What follows is the response to two highly stimulating lectures that have recently taken place in Oxford. The first of them was delivered a few weeks ago by Jeffrey Hamburger, who gave as his title ‘Script as Image’. His topic and his suggestive discussion left me wondering about what separates the two, script from image, and whether western letter-forms can ever have the force of a picture. We might think of S, say, as a suitably snaking shape for its sibilant sound and we might be able to recall illuminated initials where it transmogrifies into a grotesque beast but is it ever in its nature to be inherently representational? The meanderings of my thoughts, I have to admit, have been listless but were given some more direction by the second lecture, which took place just last Friday. It is always an event when Bill Sherman speaks; he packs into fifty minutes learning and insight with elegant delivery. What made it all the more of a delight for me to hear was that his subject was one that fascinates me: marginalia.
Bill Sherman’s purpose was to make us alert to how early modern readers conceived reading as a necessarily visual practice. A master-image for him was the presence in one book of annotations that included not only a finely crafted manicula but also an eye. The book in question is an incunable of the Epistles of Pliny the Younger now in Stanford and of which Bill has had the good fortune to discover the provenance: it has not only the coat-of-arms of but also dense marginalia by Bernardo Bembo (1433 – 1519). It was Bembo who added the pointing hands and eyes – what, as I have suggested before, we probably should call an ocululi. In my experience, there are a few cases of the use of a disembodied eye as an annotating symbol before the mid-fifteenth century, so Bembo’s are early examples of what never became a very frequent presence in the margins of books. The dating of the examples we do have, incidentally, would allow the possibility that the earliest examples were inspired by another example of a graphic eye — Leon Battista Alberti’s winged eye emblem; but that would assume that Bembo — let alone the others before him — knew of that emblem and, indeed, that he consciously transformed it, for what makes his practice all the more unusual is that his ocululi are drawn in profile, facing towards the text.
I was pleased to hear more of this volume, because Bill had shared with me his discovery a couple of years ago and I had been able to help in a very small way with the explanation of one note Bembo had added in the bottom margin of one folio, complete with both a manicula and a cornucopia. It proved to be a record of a piece of contemporary gossip, added to a passage where Pliny was talking of fama. It is highly suggestive of the self-conscious manner in which Bembo used the text before him. But it is another couple of pages from the volume which Bill showed yesterday that, on this occasion, have stayed in my mind’s ocululus and have set me thinking further about the associations between script and image.
The relevant pages are fol. 20v-21 of the volume which you can see for yourself, thanks to the generosity of Stanford University Library. It is the opening in this edition which presents Pliny’s epistle describing his villa, the Laurentinum (II.17), where Bembo writes in large letters across the margin: Laurentum suum grafice pingit. An idiomatic translation would be ‘he vividly portrays his [villa, the] Larentum’ – a celebration of the Younger Pliny’s talent at ekphrasis, which he shared with his uncle. But this is one case where the idiomatic misses the point, for there is something more – a lot more – going on here.
Bembo’s verbal phrase is one found frequently in Renaissance Latin, but more rarely in their classical sources. When he wrote this, he was surely conscious of one precedent: the chapter title to Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae, XIV.4 where is said that ‘apte Chrysippus et graphice imaginem Iustitiae modulis coloribusque verborum depinxit’ – Chrysippus vividly depicted in words an image of the virtue, Justice. ‘Vividly’ or, more literally, ‘graphically’. In our culture, we are perhaps more used to employing ‘graphic’ in its sense of the visual, as in ‘graphic novel’ rather than in its sense of the written, as in ‘calligraphy’. Crucially, both senses are there in the Greek terms that are the origin of the Latin transliteration: ‘graphice’ as the art of drawing and ‘graphium’ as a writing style. Think of graphite, the material of a pencil – a term only invented in the late eighteenth century to describe a particular form of carbon but created in conscious imitation of the Greek ‘graphein’ (to write) and ‘graphis’ (a pencil or pen – the implement of both writing script and drawing images).
The sense of words as drawing is present in the phrase from Aulus Gellius and, it seems to me, it is implicit in Bembo’s imitation of it. It is even heightened by the dropping of one syllable: Gellius’ depingere (to paint) becomes pingere (to represent pictorially, or to draw with, Lewis & Short tell me, ‘pencil or needle’). Bembo, then, is saying that Pliny has drawn a life-like pen-portrait; words can draw.
