What was I saying the other day about the vain pursuit of finishing? While the proofs of the manuscript catalogue of Christ Church, Oxford progress towards the dreaded finality of print, I am also working to complete the text of another book, my monograph on humanist scripts and England. One chapter which I thought I had put safely to bed woke up this week with a start and a cry for more attention. The reason was the discovery of the provenance of an understudied manuscript in Cambridge University Library.
I am not complaining about this: it has happened at a moment when I can make the necessary changes to my text. Besides, I have already outed myself as a discovery junkie, waiting for the next high that comes with uncovering something not previously noticed. Not that this was a full hit — that comes when serendipity and surprise combine. In this case, I already suspected what might be there to find.
The trail to CUL, MS. Mm.iii.18 began with a note in the unpublished papers of A. C. de la Mare, a mine of gems held in the Bodleian. It was Tilly de la Mare who, in 1988, produced the last detailed study of the library of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, one of the two English secular princes — the other being Humfrey, duke of Gloucester — famed for collecting humanist manuscripts in the fifteenth century. She listed twelve manuscripts, including some by the enigmatic scribe known only by his initials ‘VfI’, but this Cambridge manuscript was not among them. She must have come across it later, for her notes comment that it too was by ‘VfI’. A few months back, I tried to follow up this lead and found to my surprise that it is not listed in the recent monumental catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in the UL, though it does include four bianchi girari initials. I contacted the library staff, and the amazingly helpful James Freeman sent me some images which confirmed that this codex, even though it is unsigned, is definitely written by ‘VfI’. That raised the question of whether it was made, as were several other of his productions, for the earl of Worcester. That I could not check without going to the UL myself and this last Wednesday was the first opportunity in a busy term to do that.
I assume that Tilly had not had the opportunity to consult the manuscript because if she had she could not have missed the tell-tale sign which welcomed me when I randomly opened the volume (a small moment of serendipity). What appeared was this:
If you ever come across a pointing hand like this, please drop me a line straightaway, for this is the highly distinctive manicula of John Tiptoft. There are, in fact, only a few other interventions by him in the volume, but it does also include annotations by his secretary, John Free, and others by another Englishman in his circle, John Gunthorp. What is more, this manuscript gives a hint about the origins of the scribe himself — but I will not mention that now; I have, after all, to leave something for the book.
As I said, the list of manuscripts provided in 1988 included twelve items; at that point, another ten were also known to have been his. The number now stands at 33, with another six related to Tiptoft but probably not owned by him. This is a notably high figure; it is nearly as many as survive from the library of the other noble just mentioned, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, whose collection (I estimate) originally numbered over 600. There are, though, I suspect, more of Tiptoft’s to find. I wish I could wait to discover them before publishing, but one never knows in this pursuit when the chase is done. Instead, I predict that the day I sign off the proofs of this monograph, an e-mail will appear in my inbox, responding to my request for new sightings of his manicula, alerting me to a previously unknown instance. I will curse the day but also allow a little cheer.
My new identities are causing confusion to more than just me, it seems, so let me begin with a double clarification. No, I am not teaching at the University of Exeter, and, no, I am not giving the Lyell Lectures.
Exeter has a fine cathedral and there are some very good restaurants. But it cannot claim to be England’s oldest recorded town, where the Norman Castle, second only to the Tower of London in size, is set on the foundations of a Roman temple. I am, as I have explained before, now an Essex man, based at the University whose postal address is Colchester, though its campus is closer to the attractive river-side village of Wivenhoe (something happened to the sense of direction in the early 1960s when the new universities were founded — witness also the misnamed University of Warwick[shire]).
That is not to say that my life is now confined to the East of England. Indeed, my existential uncertainty is not about who I am but where I am each day. I may be teaching in Essex but I also have long-standing commitments in Oxford, including giving a set of lectures on my research, beginning on Thursday 17th October. This series is generously sponsored by the J. P. R. Lyell Fund but is — to repeat — decidedly not this year’s Lyell Lectures. There are not really many grounds for confusion: after all, the Lyell Lectures are an annual event when a leading scholar invited by the Electors presents on an area where they are an acknowledged expert. If that was not enough of a give-away, there is also the fact that those for 2013 have already been given, by Richard Beadle, and the identity of the Lyell Lecturer for 2014 is already known: it will be the Rector of Lincoln, Henry Woudhuysen.
