bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Never read once

Posted in Academic Practices, Reading by bonaelitterae on 30 March, 2020

I have a morning when what I have published is unwriting itself. I am working on a long-overdue article which should be a simple write-up of a plenary lecture given two years ago. In challenging myself, however, to think deeper and go further, I am realising how superficial I have been in what I have already allowed to go out to the world. Reviewers to date have been very kind to The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain; I would be much harsher.

The first chapter of that book is entitled ‘The Eloquent Page’, which encapsulates a point central to my argument: the Quattrocento humanists in reforming how the page looked did so in the belief that the presentation of a text was not extrinsic to its meaning but essential to its expression. For words to be beautiful, they need not only to sound so (in the mind’s ear) but also to be pleasing to the eye. If, in other words, one wants to write with eloquence, it is not just about a phrase being well-turned; it must be also be well turned out on the page. In pursuit of this visual expression of eloquence, the humanists believe they had found their paradigm via a re-invention of an earlier style of script. Their assumption was that, just as a particular idiom of Latin was, for them, the best method of communication, so this new old bookhand, the littera antiqua, was not simply a good possibility but the best.

I stand by all these claims but what has struck me today is how much more persuasive I could have made them. The article I am writing touches on how humanist texts praise of the built environment. What I have come to appreciate and regret is that I missed a trick in Renaissance Reform in not drawing a parallel between ideas of a well-designed building and what we can call the architecture of the page. Fundamental to both of them is the sense of proportion, and it was clearly that perception of balance, through which comes harmony, that attracted the humanists to their littera antiqua.

I could say, in my defence, that making such an association would have been in danger of disrespecting chronology: in the development of the revived styles, the page came before the Palazzo Rucellai or the Pazzi Chapel. The humanists did not need to think — indeed, could not think — of architectural prototypes for their reforms, whereas later Brunelleschi or Ghiberti could not but have been conscious of the re-design of the page as setting an exemplar for their own innovations. I might also say that, perhaps partly in response to developments in the art of the built, a hyper-sensitivity to the proportions of the page appeared in the second half of the fifteenth century, when scribes like Bartolomeo Sanvito began to show a concern for the golden ratio. A perception of the importance of proportion, then, was integral to the early humanists’ reform, but turning that into a science came later than the main focus of my discussion.

Either of those defences, though, is weak when set against my obvious failure. The associations had been expressed with exquisite eloquence by Ernst Gombrich in his classic essay ‘From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of Arts’. When I say ‘classic’, I mean both in the public sense that it is often republished and highly regarded and also in a more private way: it is an essay which I read first early in my days of doctoral research and which was fundamental to my intellectual development. I remember cheering its anti-Hegelianism, being enthralled by its delineation of a human community, feeling the thirst to read as much Gombrich as possible. I have still on my wall a quotation from him, which I have written out in a tidy script which I stopped being able to achieve quarter of a century ago:

I learned what I should have always have known, that the past was not people by abstractions but by men and women

If I turn, though, to my recent monograph and check the bibliography, I find no mention of his name. It is true that you will also not found there a reference to Michel de Certeau, who is another (but more recent) strong influence of what I have written. Perhaps it is the case that the deepest debts are the ones that cannot be expressed. I still accuse myself, though, and find myself guilty of ingratitude. I take some comfort that I am alone in this specific oversight: there is an important recent doctorate on the humanist reform of script and one which we should hope soon appears in print, by Philippa Sissis, and she provides ample citation to Gombrich. At least my failing is peculiar to me but that does not exonerate me.

I also know how this failure occurred: I read as I live life — I savour and then I move on. I rarely return to re-read, and if I do re-read it is sometimes because I have forgotten I ever seen it in the first place. I know, in this instance, that I did return to Gombrich’s article several times, so it transfused itself into my mental apparatus, but I must to have come to assume that my recall would be perfect and I would have nothing to regain by revisiting it again. Perhaps, in privileging further reading, I have lived by the assumption that it is better to have read and lost of the memory of it than never to have read it at all. Today, in contrast, I have come to realise the truth of the famous passage in Seneca’s Letters:

Distringit librorum multitudo; itaque cum legere non possis quantum habueris, satis est habere quantum legas.

He is surely not talking of reading as the eye gliding over the page but the sort of intensive study which comes only with frequent re-acquaintance. Perhaps it is better than never to have read than to have read only once. Maybe this should be an article of faith for the virtuous pursuit of slow scholarship.

Will the real Renaissance please stand up?

