patronthis manuscript of comedies most written for performance before a Venetian audience — a manuscript itself produced in England — raises questions about perceived cultural distance within quattrocento Christendom.

The other piece of information is one that seems not to have been mentioned in recent discussions of Frulovisi and which, indeed, revises my own chronology of his time in England. It is the fact that we can state with some certainty the date of the humanist’s departure from London for Italy. In the collection of papers Mediceo avanti il principato of the Archivio di Stato of Florence which are now magnificently available on-line (and I have to thank Angelo de Scisciolo and Fabrizio Riccardelli for bringing this resource to my attention) there is a document written in an English script which is a letter of introduction from Henry VI for Frulovisi to Cosimo de’ Medici. It explains that Frulovisi at that point was returning to his homeland (in natale solum ire); the letter is dated 26th August 1440.

The letter mentions Frulovisi’s services to the king and to his uncle, that is to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester — suggesting (against the tendency of recent scholarship) that he was by no means persona non grata in Greenwich, but also implying that the humanist had gained the attention of Henry VI, which he had so clearly craved. The dating of the letter is also notable, not just because it post-dates Frulovisi’s final departure by at least year from what is usually credited; it is so close to the time of the departure of the papal collector, Pietro del Monte, from England, that one wonders whether they travelled together, despite the somewhat fraught relations between the two as revealed in del Monte’s letter-book. Finally, the letter ends with the monogram of Thomas Bekynton, then secretary to the king, and it raises the question of whether Bekynton himself conjured up the prose the described Cosimo as someone who loved lettered and well-behaved men (literatos et bene moratos viros) — or were the words put into his pen by Frulovisi himself? That opens up a broader discussion about the presence of humanist Latin in the English chancery, something on which I have been writing recently and about which I could discuss further now, if only the length of this short post had not already become as long as a book-review.

The ghosts of Bayeux

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 1 April, 2012

Wherever we step, whatever building we enter, the past is our host. We are merely the latest guests in spaces already crowded with resonances, with others’ memories. We tend to cold-shoulder these ghosts, taking possession of ‘our’ office or ‘our’ home as if the sole purpose of its existence was to serve us; life is more liveable that way. There are some places, however, where such blindness is impossible, where we can sense in the air some of the previous breaths that have preceded us. A church is that sort of place, par excellence, with its monumental witnesses to a few of the dead who form part of the continuing community.

Bayeux Cathedral from the west end

I was recently in the English cathedral-city of Bayeux, part of the Norman lands that ensured the Lancastrian regnum of the early fifteenth century was not confined to north of the Channel. The cathedral, long before its construction had been completed, saw Thomas Becket say mass; and, more than once in later centuries, the cult of that archbishop found a home in the cathedral’s carvings and murals. My scholarly interest, however, was precisely in Bayeux’s English years, when international politics ensured the bishopric was given to a well-connected Italian, Zanone da Castiglioni, who arrived in his see with a secretary, the Milanese humanist, Rolando Talenti. For his part, Talenti’s time in Bayeux was enriched by the presence of his own brother, Antonio; they both were to be canons of the cathedral and were to die there within five years of each other in the 1470s.

So, Castiglioni would have stood at the west end of his cathedral taking in the prospect of the Romanesque nave giving way to the gothic choir. He and his secretary would have taken part in the annual display of the musty over-long strip of cloth recording events of nearly four hundred years earlier, when the Normans first became English: how would they have responded to the tapestry’s artistry? Castiglioni also chose to be buried in this building, behind the high altar – but any trace of his tomb has gone. His is a presence we may sense but cannot touch.