The Lyell Fund’s involvement in my forthcoming set of lectures is that they have supported much of the research that is their basis, and a condition of their grant to me was that I provide a series. I should add that they have been joined by others in funding the research: the Paul Mellon Centre, the British School at Rome (my second home) and, further back in time, the Neil Ker Fund of the British Academy all deserve the warmest thanks.
The lectures, then, are one result of my recent project which has been to focus my long-term interest in humanist palaeogrpahy by producing a catalogue of English Humanist Scripts up to c. 1509. That catalogue will be published in the series ‘The Handwriting of the Italian Humanists’, overseen by the indomitable Anthony Hobson; its previous volumes have been Tilly de la Mare’s classic survey of the scripts of Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Niccoli and others, and the detailed study of the master of italic, Bartolomeo Sanvito begun by Tilly and ably completed by Laura Nuvolini. That work will present, scribe by scribe, a detailed discussion of their practices. What these lectures allow me to do is to tease out and emphasise the arguments which run through the catalogue as an undercurrent. I will be emphasising, then, how we need to revise our chronology of the ‘spread’ of humanism and, more widely, to question the very concept of ‘spread’; I will be providing plentiful evidence for the cosmopolitanism of humanist book arts, in England but also in Italy; I will consider how and why scribes came to adopt a practice we identify as ‘Roman’ or Italian — and how they also, at times, dispensed with it. In the process, I will be present new characters central to the history of humanism in England who have not previously been mentioned: they will include England’s first humanist scribe and the person I like to consider Scotland’s first humanist. I hope to see you there.
A full list of the titles of these lectures is provided on this site .
I will not pretend to have known Malcolm Parkes well but, like so many, I owe him such a debt of gratitude that I cannot leave his passing on 10th May unremarked: he was a giant of palaeography. The breadth of his learning was always on display in his writings – indeed, he disdained those who concentrate solely on one script or one chronological period (and, so, presumably, I fail his high standards). This was a scholar who could range across the centuries, as comfortable with the Chanson de Roland as with the manuscripts of Chaucer and Gower, and who could make associations which few would have had the eye to see. What, though, I will most remember him for is his generosity of spirit.
When I began my graduate studies in Oxford, I went to two sets of palaeographical classes, one in my own Faculty of History, by Richard Sharpe, and one in English, by Malcolm Parkes; later in my doctoral work (and less formally), I was to learn much as well from Andrew Watson. Most student medievalists considered the task of palaeography as a matter of comprehension – what Richard Sharpe describes as ‘adult literacy skills’; some of us left the lectures, however, inspired by the possibilities of what palaeography in its widest sense (including codicology) can teach us about the book itself. The ability to hold a manuscript in your hands, to turn it over and to take all the elements of its construction to create a vivid history of its production, use and journey from creation to present – that is an invigorating and potent skill which Malcolm Parkes could convey with wit and clarity.
Central to learning how to do that is being able to write a technical description of a manuscript and, addition to his palaeography classes, Prof. Parkes provided instruction in that practice. Fired with interest by what I had half-learnt, I went off to describe some manuscripts and sent my rough attempts to him. I was not in his Faculty and there was no reason why he should have given me attention; all I could offer him was dinner in my student house in Jericho. But he accepted the invitation and sent me back my descriptions covered by pencil notes which I can still recollect twenty years later and which, in their wise advice, have informed how I developed my own practices of cataloguing.
I also remember him as an engaging lecturer, a master of the vignette and also of the obiter dictum. One, in particular, I recall from his Lyell lectures: ‘it is easy to imitate another’s letter-forms, it is much more difficult to imitate their spaces’. It is an insight suggestive of his own way of working, his own sense of the practicalities or technology of script that enabled him to provide such lucid analysis of (in the title of those Lectures) their hands before our eyes.
There are two other details that come to my mind. One involves an occasion early on in my graduate life when I was working in Duke Humfrey’s – so this was, perhaps, in 1992 and from my memory’s image of the light streaming into Selden End, late summer or early autumn – and Prof. Parkes walked in, cap in hand, to meet a lady sitting opposite me. They proceeded to converse without any attempt to lower their voices, so angering me that I walked out, little appreciating that, if I had had the sense to stay and listen, I would have learnt about the latest discoveries each of them had made, and not realising that the lady in question was destined eventually to be one of my doctoral examiners: the Professor of Palaeography at King’s London and former doyenne of Duke Humfrey’s, Tilly de la Mare.
