bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In praise of multiplicity: Ludwig Pollak and Bartolomeo Nogara

Posted in Practices of Scholarship by bonaelitterae on 8 July, 2022

When you look in the mirror how many yous do you see?


As I have recently been on holiday, I have been able to enjoy something which I can rarely find time to do in the frenetic everyday: reading for pleasure. On delight has been to immerse myself in Pollak’s Arm, a novella by Hans von Trotha which is desperately moving and which I warmly recommend to you, if you have not immersed yourself in it already. I admit that I read it in the recently published, elegant translation by Elisabeth Lauffer, even if, for a Briton, it itself required some translation (for instance, to these English eyes, the obvious meaning of ‘to tear up’ is to rend something into pieces, not — as intended — for one’s eyes to well). It is a work of fiction but its material is all too real: it is set on 15th October 1943, the night before the Nazi round-up of Rome’s Jews, and reflects on the life of Ludwig Pollak, the German-Czech Jewish art dealer and antiquary who was a long-term residence of that city. Its sources are mainly Pollak’s own diaries, and the narrative unveils his career, including his best-known triumph which gives the book its title: the remarkable discovery — announced to the world by Pollak in 1906 — of a fragment of the ancient Laocoön, one which had not be refound with the rest of the statue exactly four hundred years, a defining moment of the Renaissance in Rome.

Many of the characters mentioned by Pollak as he relays his biography had, for me, a ring of familiarity but one, in particular, I was not expecting to find in this novella. Pollak’s review of his life mentions a friend and supporter he has in the Vatican, and, in fact, the last pages of the novella are not fiction but a translation of a letter written by this friend in October 1943 in praise and defence of Pollak. The letter’s author was Bartolomeo Nogara. I am acquainted with him because of a book he edited which was published in the Vatican Library’s learned Studi e Testi series: what Nogara called the scritti inedita e rari of the Quattrocento humanist known to the Anglophone world as Flavio Biondo (and to Italian scholars, Nogara included, as Biondo Flavio). I have my own copy of that gray-covered volume in front of me, bought, I see, on a trip to the Vatican made in April 1998, four months after I was awarded my doctorate. I recall where I bought it: the was a shop for Vatican publications in St Peter’s Square itself, near the top of the north arm of buildings to the side of the cathedral façade. Some of the texts in that volume have been recently re-edited, and others are gaining more attention: while Biondo is best known as a promoter of Rome as a worthy capital for Christendom at the point the papacy was attempting to secure its returned position there, one of the texts Nogara presented shows the humanist’s fascination with the Ethiopian delegation to the Council of Florence, even seeing their description of the homeland as disproving the ancient authority of the geographer Ptolemy (it is a passage I have translated, from Nogara’s edition, for my Renaissance students, while we await Samantha Kelly’s fuller discussion of it).

I was vaguely aware of Nogara’s significance beyond this edition, in as much as I knew he was the Director General of the Vatican Museums — that is stated on the title-page of the volume — but I had not envisaged his wider life. When we read works, we sometimes conjure up the voice and the style that we imagine that author would have, and we can be disappointed to find the ‘real’ person is not like the image we constructed. Just as frustrating can be when we find we quite warm to someone we meet whose writings have not impressed us. This dissonance struck me now in a different way: that Bartolomeo Nogara, the person I knew as an editor of humanist Latin works, stood up against anti-Semitism during the pontificate of Pius XII increased my admiration for him, but made me question: are these the same man? In a simplistic sense, of course they are: this is not a case of a Doppelganger. But they present such disparate elements cohabiting in one body that it made we wonder about how our assumptions of a person’s individuality can mislead us — how, as it were, we concentrate our gaze on the single figure before us to the extent that we become blind to its multiplicity. It is like seeing a person standing surrounded by a set of mirrors: we take as the real the corporeal presence but there is a deep solipsism to that, assuming our two eyes reading one image is what provides the ‘true’; instead, the many reflections and refractions bring us closer to an appreciation of identity. This is not a change of perspective but a pluralising of perspectives.

Refractions but not fractured. It may be that I have been led down this avenue of thinking by von Trotha. Late in his novella, he has Pollak describe how, having been fêted by the Hertziana — the German art historical library near the Spanish Steps — for his discovery of the arm of the Laocoön, he was in the 1930s ostracised, and asked not to enter its doors. Specious reasons were given; the reader is left to infer that the underlying objection to him had become his Jewishness. In the new ideology, Pollak’s failing was that he could not stop being Jewish and it was assumed that this infected his every action, his every writing. The irony is not lost on Pollak that he was being barred from an institution that had been founded by a Jew, Henriette Hertz, whose name was also dropped from the foundation in this period (it has, of course, been reinstated).