Bayeux Cathedral, inscription to Rolando and Antonio Talenti

With Rolando Talenti it is interestingly different. On the west wall of the first chapel beyond the south transept, there is an inscription recording him and his brother, and their endowment of that particular chapel. The carving of the letters in classical style, however, should make it clear to us that this is no fifteenth-century monument. The wording of it too can hint at that: it mentions that Talenti was ‘variorum opusculorum auctor’. This is certainly true, though Talenti could hardly be described as a well-known author. His oeuvre has attracted the attention of only a few scholars: in the late twentieth century, the leading expert was Tino Foffano. He worked from the main source for Talenti’s writings, a now-mutilated manuscript which was the property of the Chapter Library which stood a few yards to the north-west of the chapel endowed by the Talenti brothers. You can study it yourself on-line (and my purpose on Bayeux was to check it in situ, in its present home of the Bibliothèque Municipale); you will see that it is not written in a humanist bookhand but in a French script. The evidence of provenance it includes also reminds us how a presence can be revived: the book was not originally part of the cathedral’s collection and only reached there at the end of the seventeenth century, the donor presumably considering the Chapter Library a fitting home for the products of one of its former canons. By that stage, it was already mutilated and may have suffered further indignities – there are signs of water damage – in the following decades. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was, as it were, reborn again. The then canon librarian, Jean Laffetay, came across it and paid to it more attention than it had received for a long time, perhaps for all its life. At the start of the volume, he writes a brief biographical note of the author whose opuscula are in the manuscript, noting that there was an inscription in the floor of the chapel west of the south transept which recorded the Talenti brothers. Laffetay expresses some wonder at the inscription’s survival into his own lifetime but it was not to last much longer: presumably with his involvement, the chapel was renovated and covered with new tiles. As an act of piety, it would seem, Laffetay encouraged there to be a replacement inscription, similar to that which had been found, but with a change to record also Talenti’s authorial activities.

In other words, the process of remembering Talenti was also a process of forgetting, of removing earlier evidence. There is a final irony. Laffetay is still remembered for his histories of Bayeux and for his study of its Tapestry; but in the cathedral where he, like Talenti and Castiglioni before, worshipped, he is now present indirectly, through the work he did in remembering others, rather than any celebration of himself. He is one of the quiet ghosts of the place we can too easily ignore.

How an article is not like wine

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 25 February, 2012

A small change has been made to the page listing the publications of David Rundle: I am today able to add as published an article on Antonio Beccaria appearing in the Italian journal, Humanistica, for 2010.

Of course, I would like the year in which my wedding took place to last for many moons, but my wife assures me that 2010 is long past. Certainly, this is not the first occasion on which the journal in which an article of mine appears sports a different date on the cover than it does in its publication details. In some ways, I have an affection for this quaint demonstration of how we all can fail to live up to the strict demands we set ourselves — better that world than the one in which publication is an urgent requirement if one is to be perceived as an active researcher (a culture that mis-defines research as dissemination), one in which there is a Manichean opposition between the published and the damned.

What, though, strikes me more is how this article has not done what every good wine should do and matured as it has sat in the publishing house. The article considers Antonio Beccaria’s production, during his long stay in England, of a collection of translations of the Church Father, Athanasius – a collection more extensive than anything produced by Ambrogio Traversari, whose own version, I suggest, Beccaria had on his desk in England or, to be more precise, in Greenwich, in the palace of his employer, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. I use this example to emphasise how humanist creativity was not confined to its supposed ‘centre’ of Italy and note, indeed, how these texts were imported to Beccaria’s hometown of Verona on his return there in the mid-1440s. There is another central argument to the piece which I now feel I expressed too softly and wish it had gained extra gusto of its own accord while waiting to appear in print: that argument is that the period that Beccaria took to produce his translations — a period of over six years — does not allow us to assume a single cause for the work, or a single message they are trying to convey. What, in particular, is unlikely is that Beccaria produced them conscious of one political context in which they might be useful for his master: the codicology of these manuscripts make them appear to be his own pastimes which he happened to present to Humfrey, rather than a demand placed on him each year by the duke.

If I wish I had been more forthright, there is another detail in which, following a recent visit to re-view the relevant manuscript in the Vatican (MS. Vat. lat. 413), I think my assertion is downright wrong. It does not change the overall argument of the article at all — it is a side-point to that discussion — but it is a hostage, an error I will need to unpick in my next publication (berating my own scholarship more harshly than I would anyone else’s, in print at least). This, then, is an article that has not matured and even, in one tiny element, is past its best. But, I hope, if you, most learned reader, care to look at it, you will not judge it has turned to vinegar.

There was an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Roman

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 March, 2011

One of the requirements of the Paul Mellon Centre fellowship I currently hold is to give a public lecture at the British School at Rome. This took place last Wednesday. It is always a pleasure to speak at the BSR — and the dinner afterwards is always a lively affair!