I mention this tale because of the insouciance it suggests Malcolm Parkes had in the places that were his natural habitat. It extended also to dealing with manuscripts – no white-glove man, this, he would fairly plonk a volume down on its foam-rest. For those of us beginning our career and so daintly touching these half-hallowed objects, this was a liberating revelation. I rationalised his practice in my mind as a recognition that manuscripts, written on parchment and bound in leather over wooden boards, are fairly sturdy things – sturdier, it must be said, than the frail human body. And so, indeed, Professor Malcolm Beckwith Parkes has left us, but there survive many manuscripts which will outlive you or I, and which can say that they have been touched, enlightened and enlivened by him.
Anyone who has been in earshot of me in the recent past – let’s be honest, not just the recent – is likely to have heard me rail against the culture dominant in Britain that presumes research is only research when it has been printed. It feels at times as if academia has become a support industry for the publishing world. I have no objection to new books: I love books; some of my good friends are or have once been publishers; indeed, I chose to marry one. The problem is not with publication but with the assumption that research only gains its justification through being presented in article or monograph form. There are surely other valid ways of disseminating new findings, be it in the lecture hall, at a seminar or even through an on-line posting.
Even that, though, is not the main concern. It is, rather, that the expectation of publishing encourages swiftly committing discoveries to print when they would be better gestating, maturing, ageing in the barrel of one’s mind. There are, of course, some types of research, where there is a finite set of sources or data which can be analysed and completed within a fairly short time-frame. But are we to privilege those over other types of scholarly investigation? What are we to say, for instance, to the palaeographer who is trying to reconstruct a scribe’s practice where the sources are disparate and, indeed, not for certain all yet identified? It is the sort of pursuit that feels near-infinite, a jigsaw-puzzle where the box has been lost and you are not even sure how much of the picture the remaining but dispersed pieces represent. But it also means that when a solution to a conundrum is discovered, it is all the more rewarding for the scholar and useful for scholarship. At that point, finally, publication would be justified, even required. To reach that, though, can – as the example I am about to give will show – take many years, more than can fit into an arbitrary five-year cycle fond of contemporary policy makers. I propose to you that we should emulate the Slow Food Movement and promote the art and the skills of Slow Study, withstanding the pressure to publish the half-baked, and let our work rest in the oven for as long as it takes.
My intention here, though, is not to give a manifesto, but to present an example of what I mean from my only research. It is a tale that reached something of a denouement just yesterday but it started at least a decade ago, and the journey from then to now had more than its fair share of pauses, frustrations – and luck. The main piece of good fortune that I have had is to have been contacted my friend and colleague, Stefano Baldassarri, asking me to look at a manuscript in Paris of texts by or related to Coluccio Salutati, Florence’s Chancellor at the turn of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, and god-father to the first generation of quattrocento humanists. Stefano was, at this point in 2010, in the process of editing a work that appears in the codex; he had noticed that the front flyleaf included an inscription by a seventeenth-century English owner, Richard Smith, a notable collector of both books and people’s death-dates. I did not have chance to go to Paris until 2012 – after Stefano’s fine edition was published (it is entitled La vipera e il giglio) – and then only on microfilm. But, as I looked through it, I saw in the margin of one folio a small, frankly unprepossessing pointing-hand or manicula which took my mind back to some research I had pursued – but (thank God) not published – eight years earlier.