The graphic, that is to say, does not distinguish between the image and the letter; it is defined by being the product of carbon or, by transfer, of ink. Bembo’s ‘graphic sense’ encompasses both the drawn and the written in a manner which is highly self-conscious, at times achingly so. Looking at these pages, it is hard not to imagine a reader who is playing – in the best sense of serio ludere – at reading through his graphic response. I cannot help ask myself whether Bembo is telling us that the writing of script is part of the art of drawing.
At this point, a little context is helpful: Bernardo Bembo, like other Venetian patricians, was educated at the University of Padua. He was there in the 1450s, and among his acquaintances was the young scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito, who, indeed, produced manuscripts for Bembo. Sanvito went on to become the leading exponent of a new bookhand, which we now know as the italic; it raised a version of the humanist cursive script to a new calligraphic level. Judging from what I have seen of Bembo’s own penmanship from these years, he was not simply a consumer of Sanvito’s experiments, he was a participant in them.
Let us return to Bembo’s ‘grafice pingit’ note and consider it now not philologically but palaeographically. First, the script: at first glance, it is written in what we would call capitals, the ‘upper case’ (in printing terms) letter-forms, made up of separate forms from ‘lower case’ or minuscule letters: so, in ‘grafice’, G not g, R not r, and so on. The use of capitals, rather than simply larger forms of the ‘lower case’, which are called majuscules or litterae notabiliores, echoes classical inscriptions, chiselled rather written ‘script’: in a word, epigraphy. Yet, Bembo’s commitment to this style is not complete: in ‘pingit’, the i on both occasions has no serifs and is dotted – it is, in other words, a littera notabilior. There are other ways in which his writing here distances itself from the epigraphical: the letters are thin, not shaded to be thick and monumental and, similarly, what serifs there are tend to be short and slanted, except on the final T which has a prominent straight foot, as if marking its concluding status. What Bembo is providing is an outsize note, drawing attention to the passage, which, at the same time, does not attempt to be an epigraphical display script.
He also draws attention to the passage by the curious placing of this note, written turning a corner, as it were, so that it forms a right angle at the bottom left of the opening. Consider, for a moment, the mechanics of doing this: he must have read the text, picked up his pen, and turned the book on its side to write the even letter-forms of ‘LAVRENTVM’ which run down the margin. This is annotating that literally and physically moves the reader away from the task that defines him. However, the point I wish to emphasise is not about the individual letters but the overall impact of this placing: it creates a bracket for the main text and it serves the purpose of a paraph-mark. To put it another way: the placing of these words gives them the force of a non-verbal marking.
We tend to think of marginalia being delightfully disordered interventions on the page and, certainly, the overall impact of Bembo’s additions to the opening is a haphazard feel. Yet, there is something artfully constructed in both the placing and the execution of his ‘grafice pingit’ note. His graphic sense is so developed that its thoughtfulness was probably instinctual. But, to return to the question I set myself, this does not turn script into a sub-set of drawing. His letter-forms may be consciously designed and can be attractive, but they never slide from their symbolic nature into something pictorial. Both drawing and writing can evoke images but they do so in fundamentally different, if complementary, ways. The distinction which we should draw (if you pardon the pun) is one to which I have just alluded: it is between the two elements of writing, the verbal and the non-verbal.
The pen can move across the page to form letters which placed together create words or it can make markings that have meaning without being part of the alphabet: punctuation falls into this category, in which we should include the paraph-mark. There are others that may seem more decorative: to mention again a friend of Bembo, Sanvito was keen on using at the end of texts or as a mark of separation between words in titles a hanging leaf motif – the hedera – the ultimate origin of which lies in the epigraphy of Roman memorials. With such an intervention, we have crossed the boundary into the realm of the representational, though it must be said that some of these practices live on the borders and can often retreat into the purely symbolic: the annotating sign of a trefoil is often such an impressionistic combination of dots and a curve that it could hardly be said to be a leaf at all; this, indeed, is the form Bembo deploys. Similarly, many manicules are so rapidly drawn to lose any representational power. But when they are lovingly drawn, as Bembo’s are, with long forefinger and cuff, their main purpose remains to provide meaning non-verbally to support the text. They have, if you will, something of the hieroglyphic to them. They are image as script.
