bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The ghosts of Bayeux

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 1 April, 2012

Wherever we step, whatever building we enter, the past is our host. We are merely the latest guests in spaces already crowded with resonances, with others’ memories. We tend to cold-shoulder these ghosts, taking possession of ‘our’ office or ‘our’ home as if the sole purpose of its existence was to serve us; life is more liveable that way. There are some places, however, where such blindness is impossible, where we can sense in the air some of the previous breaths that have preceded us. A church is that sort of place, par excellence, with its monumental witnesses to a few of the dead who form part of the continuing community.

Bayeux Cathedral from the west end

I was recently in the English cathedral-city of Bayeux, part of the Norman lands that ensured the Lancastrian regnum of the early fifteenth century was not confined to north of the Channel. The cathedral, long before its construction had been completed, saw Thomas Becket say mass; and, more than once in later centuries, the cult of that archbishop found a home in the cathedral’s carvings and murals. My scholarly interest, however, was precisely in Bayeux’s English years, when international politics ensured the bishopric was given to a well-connected Italian, Zanone da Castiglioni, who arrived in his see with a secretary, the Milanese humanist, Rolando Talenti. For his part, Talenti’s time in Bayeux was enriched by the presence of his own brother, Antonio; they both were to be canons of the cathedral and were to die there within five years of each other in the 1470s.

So, Castiglioni would have stood at the west end of his cathedral taking in the prospect of the Romanesque nave giving way to the gothic choir. He and his secretary would have taken part in the annual display of the musty over-long strip of cloth recording events of nearly four hundred years earlier, when the Normans first became English: how would they have responded to the tapestry’s artistry? Castiglioni also chose to be buried in this building, behind the high altar – but any trace of his tomb has gone. His is a presence we may sense but cannot touch.

Bayeux Cathedral, inscription to Rolando and Antonio Talenti

With Rolando Talenti it is interestingly different. On the west wall of the first chapel beyond the south transept, there is an inscription recording him and his brother, and their endowment of that particular chapel. The carving of the letters in classical style, however, should make it clear to us that this is no fifteenth-century monument. The wording of it too can hint at that: it mentions that Talenti was ‘variorum opusculorum auctor’. This is certainly true, though Talenti could hardly be described as a well-known author. His oeuvre has attracted the attention of only a few scholars: in the late twentieth century, the leading expert was Tino Foffano. He worked from the main source for Talenti’s writings, a now-mutilated manuscript which was the property of the Chapter Library which stood a few yards to the north-west of the chapel endowed by the Talenti brothers. You can study it yourself on-line (and my purpose on Bayeux was to check it in situ, in its present home of the Bibliothèque Municipale); you will see that it is not written in a humanist bookhand but in a French script. The evidence of provenance it includes also reminds us how a presence can be revived: the book was not originally part of the cathedral’s collection and only reached there at the end of the seventeenth century, the donor presumably considering the Chapter Library a fitting home for the products of one of its former canons. By that stage, it was already mutilated and may have suffered further indignities – there are signs of water damage – in the following decades. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was, as it were, reborn again. The then canon librarian, Jean Laffetay, came across it and paid to it more attention than it had received for a long time, perhaps for all its life. At the start of the volume, he writes a brief biographical note of the author whose opuscula are in the manuscript, noting that there was an inscription in the floor of the chapel west of the south transept which recorded the Talenti brothers. Laffetay expresses some wonder at the inscription’s survival into his own lifetime but it was not to last much longer: presumably with his involvement, the chapel was renovated and covered with new tiles. As an act of piety, it would seem, Laffetay encouraged there to be a replacement inscription, similar to that which had been found, but with a change to record also Talenti’s authorial activities.

In other words, the process of remembering Talenti was also a process of forgetting, of removing earlier evidence. There is a final irony. Laffetay is still remembered for his histories of Bayeux and for his study of its Tapestry; but in the cathedral where he, like Talenti and Castiglioni before, worshipped, he is now present indirectly, through the work he did in remembering others, rather than any celebration of himself. He is one of the quiet ghosts of the place we can too easily ignore.