Asked by the vivacious Deputy Director of the School, Sue Russell, for a lecture title at the start of the year, I could think of nothing better than the title of my present research topic and so called it ‘The English Hand in Rome: Barbarous Britons and the Renaissance Arts of the Book’. As it turned out, my talk was just as much about Scotsmen as it was about anyone south of the border that divides Great Britain. That was because I have been finding interesting information about Scottish scribes active in Rome in the 1450s. So, the Englishman, Scotsman and Roman mentioned above were John Lax, George of Kynninmond and — this is rather a cheat — Flavio Biondo.

John Lax was, some contemporaries would have claimed, Lax by name and lax by nature. He was a controversial figure but at the height of his fortunes, in the mid-1450s, he was a papal secretary and a lynch-pin of the two English hospices in Rome. That is well-known, but what has been less noted is his mastery of humanist cursive and his use of it in manuscripts, combining it, sometimes on the same folio, with sections in a gothic cursive script. One of the questions I set myself for my lecture was why he, as it were, flick-switched between the two scripts.

George of Kynninmond is also a known, if minor, name — a scribe who was active in Rome in the 1450s who mastered the fashionable littera antiqua. I have recently had the good fortune both to be able to track down previously unnoticed manuscripts signed by him in the Vatican, and to reconstruct more fully his career. But I have had even better fortune in making contact with Daniela Gionta of the University of Messina, who has made a yet more exciting discovery that sheds further light onto his intellectual interests. I will let her tell that part of the tale herself, in her article forthcoming in Studi medievali e umanistici. Suffice it to say that it connects him to other humanist activities, alongside and complementary to his acting as copyist.

Calling Flavio Biondo a Roman would, of course, be to rob Forli of one of its sons — but, then, Biondo’s time in the papal curia and the nature of his writing, much of which described and praised the city of the popes, ties his identity close to Rome. The interest to me of Biondo was as a way in to understanding the significance of the British presences in quattrocento Rome. The city was the location of the popes but, of course, that was not as secure as we might think with hindsight — the long ‘captivity’ in Avignon, the Great Schism, the flight of Eugenius IV less than twenty-five years after the return of the unified papacy to Rome and, indeed, the Porcari Conspiracy of 1453 all should remind us how uncertain mid-quattrocento observers may have been about the popes’ continuing presence there. But — and this is the point — any such insecurity is hidden in Biondo’s praise of Rome; his Latin may often be criticised for not acheiving humanis elegance but he had mastered the persuasiveness of their rhetoric. And one crucial way in which he praised Rome was by claiming that it attracted people from all the world — even from Britain — to it, with those foreigners accepting that Rome is the mistress of the world.

Biondo’s description may tell us more about the way in which humanist constructed the concept of what is praiseworthy than the social ‘reality’ of Rome. In particular, it evokes a sort of imperialism, with other peoples’ submitting to Rome’s supremacy. It constructs humanism itself as an international enterprise but one which is centripetal, dragging others into Rome’s ambit. This is one element of what is occurring but it strikes me that what he, and other humanists, claim also hides other elements of that international enterprise — and one of those elements is how the cosmopolitan community that came to define Rome engaged with or intervened in the core humanist practice of book-creation.

I hope, at some point soon, to write up my paper as an article (or two). In the meantime, I am putting on-line my handout so that it can see some of the materials I used in my discussion.

Buy Renaissance Pornography for Christmas

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2010

Now there’s a title liable to cause a spike in viewing figures. But, for those of you in search of some visual titillation straight from the flowering of Italian culture, you will be disappointed. There is not even a reproduction from I Modi to provide  momentary stimulation. You will have to be more committed an onanist that Martin Amis’s Mr. Self to find appropriate inspiration here.

Instead, this post is a belated celebration — belated because its subject has been on the market for several months now. Wrapped in the pale blue uniform of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, the object in question is the parallel text of Panormita’s Hermaphroditus. Now, alongside the Platonist reveries of Ficino or the advice on education of Pier Paolo Vergerio and others, can rest on the bookshelves a collection of neo-latin poems so scurrilous, so devoted to all sorts of sex that, as its editor and translator, Holt Parker announces in his introduction, it is blessed with a loathsome reputation. For those who prefer their humanists pure, single-minded scholars avant la lettre, this is a volume best kept out of sight, but if we want to develop a fuller understanding of these authors and their milieu, it is precisely by not flinching to watch them when they spit venom or tell dirty jokes or wallow in sexual licence that we are going to create a more rounded analysis of those we often see as our intellectual forefathers.

