bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard V: Bruni against the Goths gothicised

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 May, 2018

I realise that the tradition of the postcard privileges messages of few words. I note also that I have, in my recent posts, underachieved in that respect. This post is an attempt to rectify that. It comes without a description, for the manuscript discussed here has been well described in print by Laura Light. What I want to draw attention to is how this codex is witness to a humanist text escaping from the confines of humanist presentation and taking on another identity.

It is not unusual to have the work by a humanist copied in a gothic script. Indeed, the previous post discussed one such manuscript produced in England. The Houghton’s MS. Lat. 170 is a particularly pungent example of this habit for two reasons. First, while the copy of Bruni’s Ethics translation discussed last time is in a cursive script, this thin volume provides a case of the less common practice: a text written in a classicising style to be rendered into a textualis, that is a gothic bookhand needing to be produced with care and so at a slower pace. MS. Lat. 170 has suffered over time, mainly because of water damage, but it is clear that the scribe wrote with deliberation and a concern for detail, shown in particular with the frequent hairline strokes adorning the letters (look, for instance, at the h). The block of text is compact, with little space between the lines, in an aesthetic quite different from that promoted by the early humanists — the only similarity with their style of mise-en-page is the substantial blank borders around the text, which is, in fact, also to be found in the ‘pre-humanist’ circle of Coluccio Salutati. The illumination in this manuscript also shows no concession to the fashionable preference for bianchi girari initials. It is as if the scribe was unaware of the humanist agenda but that certainly cannot be true.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. lat. 170, fol. 18v

This brings us to the second point: the text that is being presented here. It is a work of Leonardo Bruni, the acknowledged doyen of the first generation of Quattrocento humanists; what is more, it is his history, De bello adversus Gothos — the Italians’ war against the Goths. Here we have an Italian scribe providing a humanist text that discusses the Goths but doing it in a style that the humanists would have described as ‘gothic’. Did the scribe enjoy the irony?

I see that the text above could not fit on a postcard, unless perhaps I used a tiny gothic script.

Advertisements

Postcard from Harvard IV: a little witness to English humanist interest

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 3 May, 2018

The manuscripts I have discussed so far have all been easy on the eye (as they say). The subject of today is not. Indeed, seated on the shelves alongside gorgeously illuminated presentation manuscripts, this codex might feel embarrassed by its appearance. That it is pocket-sized is not that unusual, but that it is written cursively on quires that are encarté (paper except for the outermost and central bifolia which are parchment) suggests that this was a volume on which little expense was spared. Nor can it claim to be a textual rarity — it provides a copy of a fifteenth-century bestseller, Leonardo Bruni’s new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. For me, though, this small workaday volume is gold dust in the library.

Cambridge MA: University of Harvard, Houghton Library, MS. Lat. 286, fol. 1 – the opening of Bruni’s translation of Aristotle’s Ethics.

The manuscript does not exclude any explicit statement of where or when it was produced but its evidence — palaeographical, philological and codicological — is revealing. James Hankins in his listing of Bruni manuscripts in North America correctly states that it was made in England. This is apparent from the pen-flourished initials, the script of the main text (which shows substantial continental influence) and of the textual corrections, which are by another hand using some anglicana forms. Those corrections show that the copy was being checked against its prototype — a suggestion that, for all its appearance of low-grade production for personal use, this was created in a communal context, with some care to ensure a level of textual accuracy. Collating passages of the text suggest where that might have been: it has affinities with two manuscripts which have Oxford associations. Those two volumes, however, are probably later than this one. This is where the paper becomes important.