The empire that is Latin script is not, then, populated solely by letters; the other shapes that are its subject peoples can be highly refined, as they are in Bembo’s maniculae, ocululi and his cornucopia – markings employed by the reader to add meaning or, at the least, inflection to the text. Of course, these additions do not exhaust the range of Bembo’s interventions in his Pliny, which also involve fully-fledged drawings of faces, as well as combinations of text with image. At base, what all his practices share is the nature of the graphic: the accumulation of pen strokes that together conjure up a meaning or a presence, whether by representation or by symbol. Of course, all such handiwork is a sleight of hand: Bembo’s ‘eyes’ are an optical illusion that, in a blink, can disintegrate into their constituent flecks of ink. Likewise, the strokes that congregate to form a word can, in an unfamiliar script, be incomprehensible. For all that similarity, though, there is an irreducible distinction between letter-forms and depictions. Letters can have artistry and beauty, and can, at times, be designed to have the appearance of a depiction but that is not fundamentally how they convey meaning. At the same time, as I have said, writing does not convey meaning by letters alone. Writing is not a sub-set of drawing; rather, those elements of the graphic art which are drawing can be a method of extending and expanding writing’s domain.
Holidays are still, in some residual sense, holy days. Even without working hours vacated, apart from the chore of site-seeing in the sun, there remain some duties, some acts of respect that order the days. Site-seeing itself is a habit of reverence, not an adherence to any faith more stringent than the cult of culture, perhaps, but certainly a recognition of others’ faith. We step out of the sunlight into the shade of a church and may not comprehend the deity who once inhabited there (and may do still); we may consciously contrast our cerebral engagement with the cultish goings-on that have had their home there but by our visiting presence – like it or not – we are conforming to an appreciation of the power the place has had and, by conforming, extending its after-life.
The reverence we show, of course, is not confined to locations of the religious. There are plenty of sites for secular pilgrimage, whether they be the homes of famous figures or temples to the arts. I have talked before of my experience of Arquà Petrarca in the Euganean hills, complete with his stuffed cat (these places are often the sites of relics all as dubious as the medieval splinters of the True Cross). One of the artefacts on display there were the visitors books, recording the grand tourists who had come to pay their respects to the little god who was the house’s long-dead inhabitant; I saw last week in Ferrara an equivalent in the house of Ludovico Ariosto, where the page rests permanently open at the signature of Giuseppe Verdi – we bend forward (the natural movement of the supplicant) to take a closer look of when opera met epic.
But being in Ferrara on my summer break, I was not there as a true believer in Ariosto. As you might expect from my interests, I was more interested in the physical remains of the studia humanitatis. In particular, it would have seemed an act of impiety not to seek out the memorials to Guarino da Verona who, as his name demonstrates, was not a local son but who, invited here to lecture at the university by Leonello d’Este stayed for most of the rest of his life, dying in 1460. Indeed, it was his reputation as a schoolmaster and a scholar – much more than Angelo Decembrio’s verbose idealisation of Leonello’s court or even Leon Battista Alberti’s transient association with Ferrara – that made the d’Este city a site of significance on the humanist map. Considering that I have recently polished off an article suggesting we should rethink the construction of Guarino’s reputation (building on comments I made in Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe), some might suggest that my search for Guarino was more an act of penance than simply of reverence. If so, I think I can say I have expiated for my sins.
