bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

History in Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 September, 2016

Today deserves a little fanfare: the latest instalment of Lost Manuscripts has been made available this morning. There are only 32 new fragments, coming from 19 host volumes, so not a full drum-roll and brass band, please — but some piano trumpetting will not go amiss.

This is the third batch drawn from the collection of Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), a Colchester boy who rose to be Archbishop of York. We must be grateful that he left his library to his hometown, and perhaps equally grateful that the authorities did not look after his books too well: that is, they refrained from hyperactive campaigns of ‘restoration’ and so most of the books are in their early modern bindings, with some usually sensitive repair work done in the 1970s. With those early bindings often come flyleaves and pastedowns from manuscripts. The procedure on the Lost Manuscripts’ website has been the same as before: to give brief descriptions of the bindings, to catalogue the fragments and also, where possible, to bring together separate fragments from the same manuscript and to record that. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, the imaginary location where those physically divorced fragments share an existence as a partially reconstructed manuscript is the city of Babel. The Babel numbers now run up to forty, with twelve new inhabitants appearing today. They include some elegant arrivals — my personal favourite is a full leaf from a fine copy of Moerbeke’s translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics — but others, it must be admitted, turn up looking rather shabbier.

The intention of this project has never been simply to make freely available, in virtual format, information and images of these books, though that is a benefit in itself: if the result of the website is that someone appreciates more fully what can be found in an early modern book, then it has done a service. My aspiration, however, is that over time we can ask much larger historical questions about the death of manuscript culture. We are far away from being able to do that, but I do have a couple of tentative comments which I think deserve investigating further.

1. The long life of tearing up manuscripts

It is already known that, while the heyday of book destruction was the Reformation period, it began long before that and did not end in the mid-sixteenth century. The Harsnett collection itself has examples of this and it goes back much further: it was an element inherent in manuscript culture, new codices sometimes cannibalising older ones, not just through the re-use of parchment, creating palimpsests, but also through the recycling of discarded pages in bindings. The sixteenth century inherited this practice, which was certainly most widespread in the first three quarters of the century. It did, though, continue and not just in Oxford (as is sometimes said). The material used did, in some cases, change, with an increase in recent paper waste, including booksellers’ accounts, being taken out of the rubbish (or the privy) and employed to serve the purpose that parchment manuscript leaves had previously provided. There are, however, other occasions, at the very end of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, when medieval codices were available and were deployed in bindings. In some cases, these were from what must have been quite impressive volumes, being used in known a book-collector’s library: the books of Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) provide notable evidence of this from his time as archbishop of Canterbury (1604 until his death); I will discuss this in more detail another day. Perhaps the manuscripts involved were already too damaged to consider preserving them, but it remains striking that, in this generation of the early antiquaries, destruction could be thought an appropriate process.

2. Not one process but many

What also has intrigued me from the findings we have made so far is the variety of practice. It is obvious that there are differences in use which define the types of fragment that survive: some binders included pastedowns, others had large strips as flyleaves, yet others small reinforcing pieces. There were differences as well in the quality of manuscript, and the parts of it they would employ. In some cases, this must have been governed by issues of availability, a dynamic that must lie behind the increasing use of recent documentary material which I have just mentioned. That, though, would not explain, for instance, the habits of some binders who cut up the manuscript and kept only those pieces with no or minimal text. As some clearly did this consciously, it raises questions about others’ practices: did the provision of an elegant leaf as a pastedown, replete with text and sometimes illumination, say something about the interests or even the loyalties of the binder or of their client? There is a basic opposition in the practices between those which were intended to hide the origin of the material used and those that celebrated it, but even here these describe two extremes of a range of practices. Our intention here must be to get into the mind of the binder when they had the manuscript before them and set about re-using it: we want to recover the impulses that moved their hand as the knife came down upon the parchment.

There are, of course, further issues raised by the increasing amount of evidence that is being gathered, and any comments at this stage must be provisional. But at least we are beginning to know what questions we can ask – and I am confident they will be thought-provoking questions.


Rubens, Justus Lipsius and the significance of books

Posted in Art, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 16 June, 2013

This morning I was to be found in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The purpose was primarily to take in the exhibition ‘Il Sogno nel Rinascimento, one of three important Renaissance-related mostre presently on in the city this summer. ‘Il Sogno’ is intellectually ambitious, musing on the potential associations of dreams with art by considering how painters depicted sleep and its impact on the mind. Perhaps inevitably, the show falls short of the aspirations its originators must have had for it.

