bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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.

Another humanist manuscript worth buying

Posted in Auctions by bonaelitterae on 19 June, 2010

Considering how the vast majority of manuscripts are now in institutional hands , it is exciting whenever a codex, previously unknown or unavailable, appears on the market. This year has already provided one discovery thanks to an auction house. Now, there is another, to be sold at Sotheby’s in London on 6th July.

Few may share the tingling sensation that courses through me when seeing the images of this book, but let me try to convince you of its interest.  The first folio, I will admit, is distracting — a case of what might be called creative vandalism with the ill-advised addition of an over-heavy and over-colourful border in the eighteenth century. It detracts from the original understated illumination often seen in humanist manuscripts, in this case in a style of interlace placed on a gold background typical of north-east Italy. In this there is little that it is unusual, nor is its content — Hegesippus, De Excidio Iudaeorum, copied — a matter of great surprise. Similarly, that the book is signed by its scribe does not make it stand out from the hundreds that are likewise revealing of their parentage, but the identity of this scribe is what makes this most interesting. It is not that he is well-known: ‘Petrus Lomer’ signs only two manuscripts in public libraries, one in Verona and one in Padua. But he was not a native of either of those cities, and rather one of the northern European scribes who mastered littera antiqua. The Sotheby’s catalogue rightly notes that the illumination to the manuscript in the Capitolare in Verona [MS. CCXXXIV (221)] is English in origin; in fact (pace the catalogue), so are the simpler initials in the manuscript, also in a capitular library, that of Padua, which is a copy of Salutati’s De Seculo et Religione [MS. C 78]. But we can not infer from this, as the catalogue does, that Mr Lomer was in fact an Englishman. In the manuscript in Verona, a copy of Giles of Rome’s popular speculum prinicipis, the De Regimine Principum, the scribe adds a table of contents, ending it with the words ‘Petrus Lomer de Colorna Deo gratias Ave Maria’. The place-name has been mistranscribed twice, and never satisfactorily explained – Orbis Latinus does not help, but the most likely explanation is that it refers to Cologne. Such an origin would fit well with both the sound of the scribe’s surname and the aspect of his script, an accomplished humanist bookhand which tends to add spiky elements to enhance its calligraphy.

So, there was a scribe, probably of German origin, who (we already knew) was at work in England. We might ask how his manuscripts got to Italy — and the copy of Giles of Rome provides something of an answer to that question, though it has not before been noticed. In that manuscript, some of the chapter headings are rubricated not by the main scribe but by another hand which I can identify as Tito Livio Frulovisi, who was secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in the late 1430s (thus making the manuscript datable). His successor in that role was a humanist whom I have also had cause to mention before — Antonio Beccaria, translator of Plutarch, Athanasius and, indeed, Boccaccio. Beccaria spent about eight years or more in England and then returned to his hometown of Verona, where he became a member of the circle around Bishop Ermolao Barbaro. Is it too much to wonder whether Beccaria returned to Italy with one or both of the manuscripts that Lomer had copied in England?

Perhaps it is. My journeys in the crepuscular realm of manuscript provenance have taught me at least this: Ockham’s razor is a blunt instrument. The simple, the obvious, the logical is all too often just wrong. In the case of Lomer, the volume now on sale interestingly complicates the issue. As already mentioned, this manuscript was not illuminated in England: the catalogue suggests Padua, c. 1460 — while the dating is surely about right, the origin of the initials could equally be Verona. The dating is about twenty years later than the other two manuscripts:  if the initials are contemporaneous to the copying of the text, this would give us more information of the career of Lomer, suggesting he moved to Italy. If so, did he take his ‘English’ manuscripts with him? Or did he travel with Beccaria?

What, in fine, is exciting is that this does not answer questions but poses them. It complicates the information we have, and reminds us how little we know. The manuscript itself may answer some of the queries it sets: it would be interesting to know the quality of parchment used, which would help to ascertain its place of copying, and it would be immensely helpful to study the marginalia, the few examples of which displayed in the Sotheby’s catalogue enticingly suggest they are in a hand familiar to me. I say ‘would’ — the sale occurs while I am on honeymoon, and it is unlikely that I will be able to visit London before then. Nor do I think my future wife will be pleased if I make a bid for a manuscript that would mean re-mortgaging the house. So, will these mysteries be solved?

The first humanist oration delivered by an Englishman?