What I found remarkable was that, despite all the cobbled streets with the red-bricked houses being so evocative of the city’s Renaissance past, there was little trace of Ferrara’s best-known humanist. There is, of course, the inscription in memory of him in the church of San Paolo – a copy of the original which was destroyed in the 1570 earthquake that shook the city; I remember seeing and transcribing that inscription when I first visited the city eleven years ago but by the 450th anniversary of Guarino’s death, when I was again briefly in Ferrara, the church was closed for restoration, and it remains so. Perhaps, in part, because that was inaccessible and so could not sate my interest, I wanted to find other evidence. But in a city which has various methods of marking their monuments and their characters – the municipal yellow street signs announcing in terse fashion the details of a palazzo or a church, the older inscriptions written into a building’s wall remembering the notable birth or other event that occurred therein, the red-lettered plaques erected by Ferrariae Decus – there is precious little outward and visible sign of Guarino’s presence. In a city which marks on its tourist map the house not only of Ariosto but also of Ercole d’Este’s favourite architect, Biagio Rossetti, and where Ariosto has certainly become the favourite son, celebrated in the name of both a piazza and a street (let alone one named after his masterpiece, Orlando Furioso), and where the city’s troublesome export to Florence, the fiery friar, Girolamo Savonarola, is commemorated by a statue in the shadow of the castello as well as the road running past (ironically) San Francesco, there is no place for an external plaque or memorial to the humanist who is credited with having given life to Ferrara’s Renaissance. There is a via Carbone, presumably named after Ludovico, the humanist who saw himself as Guarino’s successor and who delivered his funeral oration; the street is now known for its cinema. There is also, outside the city walls, a modern via Pannonio, perhaps after Janus Pannonius, Hungarian student of Guarino, later bishop and rebel against Matthias Corvinus, as well as being the author of bisexual erotic poetry. Where, though, is Guarino himself?
Not, it should be said, where he is claimed to be. The city does have a via Guarini, so-called because it begins at the corner of the Palazzo Guarini-Giordani, designed by Biagio Rossetti and far up within the ‘addizione erculea’, the grandiose town-planning project of Ercole d’Este to extend the city north of the original walls of the city that ran alongside the Castello (a scheme perhaps as egotistical but undeniably more successful that Æneas Sylvius Piccolomini’s renaissance of his home village as the papal retreat of Pienza). Above the doorway into the Palazzo, now part of Ferrara’s university (much expanded since Guarino’s day), there is what I take to be a nineteenth-century notice celebrating the palace’s famous inhabitants; it names as the first of those Guarino da Verona himself. So, here we have the evidence for which I am searching – except it is so obviously implausible, Guarino having been dead for a half a lifetime before the building was begun in 1496. It was, in fact, designed for one of Guarino’s many sons, Battista, who followed his father in his scholarly pursuits, but he lived to enjoy his new house only for a few years, dying in the high summer of 1503. The Palazzo and the road beside it are, in reality, named after the dynasty that could trace itself back to Guarino, rather than the humanist himself.
Recognition of the error made me want all the more to find as precisely as possible where Guarino actually resided in his adopted town – where, that is, he lived, slept and ran his private school, his conturbernium, which the likes of Janus Pannonius attended and where English travellers like William Gray, future bishop of Ely, and John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, would presumably have visited him. My pursuit, I must admit, drove my darling mild-mannered wife to distraction.
Some brief searching (not enough to interrupt the rest of the holiday) showed that we do have some written evidence of the humanist’s residence, largely thanks to the researches of the incomparable Remigio Sabbadini: we know that he lodged at the house of the Strozzi and that, as the Dizionario biografico degli italiani states, ‘andò ad abitare nell’attigua casa dei Boiardi, in via S. Michele, che prese in affitto per tre anni e che poi acquistò per 3500 lire marchesane, 550 delle quali donategli dal marchese’. There is a slight complication: there is not now in the street plan of Ferrara any record of a road of San Michele, but there is a church, closed, deconsecrated and in poor repair. The route to it is now called the via del Turco (after the medieval Turchi family) and it was at the upper end of this road, near the via Cortevecchia, that Guarino had his house. The casa Strozzi was pulled down long ago, replaced in the seventeenth century by a wooden theatre which itself was replaced by a brick building in the nineteenth century which later became a cinema. The picture-house, in contrast to the successful one on via Carbone, has closed for business and the empty building shows a lack of loving care. As Guarino’s more permanent home – known as the casa Boiardi after the noble Boiardo family, forefathers of the poet Matteo Maria – was next door to the casa Strozzi, we can identify its location and view the spot, but much of it has now disappeared: there is a break in the building line, with an area now used for parking. Behind that, though, there are houses and they include one Renaissance lintel above a low doorway. Perhaps this is one small remnant of the building Guarino called home.