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 2 October, 2011

Last month I received notice of a conference which I am sure proved stimulating but which I could not attend as I was then in Rome. What caught my attention, however, were the first words of the promotional e-mail:

While Renaissance and Early Modern Studies are focused on the two and a half centuries between 1500 and 1750,…

I must admit that it took me some time to move beyond that comma. Has the Renaissance that I study been abolished? Have we returned to calling Piero della Francesca or Andrea Mantegna ‘Primitives’ and now see art beginning only with Michelangelo and his followers? Since I have been away, has it been decided that humanism now starts only with Filippo Beroaldo the Younger and leaves out the generations of Leonardo Bruni and Pomponius Laetus? More to the point: what Renaissance after 1500? From where I am standing, it is mostly over, bar the shouting (between back-biting editors)  – and that soon turned into the burnings of the Reformation. What brave new world is this?

When I explain my work, I sometimes describe my area of study as that part of the Middle Ages that we call the Renaissance. I do not say it because I believe in the essence of the ‘medieval’ any more than I have faith in the existence of ‘modernity’ but rather because most of the achievements we would recognise as ‘Renaissance’ – think of Brunelleschi’s dome capping Florence’s cathedral, Alberti’s design for the Palazzo Rucellai, Donatello’s statues of David, the art of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Lippi father and son, the new classicising Latin of Bruni or Poggio, the reform of manuscripts begun in the same circle, the establishment of libraries from San Marco in Florence to the Malatestiana in Cesena and the papal library in Rome, the philological work of Lorenzo Valla or Politian, the teaching of Guarino or Vittorino da Feltre the first sales from the Aldine press – fall within the fifteenth century. And that century, as we know, sits in most faculty corridors or on bookshop shelves within that millennium of civilisation that follows the Fall of Rome. Such distinctions necessarily simplify – we might not now believe Italian creativity dies with the invasions from 1494, or even with the re-born Sack of Rome in 1527 – but we might wonder how long into the sixteenth century lasts that cycle of fashions and their fruitful combination that marked the quattrocento.

I will be accused of being obtuse: the term ‘Renaissance’ is surely being used with the meaning of ‘cultural flowering’ which sprouts in many parts of Christendom. But is such ‘flowering’ solely the province of the sixteenth century? Could not late medieval England boast of its tre corone – Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate – and celebrate the architecture of the likes of Richard Winchcombe, or the artistry of Nottingham alabasters? Would not Castile look earlier to the vernacular achievements of its three cultures in the time of Alfonso X? And, in the fifteenth century, the would-be nation of Burgundy has been described as having in its heyday its own Renaissance, and one which with its skill in oil paintings and tapestry found buyers in Italy. In Italy itself, why talk of creativity only in quattrocento or cinquecento terms: are Giotto, the Cosmati family, Pietro Cavallini, Dante and Mussato all to be forgotten? It does not seem obvious to me that these was unprecedented creativity that marks out the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – new markets, following the economic reorganisation created by the Black Death, and new technologies, most notably in print, certainly, but not necessarily new genius after a winter (or an autumn) of cultural decay.

Of course, it may be then said, the ‘Renaissance’ was a particular type of cultural flowering which began in Italy and slowly oozed out of the peninsula, eventually to stain all of Europe (meaning, most often, western Europe and paying less heed to culture in, say, Krakow or Buda). This is a claim with a long tradition – the Italian humanists themselves, like Polydore Vergil, liked to talk of the translatio studii which had transferred learning from their homeland to whichever country they were then visiting (following in the footsteps, it must be said, of earlier humanists). There was certainly an export of a type of education then becoming popular in Italy and eventually giving its name to humanism; that export was made possible, in large part, by the creation of a trade in printed books. Yet, was there really a similar combination of artistic fashions with interplay between them in Shakespeare’s London, say, as there had been in early Medici Florence or in the papal city of Nicholas V and Sixtus IV? Even if the answer to that was ‘yes’, the question would then be how much that particular cultural flowering – the Shakespearean moment, one episode in many – directly owed to the earlier activities in those Italian cities? Do we use the term ‘Renaissance’ more by analogy than by association?

Ah, says the early modernist, that is the point: our Renaissance need not be the young relative in the shadow of your quattrocento events; it is its own man. So be it: use the term as you choose. But, if it is to have a specific relevance to a particular part of one vernacular tradition, it cannot simultaneously be employed in some general sweeping definition, that can encompass all of the cultural activity of the sixteenth century or (even more incongruously) later. Hispanists perhaps are more fortunate: they can talk of their literary ‘Golden Age’ without straining to define it in unavoidably Italianate terms. Perhaps other nations need a similar separation. For late sixteenth-century England, then, who would like to invent a term?