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 11 November, 2009

I am not really one for recording ‘firsts’, just as I try to avoid the Romantic propensity to desire to identify an author by name — ‘anon.’ is for me as noble a designation as any; ‘firsts’ need only recording in Books of Records. But I have just made a discovery — a small one — so indulge me this once.

As I have mentioned before, I have been preparing an appendix of previously unpublished texts for the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England. They include two orations by the Veronese humanist Antonio Beccaria, secretary to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. They were both written in 1444 and both relate to the negotiations surrounding Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou. Weiss noted their existence in his addenda but did not linger long on them; they have not received scholarly attention since. They are not unaccomplished with some fine rhetorical turns, but what has recently interested me is the question of whether Beccaria, the stated author, was in fact their orator. I began to wonder about this when I thought more closely about the title given to the first speech; the phrasing in one of the two manuscripts reads ‘Oratio exhortatoria ad pacem ad regem francie per legatos regis anglie composita per antonium beccariam veronensem’ — phrasing that suggests that Beccaria may have composed the oration in order for it to be delivered by one of the English delegation to France, led by the Earl of Suffolk, in May 1444. Considering the membership of that delegation, I was struck by the presence of Adam Moleyns, then dean of Salisbury and Keeper of the Privy Seal, later to be raised to the episcopacy only to have his life just short by the rebels of 1450.  What is more, he is remembered, in the words of the Oxford DNB, as ‘one of the most respected of the few English humanist scholars of his day’. In truth, that respect did not add up to much: a passing reference to his humanitas in a letter of Poggio Bracciolini’s (also in the appendix I am providing) and lukewarm praise for his eloquence from Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini. But could Moleyns have actually been the voicebox for Beccaria’s prose?

My hunch has become more likely when I looked further at the context of the second oration, given at the Convocation of Canterbury of October 1444. Checking that useful recent resource, the printed Records of Convocation, edited by Gerald Bray, there is a reference to lords attending on behalf of the king, led by the duke of Exeter and including Adam Moleyns, who, it is said, ‘satis eleganter aperuit … [et] apertissime delcaravit’ the king’s need for a grant to support his wedding celebrations. This is an unmistakable reference to the speech written by Beccaria — or should I say ghost-written? It seems to me highly likely that both speeches were composed by the humanist for delivery by Moleyns, thus making by my calculation Moleyns to be the first Englishman to utter the new Ciceronian Latin on an embassy or in Convocation.

The interest of this, of course, goes beyond the matter of a ‘first’. It throws both light and shadow on Moleyns himself: it provides evidence for a previously unnoticed association with Beccaria, but it also raises questions over how far praise of his eloquence was aimed at the wrong target: how far was his humanist learning, as it were, a thing but lent? It also gives more information about Antonio Beccaria, who was, it seems, available for hire, able to write speeches for those who asked (and, perhaps, paid) — only, it should be remembered,for him  to efface the name of the actual orator when recording or circulating ‘his’ orations. At the same time, it puts Beccaria in his place, so to speak: Weiss had imagined that Beccaria may have entered royal service, assuming, one infers, that he himself gave these addresses. But, clearly, a humanist in person was not significant enough to have that task — speech writers are a lower sort even than Victorian children: they should not be seen and only heard through more distinguished voices.

Lost Plutarch Lives, lost Humfrey manuscripts

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 9 July, 2009

As I have mentioned recently, I am working away on providing addenda and corrigenda to Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England, which, forty years after its author’s death, is to be resurrected virtually, as it were, with an on-line edition on the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature website. It has given me the opportunity to bring together some shards of information which help clarify, if not fully resolve, some quandaries. Here is one of those.

Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, owned several manuscripts of Latin translations of Plutarch’s Vitae, some of which he gave to the University of Oxford, in his donation of 1444, and one of which, as we shall see, was shipwrecked in Cambridge after his death. The relevant booklists have been or are being edited in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (that for Oxford by Rod Thomson, and that for King’s, Cambridge, already published, by Peter Clarke); I use the sigla of that series in the following notes. I will also cite the invaluable guide to the Latin Plutarch recently published by Marianne Pade and which I have discussed elsewhere.

Two of Humfrey’s Plutarch manuscripts are known now to survive. One is London: BL, MS. Harl. 3426, a set of translations by Leonardo Bruni, given to Oxford (UO3.97); the other Oxford: Magdalen College, MS. 37 (A), including renditions by the little-known (and less-loved) Antonio Pacini. This latter codex does not appear in Humfrey’s gifts to the University. Several other inventory entries attest to manuscripts that are now lost, like, for instance the mention of a Vita Pelopidae (UO3.100), which must be the translation produced by Humfrey’s secretary, Antonio Beccaria of Verona, and dedicated to Pietro del Monte (Pade, i, pp. 221 – 23 & ii, pp. 70 – 71). Another example occurs in the inventory of King’s College, Cambridge, probably made in 1457.