The scribe wrote on paper of one stock, with a watermark of a hand, the fingertips of which touch a half-moon. The information gathered in Piccard on-line shows that there was a fashion for this in at a few German papermills in the 1430s. Those who know about paper suggest that use often follows at most a few years after production, but they are thinking of mainland Europe. England, which relied (apart from the 1490s) entirely on imported paper, may count as a special case: with the travel and distribution times involved, we would expect the possible lead-in before use to be longer. Perhaps Orietta da Rold’s exciting project mapping paper in medieval England will shed further light on the average time-delay. Even, though, if we assume a couple of decades between production in the German-speaking lands and use in this manuscript in Oxford, that would place it soon after the mid-point of the century, and that may be a little late, judging from the script. We know that the Ethics translation was known in England from the early 1430s, at the latest — that is, within fifteen years of its composition — and it may be that we have before us an early witness for its English circulation.

In short, this unprepossessing codex is notable evidence for the interest in the humanist re-translation of Aristotle’s textbook of ethics in England. It joins six other manuscripts identified at present as being of English provenance. Beside them, there is the well-known incunable, printed in Oxford in 1479. We might want to think of that printed version as a new beginning, but we could also see it as a culmination of an Oxford interest in the text stretching back decades.

Here is my description of MS. Lat. 286. As always, comments welcome.

Postcard from Harvard II: a presentation manuscript from Pier Candido Decembrio

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 April, 2018

The opening leaf of Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 23, with the arms of Borso d’Este.

My second report from my new location involves a manuscript that is hardly unknown but which I could not resist making one of the first I studied. It is a copy of four texts by the Milanese humanist Pier Candido Decembrio, made under his guidance for presentation to the duke of Ferrara, Borso d’Este, in the early 1460s. Decembrio, cheer-leader for his city in its opposition to all things Florentine, has been an acquaintance of mine since my graduate days, for, in the late 1430s and early 1440s, he attempted to construct for himself an international reputation by presenting works and sending books to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, as I discussed in my doctoral thesis. So, when I opened up this manuscript and saw before me Decembrio’s script writing the contents list, it had the sensation of a meeting with a familiar friend.

The humanist himself is not, however, the main scribe of this manuscript. As with some of those he made for Humfrey, he called on others to produce the volume but left enough evidence in the volume to show that oversaw its creation. As I explain in my description, his interventions here are multiple, correcting the whole text and adding annotations in some, using different inks for each level of accretion, suggesting he went over the manuscript two or three times. It provides us, then, with interesting detail about the mechanics of presentation — the desire to achieve an elegance which spoke of the cost involved being balanced by a need to personalise, not just in terms of the identity of the recipient but of the author as well.

Textually, this manuscript of importance for being the earliest known copy of his panegyric of his home city, De laudibus urbis Mediolanensis (a work first composed in the later 1430s but, apart from this codex, extant only in two later fifteenth-century manuscripts, in Milan and Brussels). That is a work which demonstrated his patriotism for Milan and his repudiation of Florence’s claims to pre-eminence, for in this panegyric he engages with the Laudatio Florentinae Urbis of Leonardo Bruni, a work which had already gained an international circulation, turning on its head its claims by a process of quotation and revision which, at times, comes close to creative plagiarism.

His expression of independence from Florence was expressed not only in words but in presentation on the page. He knew and acknowledged the reforms of the page promoted by Bruni’s friend, Poggio Bracciolini, but he by no means adopted it fully. In particular, he preferred a much smaller script than was fashionable in Florentine littera antiqua, and an example of this is on display not only in his own interventions but in the main script, which provides a notably compact block of text on the page. At the same time, Decembrio’s scribe here (identified as Gabriel Brepia) is more willing to accept some of the reforms than his commissioner. A key orthographical shift in Florence was the re-introduction of the digraph, demonstrating the presence of the diphthong (usually ‘ae’, sometimes ‘oe’). Here we see a contrast between Decembrio who continues to ignore it and his scribe who adopts a couple of strategies for marking the diphthong (a subscript mark, and a small loop before e). One wonders how far Decembrio condoned the transformation of his text in this detail, and whether he felt his work was succumbing to Florentine influence, even when it expressed its opposition to that city.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Richardson 23, fol. 12v – with Decembrio’s rubrication annotation at bottom left. Contrast his lack of digraph with the scribe’s writing of ‘quae’ at ll. 8 and 13.