In the first years of this millennium, interested in fifteenth-century collectors associated with Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, I spent time becoming better acquainted with the manuscripts of the English curialist, Andrew Holes. He gave to Humfrey one important manuscript, the sole copy of Salutati’s last masterpiece, De laboribus Herculis (a book now in the Vatican, but that is another story). The Florentine bookseller and unreliable gossip, Vespasiano da Bisticci, claims that Holes had collected so many books while he was an English representative at the papal curia that he had to hire a ship to carry them home. Whether that is true or not, those that survive number well over a score, with most of them in Oxford as Holes, a Wykhamist, gave his library to New College. Those manuscripts had received some recent attention in an article by that learned historian of the English in Rome, Margaret Harvey; she acknowledged for the palaeographical information the generous assistance of Tilly de la Mare. Margaret Harvey’s 1991 article was only the second to be dedicated to Holes; the first appeared in Speculum during the Second World War and its author, Josephine Bennett, entitled it ‘Andrew Holes: a neglected harbinger of the English Renaissance’. It is fair to say that Holes’s stock has not risen much since Bennett wrote, despite Harvey’s important piece, though, in various contexts in manuscript studies, he does gain a passing mention.
On that March day in 2012, the little pointing-hand in the Paris manuscript acted as a sort of Proustian epiphany taking me back to my work on Holes, for its style was familiar from his manuscripts. But it also reminded me of a problem which I had been forced to leave unresolved for lack of decisive evidence. I noticed that several scholars talked of manuscripts including marginalia by Holes, without ever giving specific folio references, but with the range of codices cited suggesting that two quite different sets of notes were being attributed to him. One was the script that provided the manicula, small, impressionistic, drawn vertically, and sometimes accompanied by words written rapidly in a gothic cursive. The other was much more presentable, a notably spiky gothic bookhand. It seemed to me to be implausible that one reader was moving between the two styles but I could not find any definite proof to identify one as Holes and so I had to designate the two sets of interventions ‘reader I’ and ‘reader II’.
The presence of the manicula – whoever was its author – suggested to me that we might be able to associate the Paris manuscript with the collection of New College and, indeed, in the sixteenth century, the antiquary John Leland saw in that library a volume the description of which corresponds with the manuscript I was studying. Not only that: the inscription by Richard Smith on the flyleaf mentioned that he also owned ‘another MSS of the same Author of the same vellum’. Might this be another manuscript from Holes and New College? Might it too have reached Paris? I could not pursue those questions that day last year – I only had a few hours in the library as I was in the city on other, more official business in the Sorbonne.
And, so, the search had to be put on pause another year. The wait, though, was worth it. As, I hope, will be the wait to hear the second and final instalment of this tale…
It was, if my memory does not deceive me, a bright and mild December afternoon in 1997 when I entered Oxford’s Examination Schools in white bow-tie and long academic gown, walked up the stairs that rise to the right of the entrance hall, then made my way across the small balcony that looks down upon the same hall, before entering a room where two distinguished scholars awaited me. They were Prof. George Holmes and Prof. A. C. de la Mare — and let us pause to remember those the world has lost, since they have both passed away in the intervening years. At that point, though, they were very much in good health and ready to begin my doctoral viva.
I remember their kindness to me: George opened the discussion by telling me what their recommendation would be, which helped dissipate any nerves I had had (though, equally, it did little to help me focus for the next two minutes — I wanted to be able to go out, cheer, and then return for the serious work). I also remember feeling cheated at the end of the two hours: is that it? can we not stay here for longer, even if the lengthening shadows suggest it is nearly sunset? When you have lived with a subject for five years and more, it is rare that you can find anyone who is as passionate about it as you are, so to have two learned specialists before you who had read every word of the thesis (my then partner had tried, but she fell asleep, leaving my father being the only other person who had suffered it all) and who at least have to appear interested in your work provides an opportunity you do not want to end.
What I replay most in mind, however, is a question they posed that was not related to the intrinsic quality of the work. ‘And what’, George asked, ‘about publication?’ I responded without a pause: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to publish it as a book’. That, in retrospect, was The Wrong Thing To Say, a career-endangering failure to appreciate the developing dynamic — some would say the duty — to present one’s doctoral research to the world in a monograph. The worst thing is: I stand by what I said.
Appreciate the context: when I began my thesis, the usual expectation was that one would complete it and then move on, leaving the work available for consultation in the relevant university library. Only the exceptional should be put into print and, even then, some of the very best were not, as, indeed, was the case with one of my examiners — Tilly de la Mare’s tour-de-force of a doctorate, on Vespasiano da Bisticci, was never sent to a publisher and, until recently, could only be read by those who visited Senate House in London (it is now, though, available on the web at the excellent British Library ETHOS site).