Here I should enter a caveat: as it is known that King’s asked for books owned by Humfrey on his death to be donated to the new college and as two surviving manuscripts from the King’s inventory (Cambridge: King’s College, MS. 27 and London: BL, MS. Harl. 1705) are, indeed, Humfrey books, it has sometimes been assumed that his library was given wholescale to King’s. This is demonstrably incorrect: probably only a small proportion of Humfrey’s collection reached Cambridge, as is shown by the fortunes of several of the prince’s other books; and only a proportion of the books listed in 1457 came to King’s from the chattels of the late duke of Gloucseter. But, having said all that, there is one lost book, formerly owned by King’s, that we can say for certain came from the duke’s palace of Greenwich. The entry reads ‘Vita Agidis et Cleomenis Lacedemoniorum regum…’ (UC29.154), which the modern editor, Peter Clarke, identifies as ‘Plutarch, Vita Agidis et Cleomenis, probably as tr. Antonio Beccaria (together with nine other of the lives)’. I think we should delete the word ‘probably’ , and the clause in parantheses.

The evidence Peter Clarke has in mind is a passage in a lively late-fifteenth-century eulogy of Vittorino da Feltre, schoolmaster to princes and to humanists like Beccaria. In it, the author, another of his pupils, Francesco Prendilacqua, takes the opporunity to praise Beccaria, and lists his works, which, he says, include translations of:

Vitas ex Plutarcho XI Romuli, Thesei, Solonis, Demetrii, Agidis, Cleomenis, Pelopidae, Coriolani, Alcibiadis, Timoleontis, Eumenis [F. Prendilacqua, De Vita Victorini Feltrensis Dialogus, ed. J. Morelli (Padua, 1774), pp. 66 – 67]

This list has sometimes been considered suspect and, certainly, for some of these translations there is no independent evidence, but Beccaria certainly did, as we have already seen, put into Latin while in England the Pelopidas, as well as the Romulus (even though that version, even including the dedication to Humfrey, was cribbed from Giovanni Tortelli). As the only other known translation of the Agis & Cleomenes was made in the late 1450s, after the production of the King’s catalogue, we should give Prendilacqua credence and be confident that the entry refers to Beccaria’s translation.

However, we should not entertain the suggestion that the King’s manuscript included all of the humanist’s renditions of Plutarch. That is, in fact, an impossibilty, since two of Beccaria’s known renditions of Plutarch, the Alcibiades paired with the Coriolanus, were composed about a decade after the humanist had returned to his homeland [Pade, i, pp. 323 – 26]. Nor would this suggestion sit well with what we can surmise of Beccaria’s habits. We know a fair amount about how Antonio Beccaria worked, because we have some other of his translations, from St. Athanasius, in his holograph, in London: BL, MS. Royal. 5 F. II and Cambridge: King’s, MS. 27. You can know see Beccaria’s script on-line, thanks to the generosity of the British Library. The manuscript now in the Royal collection is formed of booklets and it appears that he presented the work to his master, Humfrey, section by section: he practised the rule of small gifts often, rather than outsize presents irregularly. In that case, the booklets were gathered together and presented as one volume to Oxford (UO3.21). But, in the case of his Plutarch versions, the evidence of the book-list would suggest that each Life was kept separately and appears as a separate entry.

I have talked of there being ‘some’ lives are in the 1444 Oxford book-list. I have mentioned two, for both of which Humfrey’s copy is lost: Pelopidas, and Romulus (UO3.105). Immediately following the second entry, there is another (UO3.106), one which has left scholars, including myself, scratching our heads. It refers to a ‘Vita Demetrii’ — but the only known translation of Plutarch’s life of Demetrius comes from the end of the 1450s. However — and here is the point of this intricate discussion — look at the list from Prendilacqua above: he states that his former class-mate at Vittorino’s school translated this very work. The explanation for the entry, then, is that it was another Plutarch Vita translated by Humfrey’s Veronese secretary, presented to the duke and given away by him only a few years later.