The Houghton has helpfully digitised the whole manuscript and the iiif images can be viewed in Mirador. All I can add is a description of this important codex (with all the usual caveats about its draft status).

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.

Leonardo Bruni’s letters translated

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 9 March, 2014

Retreating – with what I consider to be commendable restraint – from the spring sunshine that is bathing the ever-breathtaking Rome, I have had chance to update the list of the lectures I have recently given. Any of you who cares to study it will notice that the latest addition was given this month and, indeed, explains why I have been forced to come to Rome in the middle of term. As I explained in the previous post, I was asked to speak at a conference at the École française, the theme of which was the networks which underpinned the development and circulation of humanist rhetoric; my particular remit was to talk about the diffusion of humanist miscellanies in England. All arch posturing aside, I did wonder whether I should have declined the invitation, falling as it does two weeks before teaching ends at the University of Essex, but I am very glad that I have made the trip. The conference was both a stimulating and a friendly event, and it is also included a presentazione of a new work which deserves to receive attention in those territories of the res publica litteraria which, when they are not discoursing in the Tullian tongue, are English-speaking.

That proposition might seem preposterous when I explain that the work in question includes a parallel translation in French alongside its Latin text but when the text is the epistolary of Leonardo Bruni, I think I can justify the assertion. Florentine chancellor, historian of his city, orator and reviver of Ciceronian Latin, Bruni was – and was acknowledged in his lifetime – as the pre-eminent scholar of the new studia humanitatis. His status was, in fact, demonstrated by a couple of quotations provided in a paper by Vera Tufano at the conference which I have just attended. Talking of Bartolomeo Fazio’s invective against his colleague (and, many would say, his better) Lorenzo Valla, she drew attention to Fazio’s assertion that his opponent was not worthy to be compared to Guarino da Verona and Leonardo Bruni, ‘the two lights and ornaments of Italy’. Those two figures, similar in age but so different in their intellectual formation and careers, were often coupled together by contemporaries, though their reputations were of a rather different construction one from the other. Some of Guarino’s writings, particularly his translations of Plutarch but also his orations, enjoyed a wide circulation, but he was better known for his status as a teacher – a status which, as I have recently argued, was shrewdly fabricated by himself and by his students. It might be said that Guarino was well-known for being well known, while Bruni spoke to audiences in all corners of Europe through his writings, his Laudatio Florentinae urbis, his Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, his historical texts and, more than anything, his translations, primarily from Aristotle but also from Plutarch and (as was demonstrated at the conference when Giancarlo Abbamonte spoke of Fazio) from Xenophon. And, what is to the point, integral to Bruni’s familiarity were his familiar letters.

Bruni himself, like his friend Poggio Bracciolini, took care late in his life to compile his personal correspondence into an epistolary, organised in eight books. Bruni’s death took place 570 years ago to the day, on 9th March 1444; in its wake, Giannozzo Manetti supplemented  the epistolary with a further book of his former mentor’s last letters. In an elegant discussion which was part of the the presentazione, Stefano Baldassarri suggested we might muse on how far Manetti might have gone beyond simply adding to the letter-collection and consider whether he might also have edited Bruni’s Latin. However that may be, this nine-book edition had – as I mentioned in my own paper at the conference – a nearly immediate international circulation, one copy of it being made in London before the decade was done. The epistolary also appeared in print from the 1470s, but any ‘modern’ research on these letters turns to the seminal edition printed just under three hundred years after Bruni’s demise and which was the fruit of the labours of Lorenzo Mehus. That work was the basis for comments on revision compiled by F. P. Luiso at the beginning of the twentieth century, but not published until 1980, under the editorship of Lucia Gualdo Rosa. Yet, despite a plan involving Gualdo Rosa herself and Paolo Viti which saw the publication of a censimento of manuscripts of Bruni’s letters, and despite talk of a project based at the Scuola normale superiore in Pisa, there has not been a new critical edition of the Epistolae. It is one of those undertakings so large and so complex that its very importance becomes a barrier to its completion.

