bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain — in one word

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2019


If you had to summarise your book in one word, what would it be? The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain has its official publication date on 2nd May 2019. I have, then, been giving some thought to what my response to the question would be and I think the answer is: cosmopolitanism.

I appreciate that some might me to justify my use of that word. I employ the term in its general sense of involving people from different countries but, the remit of my book, with its cast-list which ranges from St Andrews to Rome and from Majorca to Milan, is rather narrower than the word’s little sense. My use of the concept cannot have the worldwide reach that cosmopolitanism has in present-day philosophy. I could defend my profligate deployment of the term by noting that Diogenes the Cynic, the first person on record to claim he was a cosmopolite, envisaged a world that did not include the Americas or Australasia. I could also point out that The Renaissance Reform draws attention to how humanists saw the British Isles as at the very edge of the world — but I could not claim that those humanists’ vision was so myopic that it stopped at the Mediterranean or that it was oblivious to cultures beyond Western Christendom. Indeed, the interaction of ‘the West’ (as defined by obedience to the pope) with Eastern Christendom impinges on the book’s discussion. Moreover, a sense of the edges of a civilization is intentionally at the borders of its coverage. All that said, The Renaissance Reform cannot pretend to be a contribution to the global Middle Ages. Perhaps, if I had my time again, I might replace ‘cosmopolitan’ with ‘Europolitan’ — a citizen of Europe (with the inclarity of its definition being productive) — except that I see that term has already been appropriated by a Swedish mobile phone company, and I would not want to infringe their copyright.

The emphasis on cosmopolitan in the book is a challenge. The theme of the work is the re-design of the manuscript book, in script and layout, promoted by Florentine humanists at the very start of the fifteenth century and its success among the British. That statement in itself is a provocation, since it is usually assumed that humanism reached England, at its earliest, in the reign of Henry VII and only found glorious summer under the sun of York and Lancaster combined, Henry VIII. In contrast, I insist that there was a sustained tradition of interest from the 1430s which should qualify to be called ‘the English Quattrocento’. This is not to say that the tradition was the sole preserve of roast-beef-eating English-born, or that it grew solely in English soil. On the one hand, there were many immigrants who were central to the promotion of the humanist agenda in England — with the most significant being not Italians but Dutch scribes. On the other, there were Englishmen and Scots who were active in the humanist reforms in their heartland of Italy. These Britons were part of a wider pattern of engagement which, I claim, was integral to the success of the humanist aesthetic for the book. I would go further and say that some were significant not merely in its propagation but in its construction. That is to say, this Renaissance reform originated with a coterie of Florentines but it gained its popularity through international collaborators. The leitmotif was cosmopolitanism at not just the edges of Europe but what was to Italian eyes its epicentre.

Oxford: Balliol College, MS. 310 fol. 32v — Letters of Leonardi Bruni, written in England by the Dutch scribe, Theoderic Werken (1449).

This assertion, for which I give evidence in the monograph and other recent publications, raises a question: why would non-Florentines or non-Italians adopt a script designed to be a local reaction against ‘gothic’ (that is northern European) influence? We tend to see in the humanist bookhand as immersed in a particular set of cultural co-ordinates: the legacy of ancient Rome with its physical presence in Italy (though not much in Florence itself), the humanists’ attempts to revive eloquence both textually and visually. Yet this — I hypothesise — was not primarily what other Europeans saw on the page when viewing a book in the new ‘Roman’ hand. Here, I take cosmopolitan to mean ‘the world’ not in a simple synchronic sense of how it is now but also encompassing its shared inheritance. The humanists, in developing their reform they turned to prototypes of the eleventh and twelfth century — to late caroline minuscule or ‘protogothic’ bookhand. Such prototypes were not, of course, Italian patrimony alone: caroline minuscule, emanating from north-east France and beyond, had been successful across Europe, and ‘protogothic’ had thrived near the shores of the English Channel. That is to say, what non-Italians saw when they looked upon the ‘new’ script, created in its very particular local circumstances, was an acknowledgement of a tradition in which they could see themselves as full partners.

The humanist reform, however, was not a single moment. The bookhand itself developed — in part, thanks to the intervention of ultramontanes. Equally, there was also a ‘second wave’ when, in the north-east of Italy in the mid-quattrocento, what we know of ‘italic’ was invented. That very name, foisted on the script by French and English, suggests its Italian origins, and it worked on viewers in a very different way from the ‘Roman’ hand, since there was not for this any historic precedent to which it returned. While the humanist bookhand was archaising, italic was archaising by metaphor. The result was that this later script’s international success worked differently and was, in its first decades, more dominated by Italians. In The Renaissance Reform, this is presented as a shift in cosmopolitanism but it could be configured otherwise: as a move from Europolitan to Italophile.

Lot 951 - A rare letter to Da Vinci’s patron, with a full signature HENRY VII: (1457-1509) King of England

A royal letter of 1506, signed by Henry VII, written in italic by Pietro Carmeliano (private hands).

