bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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 colourful life of Roberto Weiss

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 10 October, 2010

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.


Cambridge Incunables on-line

Posted in Incunabula by bonaelitterae on 6 June, 2010

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!

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.

Rod Thomson discovers a Humfrey manuscript

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 2 July, 2009

On Thursday 2nd July in the Year of Our Lord 2009, most people in Oxford were wondering how to survive the relentless heat. Rod Thomson, meanwhile, was working coolly away in Corpus library, where, to add to his already-extensive record of scholarly achievements, he now can add unearthing a manuscript formerly owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. It is a discovery that has made the sun shine all the brighter on my day.

The manuscript is Corpus MS. 1, a later thirteenth-century Bible, localised to Oxford. What had previously gone unnoticed was the partially covered, and partially erased ex libris at the top of the final verso (fol. 488v). I can confirm that it is undeniably and irrefutably the ‘short’ ownership inscription by the duke: Cest livre est a moy homfrey duc de gloucestre. The erasure, which removed part of the Christian name and all words following, is by scraping (itself a scrape of information which may assist to piece together this manuscript’s odyssey).

The verbum probatorium does not accord with the inventories of the duke’s gifts the University of Oxford, nor to any entry in the catalogue of King’s College, Cambridge (where a few – we should not overstate the number – of his books were washed up after his death).  This codex can, therefore, take its place among the majority of those which survive from his collection for it is a remarkable fact that it appears that the rate of survival of those that reached an institution in his lifetime, or soon after,  has been lower than those that remained in his hands. At the same time, this manuscript is highly unusual among the extant books which he owned as it is the only complete Bible that we can say for certainty was his. There are, of course, his lavish Psalters (London: BL, MSS Royal 2 B I and Yates Thomson 14) but nothing quite in this category.

It is for Prof. Thomson to coax further from the manuscript the secrets it blushes to tell the world, as he continues his work on the catalogue of the college’s collection. What is certain is that he can take his place among a small group of scholars who, in the past century, have discovered a manuscript once owned by ‘Good Duke Humfrey’. The roll-call includes Berthold Ullman, Roberto Weiss, Christopher de Hamel, Tilly de la Mare, Ian Doyle and, most recently, the young Dutch scholar, Hanno Wijsman. I hope Rod considers himself in worthy company.

Humanism in fifteenth-century Oxford

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 8 February, 2009

I received the other day an off-print of what deserves to be recognised as an important article. And, as articles are supposed to be at a disadvantage to books in that they are not reviewed (a bitter-sweet blessing at best), let me draw attention to it for any internet explorers who, in their travel, stumble across this site.

The distinguished Italian journal, Italia medioevale e umanistica, was founded by ‘il grande’ Guido Billanovich and published by Antenore, the Paduan publishing house which, after Billanovich’s death, was bought by Salerno Editrice in Rome. It is pleasing to see that the journal which has been so important to humanist studies has returned to its highest standards with, in its latest volume (xlviii, carrying the year 2007), an article on ‘The Reception of the Italian Renaissance in fifteenth-century Oxford’ by Prof. Rod Thomson.

Rod Thomson is probably equally well-known for his work on William of Malmesbury and for his manuscript catalogues. An interest in humanism might seem a new departure, but it seems a more natural development from several projects he is working on or bringing to conclusion, in particular his volume in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (under the general editorship of Richard Sharpe) which will publish the book-lists of the University and Colleges of Oxford. At the same time, he has been completing a catalogue of the manuscripts of Merton College (where a famous book once owned by one English collector, John Tiptoft, now resides) and starting one of the manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, which owns many of the books of John Shirwood and John Claymond, both of whom had humanist interests.

The article shows how scholarship has not yet drunk to the full from the book-lists of collectors like Humfrey, duke of Gloucester: there are more vivifying drops that can be squeezed out of the pithy records, in particular by a study of their verba probatoria ( the first words of the second folio of text, originally intended to identify the unique volume being cited but also allowing us on occasion to clarify the contents of a now-lost manuscript). Rod Thomson also provides helpful listings of known manuscripts owned by a range of English ‘humanist’ collectors, in the first place the duke of Gloucester, but also William Gray, Robert Flemyng and John Tiptoft (there kindly acknowledging the information which I could provide and which I present elsewhere on this website).

How I would put the central lesson of this article is that, when studying the arrival of humanist texts in England, what is notable is not so much the number of volumes reaching Britannos toto penitus orbe divisos, as the speed with which they travelled north: several works, especially in the collection of Gray, arrived in England in the mid-1450s only a couple of years after they had been composed. In the case of Gray, who became bishop of Ely, it should be remembered that his books reached Oxford, only by bequest; he died in 1478. While this new article concentrates on is Oxford, certainly the capital of humanist interest in fifteenth-century Britain, it has wider relevance beyond the colleges and halls of that university town.

Rod Thomson shows that there is more to be said in this area — a delight, as you might expect, for me to hear. In his first paragraph, he chides ‘notorious non-publishers.’ I am hoping to prove not to be eligible for that designation, as I finish off my book on England and the Identity of Renaissance Humanism, c. 1400 – 1460. When I have finished that I plan, time and funding permitting, to turn to a project which, as this article mentions, was once mooted by Richard Hunt and Tilly de la Mare: a study of English humanist hands. Already, I have much of the information gathered together, though more and more comes to light – only this last week, in Rome, I found another script which demands inclusion. But more of that another time.