The new French publication is provided by Laurence Bernard-Pradelle, who has already established herself as a translator of Bruni with a 2008 collection of his works fit to stand alongside Paolo Viti’s parallel Latin-Italian volume of 1996. Her latest work does not claim to be the critical edition of the epistolario that we continue to await. Some might wonder, with the Mehus being available both on-line and in a recent reprint with an important introduction by James Hankins, what this new publication can add which will be of use to scholars. The answer is that the editor has consciously not based her work merely on Mehus but has taken into account that of Luiso and others, and incorporated the uncollected letters, the ‘extravaganti’, into her work (signifying their non-canonical status by the wise tactic of a typographical change, placing them in a smaller font size). What is more, she has added short introductions to each book, as well as a listing of manuscripts and an extensive bibliography, providing yet more scholarly value. In my judgement, in other words, we should apply Plato’s dictum that the best should not be the enemy of the good: let us wish for a fully critical edition but celebrate what we do now have, while the fairies who grant our wishes steel themselves for what even they will consider a bracing challenge.

The Palaeographer and the Philologist’s Stemma

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 4 March, 2014

I would like your advice (you, who are often so silent but who — I determinedly believe — are sitting there, shrewdly considering the prose). I have the not-unpleasant duty of breaking up term with a visit to Rome, to speak at a conference taking place in Place Navone — not, for sure, Piazza Navona, as this is at the École française. It is part of a series on ‘L’écriture latine en résaux’, with this event, organised by some impressive and strikingly young scholars, including Clémence Revest, concentrating on humanist works.

In my talk, I want to present in diagrammatic form some of the information about the relationship between manuscripts and so have turned to the established format of the stemma. Of course, it lacks some elements that philologist would consider a sine qua non; in particular, it does not trace the text back to its Ur-status or to its platonic form — there is no ‘x’ perching atop the tree here. What it gains, instead, though is some precision in dating: down the left-hand side is a set of years, with the manuscripts (most extant, some lost) aligned to that grid.

I should immediately admit that I am lucky: through a combination of philological and palaeographical knowledge, as well as circumstantial evidence, it is possible to be more definite about the date of a high proportion of these manuscripts than would be possible in most cases. Part of my paper will, in fact, be about how we can gain that precision and what it means for our understanding of the circulation of humanist texts. That said, there does remain some uncertainty about some dates – for instance, the copies of the ‘Virtue and Vice’ compilation listed at bottom right can only be dated tentatively and to a period of a few years rather than a specific date. One issue I have is how to demonstrate such tentativeness clearly in this tabular format. Should a different typeface be used? Should the lines of connexion be altered and if so, how?

One other change I would like to make is to signify more clearly the place of origin of the manuscripts. This is the purpose of the circle at top centre-right, marking those manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and given by him to Oxford University (in these cases, all in 1444). As those who know my work might realise, the intention is to delimit, to enclose the influence of Humfrey, and so provide a corrective to the assumption that he is the fons et origo of humanism in England. A good example involves Oxford: Balliol College, MS. 310 which sits on this chart floating at centre left (under the year 1449), intentionally without links to other manuscripts here. It is a copy, made by Theoderic Werken, of Leonardo Bruni’s Epistolae in the final nine-book edition; it has sometimes been assumed that it derived from a lost manuscript owned by Humfrey and given to Oxford but as the duke’s last gift to the university took place in the first days of 1444 and as the edition of Bruni’s letters was only completed after the author’s death in March of that year, that is highly unlikely, to say the least. What is more, it seems that the manuscript was produced in London, rather than in Oxford. The issue, then, is how to signify such differences of place: should the information be organised into columns (here it would be Oxford, London and Canterbury)?

I would be interested in your comments on these issues. More generally, I would like to hear if you think this type of presentation of information, ordering the manuscripts not just by their textual associations but also by their date, has any merit. I look forward to hearing from you.