As will be clear from what all that I have said, the field of action for this cosmopolitanism is the page. In that sense, detecting it is akin to the sensitivity art historians show to the multiple cultural contacts that shape a Renaissance painting or miniature. In palaeographical terms, cosmopolitanism can stand as a conceit for digraphism or polygraphism. The Renaissance Reform discusses the movement between scripts, and the adoption of humanist elements in gothic scripts; it also muses on how far we can sense a conscious rejection of the reforms when a bookhand shows no humanist influence. I also invoke at one point the concepts of code-switching and code-mixing, but an implication of what I have just said is that, while these may be separate ‘codes’, they could announce, to some eyes, their shared origin, speaking of one graphic tradition that has ramified into many forms.

It could be legitimately said that the ‘some’ just mentioned are only ‘a few’. The Renaissance Reform is very clear that it is talking about a minority among a minority. Most of its characters stood out from the many who were born in the same village or town because these people were highly mobile across Europe. They also were the privileged because they were highly literate, in societies that were majority-illiterate. Cosmopolitanism — citizenship of this ‘world’ — was only for the select. At the same time, a theme that underlies this book is a sense that they themselves sensed their special status and that some were humbled by it. Some, I suggest, took it less as a badge of pride than as a spur to think on the poverty of their own literacy and, indeed, on the limits of their own cosmopolitanism.

William Roscoe and the Wonders of Not Travelling

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 14 June, 2009

A thought came to me as I moved from slumber to wakefulness this unEnglishly warm Sunday morning. As the title suggests it is about William Roscoe, the Liverpudlian banker and Renaissance scholar at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It is nearly a year since the day-conference dedicated to Roscoe in his hometown, at which I spoke on his friend and Poggio’s first modern biographer, William Shepherd. The proceedings of that conference are to be edited by the indomitable Stella Fletcher. A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in organising a rather different workshop, in Oxford and under the aegis of the Europaeum, on historical approaches to Europeanisation. At that workshop, fleeting mention was made to the Grand Tour as a process of Europeanising — and that set me thinking about our Liverpudlian friend.

If Roscoe’s name is remembered, it will be — I suspect — most often recalled for the curious fact that the author of two volumes on the Medici never set foot in the city of their birth or even visited any part of the Italian peninsula. I say ‘curious’: for some scholars, it seems simply inexplicable, for others, it is a source of gentle mockery.  For much of his life, Roscoe had the money to travel and he expressed the desire to see Florence but he never put the effort into actually crossing the Channel and heading towards the Mediterranean. He relied on friends to visit archives and gather information for him in Italy. How could, it is sometimes implied, a man who had never seen the Palazzo Vecchio or the Medici church of San Lorenzo consider himself competent to write about them?

A recent attempt has been made to answer that question; it can be described as the diachronic justification. Roscoe may have chosen not to travel across Europe; he could not but fail to travel across time. And the inability to visit Florence or Rome as they actually were in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was a much greater barrier to comprehension than not touring contemporary Italy. Roscoe, on this analysis, was little more hampered than all historians in appreciating the subject of their studies.

That argument may be correct in logic, though it fails to grapple with an intellectual context that would see a cityscape as the reflection of its people’s spirit. In other words, walking the Florentine streets, however transformed they were from their pristine Renaissance state, would still be able to imbue the perceptive viewer with a sense of the identity that was moulded by and, in turn, moulded its inhabitants.

I do not know whether Roscoe read or knew of Herder, and whether he subscribed to similar ideas of a people’s genius — he certainly did have a sense of Florence’s particular identity, in a way which is a forerunner to Hans Baron’s concept of civic humanism. And he could develop this thinking at a desk far removed from the location about which he was writing. There is, it strikes me, another and more positive way to describe Roscoe’s failure to travel: he may have perceived that culture had developed so far that he did not need to make the journey. After all, his mercantile contacts could ensure that Italian ‘primitive’ paintings could arrive at his door, as could other objets d’art as well as continental books. Those paintings, including  a beautiful-beyond-words Simone Martini now hang in the Walker, not directly by Roscoe’s gift but by the generosity of those who purchased his estate when he fell into dire financial difficulty. The rationale for such a gallery, public or private, as with museums of the same period, was to have available artefacts evocative of distant lands: why would one need to travel abroad when the foreign travelled to England? Or, to put this another way, is it Europeanisation when cultural commerce is so vibrant that Europe can stay at home?

There is the over-used passage from Machiavelli’s letters where he describes retiring in the evening from his daily chores, putting on (metaphorically, we understand) classical garb and conversing in his study with the ancients. He conjures up an image of time-travel through solitude. Perhaps, for Roscoe the non-conformist, there was a similar retreat into contemplation, surrounded by the things of the other world which he visited in his imagination, as he evoked pen-potraits of a place he had seen only in his mind’s eye — if ‘only’ is the right word.