bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Roma caput mundi

Posted in Renaissance Studies, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 February, 2012

I have been chided for not adding anything to this site recently. It is not that I have refrained from writing; simply that the well-turned phrases are composed in my mind. That, and the recent distractions of being in Rome, albeit briefly.

The Rinascimento a Roma exhibition, held in the cramped space of the Palazzo Sciarra, tells the familiar tale of exuberant creativity in the generation of Michelangelo and Raphael, followed by despair in the wake of the Sack of Rome and then the renewed religious fervour we call the Counter-Reformation. To be fair, some of the show’s display might raise questions about that well-known narrative: the desolation of 1527 did not stop Maarten van Heemskerck travelling there a few years later and painting a penitent Jerome surrounded by a capriccio of the gargantuan remains of ancient Rome; Paul III saw no conflict between austere piety and the ostentation of his family residence, the Palazzo Farnese. But the exhibition appears comfortable living in a familiar world of clichés.

A cliché about clichés is that there are oft-repeated because they have a kernel of truth. So it may be: an early section of the exhibition talks of Rome in the early sixteenth century being the centre of the world, the caput mundi. I had seen evidence to support this statement just a few days earlier. Within the embrace of the ancient circular church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, out on the Celian Hill, beyond SS Giovanni and Paolo, there is a memorial slab to a member of the curia, the Hungarian Janos Lazai, who died on 17th August 1523. The inscription beneath his feet draws attention to the fact of his foreignness and asks the viewer not to wonder how he came to be here — for Rome is the homeland of everyone.

Inscription on the monument to Janos Lazai, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome

Rome as a universal homeland — acknowledgement, surely, even in the first years of the Reformation, of its long-standing status as caput mundi. And, yet, what struck me was that the author of the lines imagined that the viewer might be surprised to see a Hungarian here, and might need to be told Romana est patria omnium. Was this particularly trite when it was written or was it expressing a truth only then becoming to be acknowledged?

Of course, Rome as the centre of the then only church had a long charisma. Even in the Avignonese years, it was still a centre for pilgrimage and it was promoted as such by the declaration of a jubilee in 1350, when travel to the relevant sites would gain the pilgrim plenary indulgence. And during the Schism, still the devout would make their way to worship at the apostolic shrines — so much so in 1400 that, in effect, an unofficial jubilee occurred.

Yet, at the same time, the papacy’s grasp on Rome was weak and liable to slip, as it did when Eugenius IV had to feel the city up the Tiber, his boat being pelted with stones.  It was over a decade before he returned to his ‘capital’. His successor, Nicholas V, worked to glorify the city in architecture and ritual — he declared a jubilee for 1450 — but this did not save him from the threat of conspiracy in 1453. His courtiers celebrated Rome as the centre of the world; his successors continued his policy but one wonders how permanently a pope felt secure in his palace in a restive city, which for most of them, was alien. Perhaps, even in the early sixteenth century, the repeated statements of Rome’s pre-eminence were less an expression of an obvious truth than an aspiration, a pious desire never quite rid of doubt. Rome was as much a project as it was a place.

There was an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Roman

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 March, 2011

One of the requirements of the Paul Mellon Centre fellowship I currently hold is to give a public lecture at the British School at Rome. This took place last Wednesday. It is always a pleasure to speak at the BSR — and the dinner afterwards is always a lively affair!

Asked by the vivacious Deputy Director of the School, Sue Russell, for a lecture title at the start of the year, I could think of nothing better than the title of my present research topic and so called it ‘The English Hand in Rome: Barbarous Britons and the Renaissance Arts of the Book’. As it turned out, my talk was just as much about Scotsmen as it was about anyone south of the border that divides Great Britain. That was because I have been finding interesting information about Scottish scribes active in Rome in the 1450s. So, the Englishman, Scotsman and Roman mentioned above were John Lax, George of Kynninmond and — this is rather a cheat — Flavio Biondo.

John Lax was, some contemporaries would have claimed, Lax by name and lax by nature. He was a controversial figure but at the height of his fortunes, in the mid-1450s, he was a papal secretary and a lynch-pin of the two English hospices in Rome. That is well-known, but what has been less noted is his mastery of humanist cursive and his use of it in manuscripts, combining it, sometimes on the same folio, with sections in a gothic cursive script. One of the questions I set myself for my lecture was why he, as it were, flick-switched between the two scripts.

George of Kynninmond is also a known, if minor, name — a scribe who was active in Rome in the 1450s who mastered the fashionable littera antiqua. I have recently had the good fortune both to be able to track down previously unnoticed manuscripts signed by him in the Vatican, and to reconstruct more fully his career. But I have had even better fortune in making contact with Daniela Gionta of the University of Messina, who has made a yet more exciting discovery that sheds further light onto his intellectual interests. I will let her tell that part of the tale herself, in her article forthcoming in Studi medievali e umanistici. Suffice it to say that it connects him to other humanist activities, alongside and complementary to his acting as copyist.

Calling Flavio Biondo a Roman would, of course, be to rob Forli of one of its sons — but, then, Biondo’s time in the papal curia and the nature of his writing, much of which described and praised the city of the popes, ties his identity close to Rome. The interest to me of Biondo was as a way in to understanding the significance of the British presences in quattrocento Rome. The city was the location of the popes but, of course, that was not as secure as we might think with hindsight — the long ‘captivity’ in Avignon, the Great Schism, the flight of Eugenius IV less than twenty-five years after the return of the unified papacy to Rome and, indeed, the Porcari Conspiracy of 1453 all should remind us how uncertain mid-quattrocento observers may have been about the popes’ continuing presence there. But — and this is the point — any such insecurity is hidden in Biondo’s praise of Rome; his Latin may often be criticised for not acheiving humanis elegance but he had mastered the persuasiveness of their rhetoric. And one crucial way in which he praised Rome was by claiming that it attracted people from all the world — even from Britain — to it, with those foreigners accepting that Rome is the mistress of the world.

Biondo’s description may tell us more about the way in which humanist constructed the concept of what is praiseworthy than the social ‘reality’ of Rome. In particular, it evokes a sort of imperialism, with other peoples’ submitting to Rome’s supremacy. It constructs humanism itself as an international enterprise but one which is centripetal, dragging others into Rome’s ambit. This is one element of what is occurring but it strikes me that what he, and other humanists, claim also hides other elements of that international enterprise — and one of those elements is how the cosmopolitan community that came to define Rome engaged with or intervened in the core humanist practice of book-creation.

I hope, at some point soon, to write up my paper as an article (or two). In the meantime, I am putting on-line my handout so that it can see some of the materials I used in my discussion.