One aspect that interests me is how this is a work that generations have wanted to burn. I have, as more attentive readers have may have noted, been working on a small piece concerning William Shepherd, early-nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, advanced Liberal, friend of William Roscoe and biographer of Poggio Bracciolini. In his Life of Poggio, he mentions the Hermaphroditus, because Shepherd’s ‘hero’ — himself no stranger to sex or to lewd humour — had censured Panormita (Poggio’s letter appears in the useful appendix to the I Tatti volume). Shepherd goes on to mention how, at the Council of Ferrara in 1438, ‘the cause of decency and morality was vindicated by the passing of a solemn censure upon [the] Hermaphroditus, which was ignominiously consigned to the flames in the most public part of the city’. Even for such a Liberal, an opponent of arbitrary rule and of the censorship that comes with it, the destruction of books has its place in civilised society.

With the horror of Kristallnacht engrained in our psyche, the burning of books — be they rude poetry or someone else’s holy book — holds a greater ability to shock than the book itself. But this should not let us complacently imagine that we have become a model of tolerance: Panormita still has such an ability to offend it can be censored. I can prove this with a more recent anecdote, that comes from the time a decade ago when I was editing the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I asked a colleague to write an essay on homosexuality, and she, understandably, quoted the Hermaphroditus in it, ending her contribution with one of its epigrams (in the edition as poem XII). I found myself called in to the publishers to talk to their editor who insisted that the words could not be used — it would offend the audience and she, the editor, had to defend Hutchinson’s good name. I remonstrated and asked what else she might decided to cut. I pointed out that there was an entry on Matteo Colombo and a mention of his famous ‘discovery’, the clitoris — ‘do you’, I asked, ‘have anything against the clitoris?’. ‘No, I have nothing against the clitoris’.

Reader, she had her way: the published volume did not quote Panormita’s words, but rather delicately paraphrased them.  Now that Panormita has achieved the respectability of being in the I Tatti series — a respectability he himself might have loathed — perhaps such periphrasis will no longer be necessary. Somehow, though, I doubt that.

Duke Humfrey’s in Fashion

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 14 August, 2010

I must admit it had not occurred to me until my wife mentioned it yesterday that this October sees the 620th anniversary of the birth of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. In my defence, the six centuries and one score years is not necessarily the most memorable occasion which requires celebrating but this autumn does see the Duke having his own little local renaissance.

First of all, on 10th and 11th September, there is going to be a small conference on Humfrey, at which I am speaking alongside such luminaries at Alessandra Petrina and Derek Pearsall.  Then, just under a month later, the Bodleian is having what it has dubbed ‘Duke Humfrey’s Night’ as a fund-raising event. One can sponsor an object or its conservation, though not one of the few Humfrey manuscripts now in the Library’s possession. The event is explicitly advertised as commemorating the anniversary of:

the birth of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose generous donation in the mid-15th century of a large collection of classical manuscripts transformed the original University Library established by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and led to the construction of the beautiful reading room now known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.

My eye was caught by the description of his ‘donation’ — in fact, at least four donations, with the two most significant being in 1439 and 1444, and with a total of about 300 books being given to the  University. The range of manuscripts included biblical commentaries, some scholastic texts, some legal works, a notable assortment of medical texts, some classical works, a few of them rare, and a smattering of new humanist writings. It is interesting to see, in Oxford, his gifts remembered for being a ‘collection of classical manuscripts’ — a partial recollection of the collection that perhaps says more about our generation’s interests than about his eclectic library. Humfrey is most celebrated for his patronage of humanists like Pier Candido Decembrio (though he claimed not to have received his dues from him) and Tito Livio Frulovisi, biographer of Henry V (though Tito Livio soon left the duke’s employ). It was via the Milanese Decembrio that Humfrey gained most of the rare classical works in his collection — refound texts like the Panegyrici latini. This, though, is in danger of overlooking the range of activities going on at his court around the duke, if not always with his close involvement. Then again, I can hardly complain about a concentration of interest in his ‘classical manuscripts’ — my own work, I suppose, is stoking that tradition. I must remember to make amends.

How should we read Xenophon’s Hiero?