Finally, a short set of fairly commonsensical abbreviations:

s: = scribe

p: = possessor

BL = London: British Library

BnF = Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France

NLW = Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales

A previously unidentified copy of Coluccio Salutati

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 19 March, 2012

I have been preparing some sample entries for my work on English Humanist Scripts up to c. 1509, intended for the Handwriting of the Italian Humanists series. In doing that, I have returned to the manuscripts of Petrus Lomer, a scribe who we know solely from four manuscripts. One of those is now in the Library of the Universiteit van Amsterdam [MS. I F 74], having arrived there just under a century ago. Previously, it had circulated among private collectors and auction houses on both sides of the Atlantic. During its travels, it lost a quire or more of its content. The result is that it has sometimes been mistakenly assumed that it contained one work — Benvenuto da Imola’s Liber Augustalis — but, in truth, that short text occupies only the first folios and ends imperfectly. The second text, when it has been noticed, has, because it lacks its opening pages, been identified solely as a ‘theological treatise’. The small discovery for today is that the manuscript actually contains De seculo et religione by the godfather of Florentine humanism, Coluccio Salutati.

This is a treatise that received a fine edition by Berthold Ullman in 1957 (in that edition, what we have in the Amsterdam manuscript is the text from p. 28, l. 22 until the end). Unsurprisingly, this manuscript does not appear in the list of thirty-one witnesses to the work. Ullman’s listing does suggest something of the interest of this particular copy: the majority of codices were created because monastic communities considered Salutati’s work was relevant to them. This manuscript, uniquely, marries De seculo with Benvenuto, a more secular, historical text. We also learn something by realising that Lomer copied this work, for it was not the only occasion that he showed an interest in the writings of the Florentine chancellor who was the mentor to the likes of Leonardo Bruni: there is a copy of Salutati’s De fato et fortuna now in the Biblioteca Capitolare in Padua signed by Lomer. That manuscript was one of two he definitely produced in England; is the same true for De seculo? There is no way for knowing for certain, though what early annotations there are suggest, instead, that this copy was in Italy from its first years. Was Lomer providing texts of Salutati for different readers on order? Or is it a sign of his own intellectual interests — was he a particular devotee of Coluccio Salutati? It is  in the nature of our knowledge of this elusive scribe that we cannot answer for certain. Yet.

More on Greenblatt, Lucretius and Poggio, or waiting for the Renaissance

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2012

It is in the nature – it is, indeed, the delight – of discussions that they travel in directions that are unexpected, that the interaction of voices forms its own identity or, as it were, develops its own voice. And, so, yesterday, in the discussion of Stephen Greenblatt, Poggio and Lucretius, I had not anticipated we would end up placing Greenblatt’s The Swerve. How the Renaissance Began within the continuing (or perhaps revived) legacy of Jacob Burckhardt. I should probably have anticipated that something like that might happen, given we were sitting in the refined surroundings of Merton College, under the chairmanship of David Norbrook who had written, over twenty years ago, a seminal article on the associations in Greenblatt’s earlier works with Burckhardt (Raritan, 1989). Convinced, as I am, that Burckhardt constituted a wrong turn for Renaissance studies, I was hoping we could avoid his name, but I should have been prepared for how the discussion swerved. And, it certainly proved a fecund re-direction.

I was there to shed medieval darkness on the light of the early modern: to elucidate Greenblatt’s discussion by placing it within the historiography on Poggio Bracciolini. The outline of my narrative can be easily detected from the handout – talking of Poggio’s influence in England from the time when, while resident in London, he took an English mistress, to outlining the range of Poggios presented by scholarship in the last century: the book-hunter, the inventor of a scribal revolution, the proto-archaeologist – all of which gain some mention in The Swerve. What, I noted, was not present was Poggio the civic humanist. It does not matter for our present purposes what purchase remains in Hans Baron’s thesis of Burgerhumanismus or civic humanism, a concept most closely associated with Leonardo Bruni who was, as James Hankins has put it, Baron’s ‘Exhibit A’ for Baron’s interpretation. What matters is that a cluster of pro-Florentine attitudes – a re-dating of the city’s foundation, a questioning of whether princely government can ever be anything other than tyrannical – these attitudes were championed by Poggio as they were by Bruni. Greenblatt tends to draw distinctions between these two characters (e.g., p. 126), but if there were any duel between Florentine and ‘tyrannical’ humanists, Poggio could have stood as Bruni’s second. The absence of ‘civic humanism’ in Greenblatt’s depiction of Poggio has, yesterday’s discussion suggested, a wider significance.

