bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard II: a presentation manuscript from Pier Candido Decembrio

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 April, 2018

The opening leaf of Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 23, with the arms of Borso d’Este.

My second report from my new location involves a manuscript that is hardly unknown but which I could not resist making one of the first I studied. It is a copy of four texts by the Milanese humanist Pier Candido Decembrio, made under his guidance for presentation to the duke of Ferrara, Borso d’Este, in the early 1460s. Decembrio, cheer-leader for his city in its opposition to all things Florentine, has been an acquaintance of mine since my graduate days, for, in the late 1430s and early 1440s, he attempted to construct for himself an international reputation by presenting works and sending books to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, as I discussed in my doctoral thesis. So, when I opened up this manuscript and saw before me Decembrio’s script writing the contents list, it had the sensation of a meeting with a familiar friend.

The humanist himself is not, however, the main scribe of this manuscript. As with some of those he made for Humfrey, he called on others to produce the volume but left enough evidence in the volume to show that oversaw its creation. As I explain in my description, his interventions here are multiple, correcting the whole text and adding annotations in some, using different inks for each level of accretion, suggesting he went over the manuscript two or three times. It provides us, then, with interesting detail about the mechanics of presentation — the desire to achieve an elegance which spoke of the cost involved being balanced by a need to personalise, not just in terms of the identity of the recipient but of the author as well.

Textually, this manuscript of importance for being the earliest known copy of his panegyric of his home city, De laudibus urbis Mediolanensis (a work first composed in the later 1430s but, apart from this codex, extant only in two later fifteenth-century manuscripts, in Milan and Brussels). That is a work which demonstrated his patriotism for Milan and his repudiation of Florence’s claims to pre-eminence, for in this panegyric he engages with the Laudatio Florentinae Urbis of Leonardo Bruni, a work which had already gained an international circulation, turning on its head its claims by a process of quotation and revision which, at times, comes close to creative plagiarism.

His expression of independence from Florence was expressed not only in words but in presentation on the page. He knew and acknowledged the reforms of the page promoted by Bruni’s friend, Poggio Bracciolini, but he by no means adopted it fully. In particular, he preferred a much smaller script than was fashionable in Florentine littera antiqua, and an example of this is on display not only in his own interventions but in the main script, which provides a notably compact block of text on the page. At the same time, Decembrio’s scribe here (identified as Gabriel Brepia) is more willing to accept some of the reforms than his commissioner. A key orthographical shift in Florence was the re-introduction of the digraph, demonstrating the presence of the diphthong (usually ‘ae’, sometimes ‘oe’). Here we see a contrast between Decembrio who continues to ignore it and his scribe who adopts a couple of strategies for marking the diphthong (a subscript mark, and a small loop before e). One wonders how far Decembrio condoned the transformation of his text in this detail, and whether he felt his work was succumbing to Florentine influence, even when it expressed its opposition to that city.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 23, fol. 12v – with Decembrio’s rubrication annotation at bottom left. Contrast his lack of digraph with the scribe’s writing of ‘quae’ at ll. 8 and 13.

The Houghton has helpfully digitised the whole manuscript and the iiif images can be viewed in Mirador. All I can add is a description of this important codex (with all the usual caveats about its draft status).


Those damned diphthongs again

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 26 August, 2008

A footnote to one of my earliest aperçus (or posts, if you prefer a more wooden term). The attentive may remember that I mentioned the humanist re-invention of the diphthong, marking the combination of two vowels which make a single sound by writing both of them or eliding them into a digraph. The generations immediately preceding the humanists, wielding the orthographical equivalent of Ockham’s Razor, would have gone for the simpler option of just dropping the first vowel.

Walking through the streets of Leiden yesterday evening, I came across a playful example of over-correction. It was a poster for a forthcoming concert by the consort or band who call themselves The Mediæval Bæbes. It depicted them — appropriately given their chosen name — with décolletage intended to raise an eyebrow or some such. What caught my attention, of course, were those digraphs. They suggest what one would assume anyway: that their chosen name is self-consciously ironic. Their website takes it further and places a suspension mark — the sign that a word has been abbreviated, leaving our a letter or more, like a circumflex in French — over each of the digraphs. That combination of suspension mark and digraph is surely knowing nonsense.

It should be said that ‘medieval’ in English English (the American version is less open to the possibility) can be spelt with the digraph as ‘mediæval’ — and, indeed, reflects pre-gothic medieval uses: in manuscripts in caroline minuscule, the script before the gothic bookhand, the diphthongs were often marked. From what I can tell, the band’s music reflects various influences, including the Celtic tradition, but, in Leiden, the poster was placed alongside other advertisements for concerts which may interest the Netherlandish community of ‘goths’, an audience which surely would demand the digraph be dropped. But then they would be ‘The Medieval Bebes’, which is hardly alluring. On the other hand, as the ‘ae’ diphthong is pronounced close to an ‘i’, saying ‘bæbes’ could end up sounding as if the speaker had a strong West Country accent.

As a footnote to this footnote, I note The Mediæval Bæbes are appearing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival — one hopes no turf-war would break out between ‘Meds’ and ‘Rens.’ At the Festival, guests are asked to decide which dish they consider most evocative of the Renaissance: the choice includes turkey legs and cheesecakes on a stick.

De minimis curat eruditus

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 19 July, 2008

If bonæ litteræ seems a curious title for this blog, think how much more curious it would seem if it read bone littere.

Bonæ litteræ – literally, ‘good letters’ – is well-known in humanist circles as the term favoured by Erasmus to describe polished literature. It was one of a chain of fashionable slogans used by devotees of the humanist enterprise. The earliest, and most enduring, was studia humanitatis, a phrase signifying ‘the studies of what it is to be human’ or, perhaps better, ‘the understanding about how to become truly human.’ The exact meaning matters less than its resonance: this was a phrase in a re-found oration of Cicero’s which could succinctly signify the commitment of a coterie of early quattrocento Florentines to rediscover and revive classical learning. Later in the century – and this is what the textbooks emphasise – studia humanitatis became to signify a defined educational curriculum. At that point, the phrase lost its innovative glow, and other slogans took its place.

The early humanists – men like Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini – not only wanted to write afresh, they wanted their texts to look fresh. And so, there was a reform both of handwriting and of the presentation of the book, with a large display script of separated letters – the origin, when manuscripts turned into printed books, of Roman type – and an insistence that margins should not be stuffed with commentary in a tiny hand but should stand wide and white, so as not to detract from the classical or classicising text in front of the reader. As one small but significant part of this agenda, there was a reform of spelling. In Latin, there are several words which have two vowels together which make one sound, what is called a diphthong. If one of those vowels is missed out, it can transform the word into a completely different one: so, for example, aequus means ‘fair’ or ‘right’, but equus means ‘horse.’ In medieval script, the two words had become indistinguishable as marking the diphthong had fallen into disuse. So, ‘bone littere’ would be a thoroughly medieval name for this blog. The early humanists insisted on returning to the full spelling and writing both vowels, which would give us bonae litterae. But the humanist also tended to elide together the two vowels to signify they should be pronounced as one sound, and the most usual form became that which you see in this title.

In short, it may be that de minimis curat non lex: the law may not be concerned with the tiniest matters – but a scholar certainly should be.