I should, perhaps, have recognised the changes going on around us and that, by the late 1990s, there was already an increasing expectation that a thesis would see its way into bookshops, that more and more would follow a route once reserved for some of the exceptional, to the extent that being ‘outstanding’ now made one part of the crowd. Certainly, in the last decade, it has become a sine qua non of one’s academic credentials that one should be able to point to one’s doctoral research on the bookshelves — and so the assumption has become that, if a dissertation is not published, there must surely be something really wrong with it.
That dynamic, I would contend, is unsustainable, for two reasons. First, it has spiralled out of control: publishers have noticed the market (niche though it may be) and increased the number of theses they produce, to the extent that, now, university employers take as a sign of quality not whether your thesis is published but where it has been. These shifts have a tendency to be applied retrospectively so that a good thesis published a few years ago with a press now considered to be of dubious quality may be looked on with suspicion. Of course, the true test is not in where it is published — or, indeed, whether it is printed — but in the text itself, though that assumes people would have time to read the words before short-listing or appointing to a job. Bless.
The result of the spiral may well be that the smaller thesis-printing publishers will, over time, find their market dwindles. However, there is another factor that is making the dynamic not just unsustainable but obsolete. That is the increasing desire of institutions to host their alumni’s work on their websites. The number of theses now available through those sites and through ETHOS means that the research is already available, in the original form of the dissertation. It would take the truly obtuse not to realise that, in this new paradigm, making a thesis available in print, even in revised form, will usually amount to otiose duplication.
When that realisation has sunk in, the consequences could be to the advantage of those who have recently received their doctorate. Rather than working away further on the same subject, they can graze in new pastures, developing their knowledge and their skills further. Not that they should never return to the work which saw their first steps in academe but, rather, that they should be able to revisit it later, recast and rewrite in the mature style they have developed in subsequent years.
None of what I have said, though, is intended to assert that anybody completing their doctorate should have taken the self-denying ordinance I did. I repeat: it was, in the objective terms of the job market, probably the most foolish thing I have ever done (and I have done a fair few). But, in my case, it was also the right thing to do. I had never envisaged my thesis becoming a book and, indeed, it was designed for different ends. It was intellectually ambitious, telling two stories at the same time, as a way of attempting to demonstrate my potential range. It was also overlong: an Oxford doctoral dissertation has to be under 100,000 words (including footnotes), unless you have a dispensation for an appendix of original material. I was granted an extra 50,000 words to provide a collection of manuscript descriptions. That added to the work’s usefulness but also would have made it a much less attractive proposition to a publisher.
Those manuscript descriptions have been on-line for some time now, and I am always grateful to scholars who contact me to say they have found them of value. It is time, I have decided, that they should be accompanied by some prose that is over fifteen years old. Today, I am uploading nearly the entirety of my thesis onto this site, for those who may be by some chance interested. I am doing it because a very few people have asked to see it, and it seems to me best, as I have gone to the trouble of turning old World files into pdfs, that it should be freely available. There is a disadvantage: with the hard-copy in the Bodleian, one signs the register of readers before consulting a thesis and that is not possible on-line. What I ask is if you do look at it, send me word so I know you exist. I am doing this, then, because it seems to me that the virtual world of the web is the appropriate half-light in which a thesis should appear. I am doing this so that it never need be published in print.
To access the chapters of the thesis, go the dedicated page on this website.
A few weeks back, following the close of the Warburg conference in honour of Tilly de la Mare and waiting to meet the ever-vivacious Sue Russell (whose laughter lights so many lives), I had a moment to step into the National Gallery and commune — along with the thousands others there — with art. Instead of entering, as I usually do, through the Sainsbury Wing, I went up the main stairs and, in the first room, was struck by Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of Giovanni Agostino della Torre.