That absence also, it strikes me now, separates The Swerve from a discussion of Poggio with which, in other ways, it has several similarities: the Life published in 1802 and written by William Shepherd. That Liverpudlian Unitarian Minister constructed his biography over a century before Baron began to envisage his thesis but in his work, as in those of his friend, William Roscoe, there is a pride in the achievements of a mercantile city that creates for them a strong link between their own Liverpool and the Florence of the quattrocento which they admired (but – and this is often counted against them – never saw). While this marks a difference from Greenblatt’s approach, there is a likeness in their style of presentation: Shepherd was criticised for the ‘tedious’ digressions from biography into wider cultural history in his Life – moments we might find the most interesting, and a method that is obviously there in Greenblatt. There are more specific parallels too: both react with a sense of incomprehension against the genre of invective in which Poggio and his contemporaries often immersed themselves; and both find Poggio praiseworthy at the moment that he praises the calm dignity of the heretic Jerome of Prague when sent to die in flames at the Council of Constance.

This is an iconic moment for both authors because it apparently speaks of a tradition of tolerance to which both are sympathetic. Shepherd as a non-conformist in a Protestant country was attracted to any signs that Poggio might have had doubts about his Catholicism; for Greenblatt, it is a moment that relates to the wider theme of his book, to the recovery of a text that he sees as a call to reject superstition or fanaticism – a call, it seems, that Greenblatt senses is very relevant for our modern world.

I have described the urgent call for an end to fanaticism as a product formed in the shadow of the lost twin towers, though, as was pointed out yesterday, that is an added context for an attitude that was present before September 2001. What I sense not just in Greenblatt’s latest book but in other writings to have appeared recently is an attempt to come to terms with not just the bombings of the 11th September but also with the aftermath – the ‘war on terror’, the invasions, the ineffectual increase in security measures. The response is a revulsion with both those political policies and the heritage of western thinking that has allowed them to occur; an intellectual expression of ‘not in my name’ against recent governments and against longer cultural traditions. What I find problematic in this is that ‘not in my name’ is an expression of disengagement, washing one’s hands of responsibility that is, at the same time, a turning away or perhaps even turning a blind eye. Can responsibility be so easily cast off? It would clearly not have been in a culture of civic humanism, where engagement in one’s city was essential to it survival, let alone its thriving. A citizen may suffer exile but to choose to exile oneself, to retreat from the civic space, could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty.

It might, of course, be said that Poggio’s civic humanism was a comfortable position in support of the status quo, taken by someone who could distance himself from it, anyway, by his long-term presence in the ultimate court of monarchy, the papal curia. All this is true, though that should not let us sidestep the question of whether disengagement can ever be a responsible act. Meanwhile, if that criticism of Poggio has any traction, it in itself raises issues about Greenblatt’s depiction of him. The discussion yesterday highlighted elements that I glossed over or perhaps tried to screen out: it was emphasised how Poggio is presented as a masterless Renaissance individual in the Burckhardtian mould. This is harder to sustain if you focus on Poggio’s political career: his continual pursuit of a master, his achievement of status as a papal secretary in which role he wielded a significant influence. Here was not someone struggling to break free of the chains of tradition – something which Greenblatt perhaps senses and which explains his own ambivalent attitude towards his main character. If Poggio did achieve his own distinctive voice (as Riccardo Fubini describes it), it was in his own dialogues and what surprised me most in Greenblatt’s work was how these did not take a more central position, for their complex use of rhetoric and their use of irony makes them open to the sort of analysis at which Greenblatt excels; with closer attention, their ‘philosophy’ (for Poggio was often seen, in his writings, as a philosophus) could have provided a more subtle understanding of how this humanist related to and transformed the traditions in which he worked.