Posted in History of Political Thought, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 1 August, 2010

Xenophon’s Hiero is a small work with a large Renaissance reputation. Translated at the beginning of the quattrocento by Leonardo Bruni, it was one of the first pagan Greek texts to receive a rendering into humanist Latin; it circulated widely across Europe, becoming the standard version until Erasmus’ re-translation. Bruni’s text now survives in nearly two hundred manuscripts, as the estimable David Marsh has shown [Catalogus Translationum, vii (1992)]. It also has a significant place within the humanist’s oeuvre: it is one of what I would call Bruni’s manifestoes – four remarkably assured works produced in a remarkably fruitful period of his early thirties, presenting his agenda for study and for action. The manifestoes include two original compositions: the Laudatio Florentinae urbis, a celebration of republican Florence; and the Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, heralding a reform of literary scholarship, in which Bruni’s mentor, Coluccio Salutati, is presented as both the arbiter and the previous generation, while Niccolò Niccoli is given the role of radical firebrand. Alongside them are two translations, each dedicated to one of the figures in the Dialogi: to Salutati is sent a translation of St Basil on the use of reading the pagans – a highly appropriate tract considering the immediately contemporary attacks on Salutati for his ‘unchristian’ studies. To Niccoli Bruni thought it suitable to send Xenophon’s short dialogue on tyranny, the Hiero – but why? In what way is that apt? That is the question at issue.

In latter-day scholarship on Bruni’s ‘manifestoes’, interest has characteristically been concentrated on the original works. The significance of the translations produced alongside them has only recently begun to be explored. The Hiero is presently the subject of what we can be sure will be a stimulating doctoral thesis, and it is also central to a piece by Brian Jeffrey Maxson in the most recent issue of Renaissance Studies. It is an article which has left me waking up early in the morning pondering the question with which I opened. You see, Maxson describes the Hiero, without reservation, as ‘pro-monarchical’, while I have always taken the work to be subtly critical of one-man rule. My understanding perhaps owes something to Leo Strauss’s suspicious reading of the text; Strauss’s analysis, in turn, has been dismissed as being ‘as perverse as one can be’ by one classicist who would see the dialogue as an endorsement of rule over willing subjects, as is developed more fully in the Cyropaedia [V. J. Gray in Classical Quarterly, new series, xxxvi (1986)]. But, more recently, other classicists have wondered whether the Cyropaedia is as straightforwardly positive as has usually been thought [eg Y. L. Too in Pedagogy and Power (Cambridge, 1998)]; if that work can be read with suspicion, it leads us back to wondering about the Hiero. How can such a small text be subject to such diverse views?

The dialogue is deceptively simple. In a moment of leisure, the tyrant Hieron sits down with the poet Simonides, who asks his interlocutor to teach him from his experience who is happier, the tyrant or the private man. Hieron responds bemoaning his lot, enumerating how at every point his pleasure is thwarted by his status. This takes up the main part of the work. When he has finished, Simonides offers him advice on how to improve his situation and make his subjects be willing to be ruled by him – he should treat his country as his fatherland, and surpass all others in generosity and in kindness. If he does that, he will be happy and no one will be jealous of his happiness. The End. The dialogue stops there, with Hieron given no chance to respond or to thank the poet. It stops but does not conclude: this is a work which is artfully open-ended.

Xenophon’s refusal to close off the work, to declare a ‘victor’ in the debate (if it can be called that) allows and perhaps encourages the multiple meanings that have been given to the work. We could, then, simply finish here and get up from the table: the point of it is that its point is hard to define. But that still leaves two questions: why Xenophon should have wanted his work to be so open to interpretation? And if there are several ways of reading the work, what was Bruni’s? Let me focus on that second question.

The humanist dedication is itself a work of art which can often frame the text that follows and establish its relationship with the dedicatee. Leonardo Bruni does that in the preface to his translation of St Basil or in his later Plutarch dedications. In the contexts of those, the preface to the Hiero might seem odd: it has hardly anything to say about the work. Instead, it provides a brief biography of its author, praising Xenophon for his mastery of both arms and letters, describing how, after a successful military career, he was forced into exile by envious citizens and then turned his hand to philosophy. Niccoli could not but want, Bruni says, to embrace Xenophon. There is no mention in this preface of the subject-matter of the Hiero or of its characters. They are presented without introduction, as it were – except that the dialogue has been placed in a context in which what matters is the relationship between philosophy and political fortunes. In other words, Bruni does not hint at a particular political reading – either pro-monarchical or pro-republican – but does imply that reading is about politics.