The fallacy into which Pollak’s enemies fell was the assumption that a single element of identity can form the essence of a person. It is true that Pollak describes himself as becoming more Jewish or, rather, that, in his later years, he became more conscious of his Jewish heritage (a similar trajectory as to that followed by Isaiah Berlin, as described by Michael Ignatieff). This, though, does not make the fallacy decreases in error — rather, it makes it yet more fallacious. For, if at any single moment, there are several aspects in play, that number increases and their combination shifts over the course of time, through the impact of circumstances and of the life-cycle. Imagine the mirrors around a person not being static but forever in motion, so that identity is continually refracted as if through a kaleidescope.


A recent invention of scholarly bureaucracy is the ORCID, the persistent digital identifier which allows one scholar’s works to be correctly attributed to that individual, whatever differences there are in the published citations. This is a noble initiative but let us not forget the within any ORCID can bloom a range of flowers, providing a cacophony of colour — and that the identity behind that identifier is yet more multiple than their writings can ever suggest.


Italian Renaissance – a few primary sources

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 24 January, 2015

This post might equally be called ‘what I did in the Christmas vacation’. This term, for the first time, there is a new module at the University of Essex entitled ‘Terror, Murder and Bloodshed: the civilization of Renaissance Italy, c. 1400 – 1527’, which I designed and am running. As I prepared for the teaching, it became clear it would be useful for the students to have some short, focussed extracts from primary sources around which we could centre our seminar discussions. There are, of course, many resources available already on-line. The full text of Vasari’s Lives is uploaded, in Italian (both the 1550 and 1568 editions) and in the ‘standard’ translation of de Vere. There are some very useful collections of documents and images in English, like that provided by the National Gallery of Art in Washington. These can be supplemented by the webpages of exhibition which remain available – those for Rome Reborn continue to be an excellent resource of images and discussion. Individual academics have also built up helpful websites – to give just one example, there is the work-in-progress of Mikael Hörnqvist of Uppsala University.

What I am adding to the available corpus is intentionally very limited. As already explained, there is a particular audience in mind of second-year undergraduates. What I wanted to provide was a set of short pieces which would introduce some of the key concepts but not overwhelm with a mass of text or of new information. I set myself a limit, then, of four typed pages for each extract (admittedly, in one cases, I overstepped the mark but, in my self-defence, the five pages also include relevant images). That meant that I could not simply link to existing resources, even where a translation existed. What is more, as we know with the de Vere translation of Vasari, the existing translation can at times mislead rather than inform. So, increasingly, I realised that my Christmas would be spent less with mince pies than with the Latin and Italian texts.

Only a few have not had previous English renditions – those exceptions include the passages I provide from Leonardo Bruni’s Funeral Oration on Nanni Strozzi, Matteo Palmieri’s Della vita civile and parts of Platina’s De principe (here there is some overlap with Nicholas Webb’s sections published in those very useful volumes of the Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts, edited by Jill Kraye – available only in hard-copy). In some cases,  as with the extracts from Bruni’s Praise of the Florentine city, I worked independently of the existing translation, in this case the deservedly well-thumbed version in Benjamin Kohl and Ronald Witt’s Earthly Republic – not because I believe there to be significant problems with it, but that I judged that another rendition (albeit very limited) could help by providing a different perspective on Bruni’s style. In others, as with Vasari (where I have used his lives of Giotto and Simone Martini, Paolo Uccello, Antonello da Messina and Pietro Torrigiano), I started from the de Vere version but revised it freely to bring it closer to Vasari’s original and to assist students by adding some light annotation. Similarly, the short section from Flavio Biondo’s Italia illustrata is much endebted to the edition by Jeffrey White in that excellent new resource, the I Tatti Renaissance Library, and can only claim any advantage in that it provides a little more footnoting than is the norm for that series.

I have put all these now on-line as a page on this website: you can find them under the heading ‘Resources on the Italian Renaissance‘, a few lines down on the right-hand side of this site’s homepage. I would naturally be grateful for any comments that you have – and even more interested to learn if you have found them helpful. I put them up in the hope that they can help others in their teaching: all I ask is that you acknowledge their source and let me know when you use them.

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.