I have an interest — I might have mentioned — in the depiction of books in painting and, indeed, the abuses of those parchment or paper repositories of knowledge in art. A plentiful number of books are on display in this portrait, on the desk and, all the more prominently, in the sitter’s hand. It is this in particular that caught my attention. A sitter holding a book is not unusual, not even a book held upright, as here. Nor is it uncommon to have a binding meticulously presented with a lunette on the back cover, here giving the title Galen, to represent della Torre’s medical interests. But this book is not just held — it is held slightly open, sitting on the palm of Giovanni’s hand, in a position which appears ungainly. Why do this? Surely it is to allow the edge of the pages of the volume to be seen, and what we see there is not pristine white paper but, instead, frequent handwritten annotations (but, sadly, no maniculae) presumably by the sitter himself. In other words, della Torre’s learning is suggested not just by the book he holds but by the fact that we can glimpse — no more than, just a teasing taster — his erudition in the margins. The presentation might act as a metaphor for the relevatory nature of the portrait itself, which can hint but not fully encapsulate the person depicted. Equally, it can be a metaphor for marginalia which itself can hint but can rarely provide complete insight into their author.
Are there — I ask you to tell me — other paintings that similarly play with the possibilities of marginalia?
‘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.
My ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England during the Fifteenth Century has recently been made available on-line. In that, I try to place Weiss’s first monograph into its intellectual milieu and to provide some suggestions of how the tale of English engagement with the studia humanitatis — and vice versa — could be revised by a new approach building on the work of Weiss and those who followed him, in particular A. C. de la Mare. What I could not do is to bring to life Weiss’s character — and I can only wish I had more opportunity to delve into his biography, for it is intriguing.
This self-proclaimed ‘count’ had certain exotic allure in his early life because he had made the decision to emigrate from Italy: he appears, for instance, in Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. It is said that he arrived to go to university in Cambridge, did not like it, so rushed over to Oxford and persuaded them to take him. Quite why he wanted to adopt Britain is the subject of rumour rather than hard fact but it is said that he settled here out of dislike for the Fascist regime in the land of his birth. There is, though, one piece of plausible information that might help to corroborate this rare insight into his politics.
In Oxford, he was fortunate enough to fall into the ambit of John Buchan, whose son was at Oxford with Weiss, and who lived at Elsfield, only a few miles outside the city. Weiss’s connexion with Buchan continued after his undergraduate days, with him acting as an informal research assistant when Buchan, then Governor-General in Canada, was completing his biography of Augustus. That work itself was partisan in its politics, drawing unfavourable comparisons between the first Roman Emperor and his soi-disant successor, Mussolini. Soon after its publication, it was translated into Italian but was revised or censored so as to remove those comments. Long after the War, in 1961, it was reprinted in Italian — and it is said that it was Weiss who revised the translation to reinsert Buchan’s original criticisms of Fascism. No reference is made in the volume itself to the identity of the reviser.
Away from politics, those I know who remember Weiss describe him as a ‘gentleman’ — and as a gifted cartoonist. He used to etch Christmas cards for his friends and apparently sat through the inaugural meeting of the Society for Renaissance Studies drawing impressions of those around him. They do not, I think, survive, though some of his papers did reach the Warburg where, looking through his notebooks written in his neat small handwriting and which record both his intellectual pursuits and practical, mundane necessities, you feel you are in his presence. He died a year before I was born. Having spent some time with not just his works but also with tales of him, I can only wish it had been otherwise.
The learned dottoressa Nuvoloni, felicitously forenamed Laura considering her gifts for humanist study, has moved on from the success of the volume on Bartolomeo Sanvito, the leading exponent of the italic script that refines textual presentation to a level of sustained elegance. More on the Sanvito volume, which builds on the work of the late A. C. de la Mare, another time. Laura’s new project demonstrates that she is one of those rare scholars who can combine both manuscript and incunable expertise — a combination that remains all too rare. She is now ensconced in Cambridge, working with their incunables, and — the casus belli for this post — is providing with her research an enlightening and wonderfully illustrated blog.
Her work, already finding evidence for the lives of the volumes she handles, also reminds us how incunable studies have developed since Oates’s 1954 catalogue of incunabula in Cambridge libraries. Building on previous generations’ work, some of the most interesting — at least for someone like myself interested in issues of provenance — research has been on the history of individual copies. This approach, in Britain, is best demonstrated in the Bodleian Catalogue of Incunables to which several scholars contributed. It is excellent to know that Cambridge has a similar project, though the description of it suggests that the information will, in the main, be provided on their main on-line catalogue. Let us hope that it is also made available in other ways, and that the project will provide an opportunity for an exhibition to follow in the footsteps of ‘Cambridge Illuminations.’ Forza, Laura!
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:
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.