There is not, you will be unsurprised to hear, any plaque or notice to record the connexion of the site with the learned humanist. As I have suggested, this is not because the Ferrarese are adverse to advertising their heritage. Indeed, further down the same street, a modern apartment block has retained one stone of an older building, which records the Pico della Mirandola stopped there. I enjoy the juxtaposition of notices that now festoons that wall.
It is, of course, understandable that Guarino has become overshadowed in the city of Ariosto; the poet has long been the talisman of Ferrara’s contribution to culture. In 1933, the ‘centenario ariostesco’ was celebrated, for instance, by a significant exhibition of local Renaissance art including the likes of Cosmè Tura and Garofalo. I think we can anticipate with some confidence that there will be a menu of cultural events as rich as the local dish of salama da sugo organised to mark the next significant Ariostean anniversary in twenty-one years’ time. But rejoicing in that maestro of the volgare should not mean that a Latinate scholar who was also important to Ferrara’s identity need be forgotten. Perhaps in the years running up to 2033, the Ferrarese could find a moment to remember the achievements of their most famous schoolmaster – 2029 would mark the sixth centenary of the arrival of Guarino da Verona in their city. If they did arrange such an act of pietas, I for one would willingly make the pilgrimage to their doorstep.
The wickedness of Wikipedia is a common theme — the worry that students garner their information from the on-line encyclopedia, at the expense of ‘real’ work, undertaken surrounded by piles of printed tomes. We have all heard the urban myths of lecturers going on the internet to add intentionally false entries to Wikipedia so that they can catch their students if they plagiarise. Wikipedia is far from perfect, but should every good scholar ignore it completely?
First of all, let us not become protective of print encyclopedias, which often fall far below the level of extensive, unquestionable knowledge that we naively expect of them. I should know, I have edited an encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I would rate only two printed volumes: the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Hale, and the more recent and wide-ranging Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance by Gordon Campbell. To warn students off a true-ready reliance on what they read in print, I am fond of quoting an example from another encyclopedia of the Renaissance, one which sits quietly on the open shelves of the Bodleian and which states: ‘Petrarch was the first man to use the Latin term humanismus.’ As there is no such word in Latin, as it is a German term invented in the early nineteenth century, and as Petrarch did not employ any word or phrase cognate with humanismus, this is utter nonsense. Piffle. Twaddle. Moonshine. Balderdash. Codswallop. And claptrap. In short, hard copy does not equal hard facts.
What, of course, printed reference works do claim is some sort of academic recommendation, supplemented by the reputation of a worthy publisher: thus, the lists of advisors that appear at the front of any volume (completed with university affiliations), a page or so after the imprimatur of the publisher. These may encourage confidence where none should exist, but they do at least demonstrate a link, however tenuous, with academia. Wikipedia lacks such a patena of respectability, presenting itself instead as the standard-bearer of on-line democracy, encouraging anybody to contribute. In those areas of life which attract attention on the internet, this can create clashes, ‘vandalism’ and repeated re-writings without necessarily any improvement in veracity — but, then, we are not interested in articles on Britney Spears or which is the best George Clooney film (Michael Clayton, by the way). Most of the articles of interest to a student of the Renaissance are not battlefields in the same way: a reader is more likely to be caught out by accidental error than caught in the crossfire between contributors reflected in an entry.
Wikipedia has developed its own rules of engagement for contributors, centring on providing a NPOV (a Neutral Point of View). But there is a curious result from this: Wikipedia is consciously, achingly non-hierarchical but it can certainly be deferential. For example, the discussion board for contributors about Machiavelli has one of them objecting to a sentence in the entry because it makes assertions ‘Without reference to a reliable academic source‘ [their italics]. As another contributor points out, there is much about Machiavelli which is controversial within academia, but there does seem to be a tendency in Wikiworld to seek external justification for what is said by reference to the supposedly impartial truth found in the writings of academics. It leaves little room to realise that even the driest historical monograph can hide bias, blindspots and mistakes behind its dour binding.