However that may be, let me conclude by lingering on the relationship between Greenblatt and Burckhardt. If is true that the latter is the context in which we should place the former – a context, I have admitted, I struggled to avoid applying to him but which the seminar discussion demonstrated was relevant – we would foreground the tale of individuality, though not as one triumphantly achieved in Poggio’s life. We would, however, also have to concede that there is something quite anti-Burckhardtian in The Swerve. In The Civilization, Burckhardt notoriously wanted to re-define humanism away from its classicising definition, emphasising it as an individualistic mindset which happened to be demonstrated through engagement with ancient texts. Greenblatt’s claim turns this on its head: Lucretius, his work implies, was so different, so other, that, if it did not sit on the desk before one, its contents would be unthinkable; present, it could unleash the changes in mindset that Burckhardt describes. In short, specific classical texts were not incidental to the Renaissance, but, rather, the Renaissance was impossible without them. If, though, this were true, and if we were to take a sober look at the limited influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento or, indeed, in subsequent centuries, we might have to ask when the Renaissance is going to happen.

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?    

How should we read Xenophon’s Hiero?

Posted in History of Political Thought, Humanism by bonaelitterae on 1 August, 2010

Xenophon’s Hiero is a small work with a large Renaissance reputation. Translated at the beginning of the quattrocento by Leonardo Bruni, it was one of the first pagan Greek texts to receive a rendering into humanist Latin; it circulated widely across Europe, becoming the standard version until Erasmus’ re-translation. Bruni’s text now survives in nearly two hundred manuscripts, as the estimable David Marsh has shown [Catalogus Translationum, vii (1992)]. It also has a significant place within the humanist’s oeuvre: it is one of what I would call Bruni’s manifestoes – four remarkably assured works produced in a remarkably fruitful period of his early thirties, presenting his agenda for study and for action. The manifestoes include two original compositions: the Laudatio Florentinae urbis, a celebration of republican Florence; and the Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, heralding a reform of literary scholarship, in which Bruni’s mentor, Coluccio Salutati, is presented as both the arbiter and the previous generation, while Niccolò Niccoli is given the role of radical firebrand. Alongside them are two translations, each dedicated to one of the figures in the Dialogi: to Salutati is sent a translation of St Basil on the use of reading the pagans – a highly appropriate tract considering the immediately contemporary attacks on Salutati for his ‘unchristian’ studies. To Niccoli Bruni thought it suitable to send Xenophon’s short dialogue on tyranny, the Hiero – but why? In what way is that apt? That is the question at issue.

In latter-day scholarship on Bruni’s ‘manifestoes’, interest has characteristically been concentrated on the original works. The significance of the translations produced alongside them has only recently begun to be explored. The Hiero is presently the subject of what we can be sure will be a stimulating doctoral thesis, and it is also central to a piece by Brian Jeffrey Maxson in the most recent issue of Renaissance Studies. It is an article which has left me waking up early in the morning pondering the question with which I opened. You see, Maxson describes the Hiero, without reservation, as ‘pro-monarchical’, while I have always taken the work to be subtly critical of one-man rule. My understanding perhaps owes something to Leo Strauss’s suspicious reading of the text; Strauss’s analysis, in turn, has been dismissed as being ‘as perverse as one can be’ by one classicist who would see the dialogue as an endorsement of rule over willing subjects, as is developed more fully in the Cyropaedia [V. J. Gray in Classical Quarterly, new series, xxxvi (1986)]. But, more recently, other classicists have wondered whether the Cyropaedia is as straightforwardly positive as has usually been thought [eg Y. L. Too in Pedagogy and Power (Cambridge, 1998)]; if that work can be read with suspicion, it leads us back to wondering about the Hiero. How can such a small text be subject to such diverse views?