This identification allows us to make a further, tentative suggestion. Note the ordering of Prendilacqua’s list. It would not seem to have any rationale in relation to the subjects of the Lives themselves and, of course, it could simply be random. But it is usually assumed that the Romulus was the first text presented by Beccaria to Humfrey in the late 1430s, and the Pelopidas is tentatively dated to 1441 – 2, while it is known, as I have mentioned, that the Alcibiades and Coriolanus were translated in the late 1450s. Might the list be in chronological order of translation? If so, it would suggest that Antonio Beccaria also rendered Plutarch’s Vitae of Solon and of Theseus into Latin while in England — versions which, like several others he produced, are lost.

The identification of Humfrey’s Vita Demetrii as being by Beccaria does away with the need to muse, as Marianne Pade does [i, pp. 254 – 56], about whether Guarino could have sent to Humfrey a translation of the Demetrius but which no longer survives. Guarino certainly wrote a letter to the duke, which may have been accompanied by a manuscript of Plutarch translations. Pade suggests that it might have included a collection of Guarino’s versions plus the Lucullus translated by Guarino’s pupil, Leonardo Giustiniani. If so, it would equate with the 1444 reference to ‘vitam Timonis et Lucilli 2o fo. hominibus (UO3.91, where the lectio probatoria appears in Giustiniani’s preface [Pade, ii, p. 120]). But there were other routes by which the Giustiniani, a popular translation, could have reached England, and if Guarino did send a manuscript with his letter, it may instead have been of his translation of Plutarch’s moral essays, one of which was certainly available in Oxford in the mid-1440s.

This brings me to my final point: the strange death of the Lives in England. Humfrey’s library shared the interest in Plutarchan biography that was fashionable in Italian humanist circles. But the taste at the ducal palace in Greenwich was no trail-blazer in England: interest in that aspect of Plutarch was surprisingly limited this side of the channel. It was, indeed, the moral essays that entertained Humfrey’s compatriots more. The neglect that eventually saw several translations of Plutarch vanish began soon after the duke of Gloucester’s own demise.

Can we trust Wikipedia?

Posted in Blogography, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 5 October, 2008

The wickedness of Wikipedia is a common theme — the worry that students garner their information from the on-line encyclopedia, at the expense of ‘real’ work, undertaken surrounded by piles of printed tomes. We have all heard the urban myths of lecturers going on the internet to add intentionally false entries to Wikipedia so that they can catch their students if they plagiarise. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but should every good scholar ignore it completely?

First of all, let us not become protective of print encyclopedias, which often fall far below the level of extensive, unquestionable knowledge that we naively expect of them. I should know, I have edited an encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I would rate only two printed volumes: the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Hale, and the more recent and wide-ranging Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance by Gordon Campbell. To warn students off a true-ready reliance on what they read in print, I am fond of quoting an example from another encyclopedia of the Renaissance, one which sits quietly on the open shelves of the Bodleian and which states: ‘Petrarch was the first man to use the Latin term humanismus.’ As there is no such word in Latin, as it is a German term invented in the early nineteenth century, and as Petrarch did not employ any word or phrase cognate with humanismus, this is utter nonsense. Piffle. Twaddle. Moonshine. Balderdash. Codswallop. And claptrap. In short, hard copy does not equal hard facts.

What, of course, printed reference works do claim is some sort of academic recommendation, supplemented by the reputation of a worthy publisher: thus, the lists of advisors that appear at the front of any volume (completed with university affiliations), a page or so after the imprimatur of the publisher. These may encourage confidence where none should exist, but they do at least demonstrate a link, however tenuous, with academia. Wikipedia lacks such a patena of respectability, presenting itself instead as the standard-bearer of on-line democracy, encouraging anybody to contribute. In those areas of life which attract attention on the internet, this can create clashes, ‘vandalism’ and repeated re-writings without necessarily any improvement in veracity — but, then, we are not interested in articles on Britney Spears or which is the best George Clooney film (Michael Clayton, by the way). Most of the articles of interest to a student of the Renaissance are not battlefields in the same way: a reader is more likely to be caught out by accidental error than caught in the crossfire between contributors reflected in an entry.

Wikipedia has developed its own rules of engagement for contributors, centring on providing a NPOV (a Neutral Point of View). But there is a curious result from this: Wikipedia is consciously, achingly non-hierarchical but it can certainly be deferential. For example, the discussion board for contributors about Machiavelli has one of them objecting to a sentence in the entry because it makes assertions ‘Without reference to a reliable academic source‘ [their italics]. As another contributor points out, there is much about Machiavelli which is controversial within academia, but there does seem to be a tendency in Wikiworld to seek external justification for what is said by reference to the supposedly impartial truth found in the writings of academics. It leaves little room to realise that even the driest historical monograph can hide bias, blindspots and mistakes behind its dour binding.