There is an added issue with Wikipedia which is worth mentioning: it is not one but several encyclopedias. It exists in all the major European languages, including Latin, but the text in each language can be separate from that in others. Sometimes, an article is simply translated but often that is not the case. This can create some oddities: the character Burckhardt celebrated as the archetypal Renaissance man, Leon Battista Alberti, has a stub of an entry in Latin with an external link — to his works in Italian; the corresponding Italian entry does not provide that link; and neither of these lead the reader to those Latin texts which are available on-line at the Biblioteca Italiana site. In other cases, if one only looked at the English entry, you would come away with only very limited information: for another humanist of the early quattrocento, Guarino da Verona, the most detailed articles are those in Italian and German. More generally, the rule for the reader should be that if you are interested in a subject, check the article in the range of languages listed in the left-hand bar of Wikipedia: even if you can not fully grasp the text, the links provided could lead you to more information than you could gain by only reading one version.
My own impression, having spent some time looking over a range of Renaissance articles on Wikipedia, is that the limitation most often is not as much inaccurate as incomplete information. In the entries for Alberti, the English version has a list of works which is highly truncated — a reader would be in a dangerous land if they assumed that the article provided a sufficient base of knowledge. There may be a seemingly counter-intuitive principle in play: the more obscure a character, the more likely it is that the Wikipedia entry (if there is one) will present useful information. In some cases, of course, Wikipedia simply will not have any entry: I have recently sent off an article on an interesting humanist, Antonio Beccaria, who spent some years in England; he does not appear on the website. On the other hand, I have also written about the even less well-known Tito Livio Frulovisi, who does have a fairly good article — because (I admit it, gentle reader) I put it there. For the more recherché, if somebody has bothered to post an article, they are likely to have put some effort into doing it.
The inverse of this is that the better-known characters can not be as well served. So, Machiavelli himself has, in English, a long entry with a useful listing of his works. But the text makes some significant errors. For instance, looking at it this morning, I noticed it states that he considered The Prince his magnum opus. I can see how the contributor made this assumption — the famous letter to Vettori in which he describes his method of composition gives a sense of Machiavelli’s depth of engagement in the project at the time of writing — but it hardly fits with the fortunes of the text in his own lifetime: it circulated in manuscript, but, like the Discourses was only printed after his death. The only text that Machiavelli actively promoted himself by having it printed was one which we study much less nowadays, his Art of War. That work, and his History of Florence, hardly get a mention in this English Wikipedia article. A fuller treatment of his life, with some useful quotations, appears in Italian, though again attention is directed to a minority of his works.
If the guideline is, the bigger the name, the lower the value of the article, there’s another that can be added: names are better than things. Wikipedia is weaker talking about concepts than about characters. Take ‘civic humanism’, Hans Baron’s master-concept used to describe a tradition of Florentine republican justification: it does not appear in an article on its own, but instead the reader is re-directed to ‘classical republicanism’. This does not give much room to highlight the controversy which surrounds ‘civic humanism’. The wider concept of Renaissance humanism comes off even worse: the entry is hardly worth reading.
Yet, we should return to the comparison with print encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s sins are, in many ways, unoriginal: its weaknesses are the ones you could also find in most older encyclopedias. They too are often weakest on concepts, and least satisfying when they are talking about the most famous — and, so, most controversial — characters. What, of course, they often have lacked is the ability to develop. The future of reference works, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica knows, is on-line, where information can be added and corrected. A comparison between Britannica and Wikipedia suggests that, for our area, each has some advantages over the other: of the characters we have talked about, Machiavelli has a judicious article in Britannica, but most other humanists receive only a insubstantial summary. Even a significant figure like Leonardo Bruni is treated in this way, while Wikipedia gives more information (though it is, at present, skewed towards only a few of his works). In Britannica, the lesser humanists I mention are featured not at all. Where, of course, Wikipedia has a singular advantage is that it has the ability not just to be corrected: you can do the correcting.
So, if I should end by answering the question I set myself: of course we should not trust Wikipedia, just as we would not trust any other work or source. As historians, we trust nobody. But that does not mean we don’t use them and learn from them. The advice to students must be: read but read carefully. The advice to academics should be: if you don’t like something, change it. Admittedly, some entries might be beyond redemption but that is the case for a very few dealing poorly with concepts. Most are capable of improvement — and it is our job to do it. So, as I said, this morning the Machiavelli article talks erroneously of The Prince being his magnum opus. By this evening, I will make sure it does not anymore.