But visiting the exhibition also allowed an opportunity to re-visit the riches of the Palazzo’s permanent display. And so, walking through the elegant rooms with their oversupply of paintings, I came face to face with Justus Lipsius:

Pieter Paul Rubens, Justus Lipsius and his students (Florence, Palazzo Pitti)

I cannot claim to have acheived neo-stoic calm in my life, or to be an aficionado of Rubens, yet the painting held my attention today, not because of the artist’s self-portrait or the bust of Seneca above Lipsius, but for the books, specifically those at the front of the table — so close to the front, indeed, that they look as if they should topple off it. That, though, was not what struck me first; rather, it was the combination of books on display. You can clearly see that the bottom one is in a white leather binding, the sort of limp cover we often find today on early modern books. The volume above it is rather different, with brown leather wrapped over thick wooden boards, with the corners finished with pieces of metal. It also has two prominent straps and, less distinctly, a lunette in which the book’s title would have been provided. Incidentally, the arrangement is curious: usually, a lunette sits at the top centre of the lower board, and the straps or clasps also attach to that, rather than the front, but the layout suggested in this picture mean that the board on view must be the upper one. Now, that is not unheard-of in this period — indeed, in Florence itself, many of the Medici volumes in the Laurenziana have such an arrangement — but it is not the norm.

Whatever the implications of that, the main point that caught my eye was the contrast between these two books. Rubens depicts this in the pages of each volume: the lower one has a uniform edge, suggesting efficient cropping, but the pages of the book above are depicted in some detail as being uneven, with some corners curling. What this all suggested to me was that Rubens may not have been portraying just two books but two volumes of markedly different age, one recently printed, the other older and probably a manuscript. If that were his intention it would fit with the composition of the piece and, indeed, enhance its message: notice how the rug placed on the table at front left creates a diagonal line: if you extrapolate that line across the canvas it moves upwards and backwards through the manuscript and on through Lipsius himself ending with the bust of Seneca that sits behind him. The three elements are united in symbolising venerable learning.

But perhaps as well as enhancing the message, it gives it in a more critical edge. I mentioned how the books sit at the very edge of the table, the lower, modern volume jutting out precariously: is the message that old learning when placed on top of new knowledge has uncertain foundations? And, if so, is the unusual arrangement of the binding’s furniture itself a verbal clue to the viewer to think more deeply about the painting’s implications? We can at least be sure that a message that is not fully spoken and which is not uncritical of modern living would not be out of place at the table with neo-stoicism’s founder.

Binding Lorenzetti

Posted in Art, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 26 July, 2010

I have been silent for some while but with, I hope you will agree, a good excuse: there was both a wedding and a honeymoon I had to attend. So, for my first post as a married man, allow me the indulgence of a couple of holiday snaps.

The first stop on the honeymoon was Avignon, where we went to pay homage to the Babylonian captivity of the popes, and stayed to walk in awe through the excellent collection of the Petit Palais. Its riches owe much to what could be described as a nineteenth-century morality tale: the wealth, collecting and precipitous fall from grace of the Marchese Gianpietro Campana, convicted fraudster. The captions in the museum itself do not make clear which pieces come from him and which had been in the city for longer: all I can say is that the Palais is particularly strong in fourteenth-century art, especially of Siena. And it is one of those pieces which I show you today.

Lorenzetti Brothers, The Crucifixion (Avignon, Petit Palais)

It is a panel of The Crucifixion by the Lorenzetti brothers, but it is not to the image itself, fine though it is, that I want to draw your attention. What I found notable was the back of the panel, which was covered in leather, stamped with geometrical patterns in a style which is more often seen on Italian bindings of books. (Good examples of such bindings can be found on the excellent on-line catalogue of the Riccardiana library in Florence).

Verso of Lorenzetti Crucifixion (Avignon, Petit Palais)

Presumably, this panel was once part of a larger piece — a diptych or, perhaps more probably, a triptych (I could not detect the hinges on the wood of the panel). If those sides were also covered in similar leather, the first impression when opening the artwork would have been that it was like opening a book, a Gospel perhaps. Or was it rather that when the owner of a piece like this approached a book, their immediate sensation was that it was like opening their devotional image? Books were more plentiful, certainly, but was it that the experience of the structure in which The Crucifixion was depicted conditioned the user’s response to holding a book, or was it vice versa? I leave you to ponder that as I get back to normal life — or, rather, get back to creating my new normality.