There is an added issue with Wikipedia which is worth mentioning: it is not one but several encyclopedias. It exists in all the major European languages, including Latin, but the text in each language can be separate from that in others. Sometimes, an article is simply translated but often that is not the case. This can create some oddities: the character Burckhardt celebrated as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, has a stub of an entry in Latin with an external link — to his works in Italian; the corresponding Italian entry does not provide that link; and neither of these lead the reader to those Latin texts which are available on-line at the Biblioteca Italiana site. In other cases, if one only looked at the English entry, you would come away with only very limited information: for another humanist of the early quattrocento, Guarino da Verona, the most detailed articles are those in Italian and German. More generally, the rule for the reader should be that if you are interested in a subject, check the article in the range of languages listed in the left-hand bar of Wikipedia: even if you can not fully grasp the text, the links provided could lead you to more information than you could gain by only reading one version.

My own impression, having spent some time looking over a range of Renaissance articles on Wikipedia, is that the limitation most often is not as much inaccurate  as incomplete information. In the entries for Alberti, the English version has a list of works which is highly truncated — a reader would be in a dangerous land if they assumed that the article provided a sufficient base of knowledge. There may be a seemingly counter-intuitive principle in play: the more obscure a character, the more likely it is that the Wikipedia entry (if there is one) will present useful information. In some cases, of course, Wikipedia simply will not have any entry: I have recently sent off an article on an interesting humanist, Antonio Beccaria, who spent some years in England; he does not appear on the website. On the other hand, I have also written about the even less well-known Tito Livio Frulovisi, who does have a fairly good article — because (I admit it, gentle reader) I put it there. For the more recherché, if somebody has bothered to post an article, they are likely to have put some effort into doing it.

The inverse of this is that the better-known characters can not be as well served. So, Machiavelli himself has, in English, a long entry with a useful listing of his works. But the text makes some significant errors. For instance, looking at it this morning, I noticed it states that he considered The Prince his magnum opus. I can see how the contributor made this assumption — the famous letter to Vettori in which he describes his method of composition gives a sense of Machiavelli’s depth of engagement in the project at the time of writing — but it hardly fits with the fortunes of the text in his own lifetime: it circulated in manuscript, but, like the Discourses was only printed after his death. The only text that Machiavelli actively promoted himself by having it printed was one which we study much less nowadays, his Art of War. That work, and his History of Florence, hardly get a mention in this English Wikipedia article. A fuller treatment of his life, with some useful quotations, appears in Italian, though again attention is directed to a minority of his works.

If the guideline is, the bigger the name, the lower the value of the article, there’s another that can be added: names are better than things. Wikipedia is weaker talking about concepts than about characters. Take ‘civic humanism’, Hans Baron’s master-concept used to describe a tradition of Florentine republican justification: it does not appear in an article on its own, but instead the reader is re-directed to ‘classical republicanism’. This does not give much room to highlight the controversy which surrounds ‘civic humanism’. The wider concept of Renaissance humanism comes off even worse: the entry is hardly worth reading.

Yet, we should return to the comparison with print encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s sins are, in many ways, unoriginal: its weaknesses are the ones you could also find in most older encyclopedias. They too are often weakest on concepts, and least satisfying when they are talking about the most famous — and, so, most controversial — characters. What, of course, they often have lacked is the ability to develop. The future of reference works, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica knows, is on-line, where information can be added and corrected. A comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia suggests that, for our area, each has some advantages over the other: of the characters we have talked about, Machiavelli has a judicious article in Britannica, but most other humanists receive only a insubstantial summary. Even a significant figure like Leonardo Bruni is treated in this way, while Wikipedia gives more information (though it is, at present, skewed towards only a few of his works). In Britannica, the lesser humanists I mention are featured not at all. Where, of course, Wikipedia has a singular advantage is that it has the ability not just to be corrected: you can do the correcting.

So, if I should end by answering the question I set myself: of course we should not trust Wikipedia, just as we would not trust any other work or source. As historians, we trust nobody. But that does not mean we don’t use them and learn from them. The advice to students must be: read but read carefully. The advice to academics should be: if you don’t like something, change it. Admittedly, some entries might be beyond redemption but that is the case for a very few dealing poorly with concepts. Most are capable of improvement — and it is our job to do it. So, as I said, this morning the Machiavelli article talks erroneously of The Prince being his magnum opus. By this evening, I will make sure it does not anymore.