The dialogue is deceptively simple. In a moment of leisure, the tyrant Hieron sits down with the poet Simonides, who asks his interlocutor to teach him from his experience who is happier, the tyrant or the private man. Hieron responds bemoaning his lot, enumerating how at every point his pleasure is thwarted by his status. This takes up the main part of the work. When he has finished, Simonides offers him advice on how to improve his situation and make his subjects be willing to be ruled by him – he should treat his country as his fatherland, and surpass all others in generosity and in kindness. If he does that, he will be happy and no one will be jealous of his happiness. The End. The dialogue stops there, with Hieron given no chance to respond or to thank the poet. It stops but does not conclude: this is a work which is artfully open-ended.

Xenophon’s refusal to close off the work, to declare a ‘victor’ in the debate (if it can be called that) allows and perhaps encourages the multiple meanings that have been given to the work. We could, then, simply finish here and get up from the table: the point of it is that its point is hard to define. But that still leaves two questions: why Xenophon should have wanted his work to be so open to interpretation? And if there are several ways of reading the work, what was Bruni’s? Let me focus on that second question.

The humanist dedication is itself a work of art which can often frame the text that follows and establish its relationship with the dedicatee. Leonardo Bruni does that in the preface to his translation of St Basil or in his later Plutarch dedications. In the contexts of those, the preface to the Hiero might seem odd: it has hardly anything to say about the work. Instead, it provides a brief biography of its author, praising Xenophon for his mastery of both arms and letters, describing how, after a successful military career, he was forced into exile by envious citizens and then turned his hand to philosophy. Niccoli could not but want, Bruni says, to embrace Xenophon. There is no mention in this preface of the subject-matter of the Hiero or of its characters. They are presented without introduction, as it were – except that the dialogue has been placed in a context in which what matters is the relationship between philosophy and political fortunes. In other words, Bruni does not hint at a particular political reading – either pro-monarchical or pro-republican – but does imply that reading is about politics.

It may be more usual to have a more forceful direction provided by a preface, rather than the gentle steering that Bruni masters here. But this is not unique in his literary career: take, for instance, his wonderful jeu d’ésprit, the Oratio Heliogabali, a speech placed into the mouth of a fictitious Roman emperor, exhorting the prostitutes of Rome to lasciviousness. That travelled without a preface – to the perplexity of some readers, it must said. On occasion, you will find copies with an added scribal note, explaining to the reader that this is to be read ironically and that Bruni was not, in fact, promoting vice. In contrast, it must be said, you would very rarely find such guidance notes in a copy of the Hiero – readers may not have had the same difficulty in understanding the purpose of that dialogue.

We have still not pinned down a particular meaning, a specific reading, to Bruni’s Xenophon – and that, I would suggest, is how Bruni would want it to be. He had, I suspect, no intention of closing down the open-ended nature of the dialogue. That said, he does re-weight the text somewhat by a simple act of translation. I am not thinking of his ‘straightening out’ of the text – at the point when Simonides teases Hieron about his catamite, in the Latin the young lover becomes a girl – but rather his emphasis on the word ‘tyrant’. Latin is notoriously a less supple language than Greek: the word ‘tyrannos’ could have connotations of rule that was either despotic or something less negative – the Latin ‘tyrannus’ has no such ambivalence. Perhaps a translator should consider using a different term to render ‘tyrannos’; Bruni did not. And what is more, he changes the title of the work so that it circulated not, primarily, as Hiero but more often as Tyrannus.

Bruni’s translation, then, comes in three parts: the short work itself, preceded by the shorter preface, itself preceded by the shortest, laconic (I nearly said Tacitean) part, the title. That title announces the dialogue to be about the tyrant, the evil monarch – an implicit contrast with the good citizen, Xenophon, who was its author. And yet this still does not tell us how to understand the dialogue; it does not reveal a straightforward message. But, then, how could it: if one were truly sitting in front of a tyrant, as Simonides was and as we might see ourselves as his successors, can we trust a word our interlocutor says? And can we, in turn, trust ourselves to be honest in his presence? Would we leave our conversation open-ended because we could not be open?