It may be more usual to have a more forceful direction provided by a preface, rather than the gentle steering that Bruni masters here. But this is not unique in his literary career: take, for instance, his wonderful jeu d’ésprit, the Oratio Heliogabali, a speech placed into the mouth of a fictitious Roman emperor, exhorting the prostitutes of Rome to lasciviousness. That travelled without a preface – to the perplexity of some readers, it must said. On occasion, you will find copies with an added scribal note, explaining to the reader that this is to be read ironically and that Bruni was not, in fact, promoting vice. In contrast, it must be said, you would very rarely find such guidance notes in a copy of the Hiero – readers may not have had the same difficulty in understanding the purpose of that dialogue.

We have still not pinned down a particular meaning, a specific reading, to Bruni’s Xenophon – and that, I would suggest, is how Bruni would want it to be. He had, I suspect, no intention of closing down the open-ended nature of the dialogue. That said, he does re-weight the text somewhat by a simple act of translation. I am not thinking of his ‘straightening out’ of the text – at the point when Simonides teases Hieron about his catamite, in the Latin the young lover becomes a girl – but rather his emphasis on the word ‘tyrant’. Latin is notoriously a less supple language than Greek: the word ‘tyrannos’ could have connotations of rule that was either despotic or something less negative – the Latin ‘tyrannus’ has no such ambivalence. Perhaps a translator should consider using a different term to render ‘tyrannos’; Bruni did not. And what is more, he changes the title of the work so that it circulated not, primarily, as Hiero but more often as Tyrannus.

Bruni’s translation, then, comes in three parts: the short work itself, preceded by the shorter preface, itself preceded by the shortest, laconic (I nearly said Tacitean) part, the title. That title announces the dialogue to be about the tyrant, the evil monarch – an implicit contrast with the good citizen, Xenophon, who was its author. And yet this still does not tell us how to understand the dialogue; it does not reveal a straightforward message. But, then, how could it: if one were truly sitting in front of a tyrant, as Simonides was and as we might see ourselves as his successors, can we trust a word our interlocutor says? And can we, in turn, trust ourselves to be honest in his presence? Would we leave our conversation open-ended because we could not be open?

Where’s Vespasiano now?

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 1 June, 2010

The question came up in class this morning of the whereabouts of Vespasiano da Bisticci — the man who was book-provider to the Renaissance rich, as he himself tells us in his retirement project, his Vite of ‘illustrious men’. It’s striking to think that Vespasiano’s modern fame lies in a work that was only printed in the 1830s and quickly became, for Burckhardt among others, an evocative image of quattrocento Florence. A symptom of that is the provision for him of a small slab in his memory as cartolaio e biografo in Santa Croce in 1898.

In his own lifetime, of course, the cartolaio or libraio was better known for the manuscripts (always manuscripts, no dalliance with printed books for him) that he had produced or provided for his international cast of customers. He would walk over each day from his home on the Oltrarno, on Via de’ Bardi (its location — if I remember rightly — identifiable in a fifteenth-century depiction of Florence discussed by the late A. C. de la Mare in the festschrift to Ernst Gombrich), to his shop. Where was that? It is a reasonable conjecture that it was on the Via dei Librai, whose address you will not find in Googlemaps:  it has been renamed or rather goobled up by the Via del Proconsolo, which runs down from behind the east end of the Duomo past the Bargello to Piazza S. Firenze. In the fifteenth century, the last section, from where the road meets Via de’ Pandolfini, was named after its main commercial occupants, the book-sellers. They continued to congregate around there, apparently, into the nineteenth century.

Some scholars have gone further and identified a particular location as the likely position of Vespasiano’s shop — on the corner of Via de’ Pandolfini, where there remains a renaissance doorway, topped by a symbol of an open book. That, of course, could be relevant for any libraio, but if it were Vespasiano’s location, there may be some justice in its latterday history. Here is an image of what is now a shop window:

Vespasiano's shop today?

That it is a ‘leather factory’ is not entirely inappropriate, considering the importance of leather bindings to the cartolaio who was willing to provide them for his clients’ books. But that it boasts of being ‘junior’ might not have been considered by da Bisticci as a winning or dignified marketing strategy: Vespasiano would surely have admitted no senior in his trade.