Here is a jolly scene of music-making:
This early seventeenth-century Dutch painting sits at the end of one wing of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen. Amidst that gallery’s riches – including a superlative Gerard David – the rather generic scene could easily be overlooked. What caught my eye (it may not surprise some who read this blog) was its depiction of books. In their rush to create a workable environment, the musicians had created an impromptu pile of books, intended to prop open the long, low shape of the score at the right page. Limp leather bindings sit one upon another, but look also what is underneath them. At the bottom is a sturdy wooden book-rest but that did not suffice for our lute-player who, to gain the right distance from his music, had placed open a heavy volume – we see the thick binding which looks as if leather over wooden boards, replete with two substantial clasps – at the edge of the rest, and layered the other volumes on top of it. That cannot be good for its spine. Here we have an example of that well-attested phenomenon, the abuse of books in art.
This is not the only example in Rouen’s collection – in another Dutch piece by Lambert Jacobsz, St Mark rests his heavy elbows on some pages. What made me stop to think about de Keyser’s picture, however, was the juxtaposition with it of another small canvas in the same room. Turn ninety degrees and this memento mori stands before you:
The skull presides over a scene reminding the viewer of the futility of human endeavour. The globe at the left wills us to ask ‘what shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?’. This man, though, has perhaps only dreamt of distant lands, and whiled away his time in the frivolity of violin-playing. The transient nature of the sound of music is reinforced by the flimsy score on which the skull lies, its pages and limp binding dangling over the side of the table, creating a trompe l’œil. Its material echoes that of the ragged broadsheet on the wall: paper is used as the epitome of impermanence.
The juxtaposition brought home to me what I should have realised in the first place: de Keyser’s scene is not simply a naturalistic rendering of a domestic setting but is freighted with similar moral messages to the ‘Vanitas’. The event it depicts is not simply a moment of happiness but, in its show of careless abandon, is one of danger to the soul, in which the frivolous is privileged and presses down upon the weightier, as the limp leather bindings sit and obscure the heavier tome.
The reason I share this with you is not simply as an exploration of a single painting seen on my holidays. It raises larger questions about how early modern users of book responded to different types of construction, how conscious they were of the quality of paper, what signification a style of binding may have had in their mind. Did a sense of their own ephemeral nature touch them as they fingered the pages of a thin, limply bound booklet? Did they expect true learning to come in thick-set folios? If so, what failure to appreciate the vanity of life must have lain there! This is to say, does an ordering such as that presented, by inversion, in de Keyser’s painting, collude in a belief that some human knowledge has more chance of being lasting? Thus we hide from the enormity of death.
This takes me to my final point: history, it is sometimes said, is about an attempt to cheat death, to live on beyond our mortal span. Historians, certainly, are memorialisers entrapped by previous generations’ attempts to be remembered. We are part of a cult of permanence or, rather, of the forlorn hope that we may be able to escape being ephemeral. As, though, we cannot, has not the time come that we should write the cultural history of impermanence? That could be a truly monumental volume.
On my travels, my eye has often been caught by the presence of books in art. They are a fashion accessory for many a Virgin Mary surprised in her prayers at the point of the Annunciation, or they can be an accoutrement intended to show off the sitter’s learning in a Renaissance portrait. They are often an ally of or an object for veneration. But I am struck how often this thing to be venerated is made vulnerable to all sorts of damage by the disrespect shown to them in a significant number of depictions. In short, artists use and abuse books in ways which would incite palpitations in the breast of their custodians, the noble profession of librarians.
Even when books are present in a work of art in order to signify intelligence or virtue, they can be presented in a state that could cause them irreparable damage. Take, for instance, the remaining segment of the late-fifteenth-century funerary monument to a canon of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. His name was Alessandro de Peruccianis and he loved books so much, this monument tells us, that he could not be without them, even in death. And so, in this case, the recumbent figure is depicted his head on a pillow, beneath which lies, we can see, a clutter of books. Never mind the fact that it may be uncomfortable for Peruccianis — after all, he is dead — think of the weight that would place upon the bindings.
We do not have to go far to realise that such abuse was not an affectation of a single Renaissance sculptor. Such misuse has a long and continuing history: in the same church, there is the monument to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, who died in 1934. He was known, in part, for his diplomatic work — he signed the 1929 Lateran Agreement with Mussolini securing the Vatican City’s independence, an Agreement still celebrated each year in Europe’s smallest state — but all the more for his scholarship in canon law. So it is appropriate that he showed be depicted, in death, in association with books, but one wishes they had been shown more care. The scuplted volumes are in a shocking state: stuffed to one side, piled on top of each other, with fragile bindings.
And it is not just scupltors who will subject books to indignities. Let us travel to Vienna and take in two paintings. The first is a real insult to the care of books. It is Parmigianino’s image of Cupid carving a bow — carving it on top of a volume. And, as if that was not bad enough, that volume lies on top of another, open book. How its spine must suffer caught eternally in that awkward pose.
You might rationalise this and say that the artist’s moralistic intention was to signify how the passions can crush learning beneath their feet. But even the good can damage books, as does Mary Magdalen in the depiction painted by Orazio Gentileschi. She gazes up to heaven, not caring for the fact her dress has dropped off her breasts — or for the fact that her body reclines on top of a large open volume. Penitent she may be but, in this account, she has very good reason to be.
Books are as static as stones. They sit inert on the shelves, though, in my room, some are piled so high on their sides there is a chance that one day one might topple over and slip to the ground, from where it can not fall any further. It will lie there until I stoop to help it up again. Yet, books are also highly movable, more so than, say, many paintings or furniture. A book’s stasis is a temporary state, a front to hide the active career it has had – and could have again at any moment, if I take it off the shelf, flick through it, or throw it across the room in disgust, or give it away in an act of generosity I know I will later regret. Each book is a travelogue that can never be finished.
Take the book in front of me. Its price sticker has not lost its stickiness yet. It sits on its back cover and tells me I parted with £12.99 in Blackwell’s, Oxford. Integral now to the book is my ownership note, written, as is my practice, at top left of the front flyleaf in pencil: it reminds me that I brought it home to Catherine Street from the Broad on 12th June 2007. I wonder: how far had it travelled before then? The title page tells me that the work was published by University of California Press (Berkeley Los Angeles London): which side of the Atlantic was it manufactured? The text was composed in the States or, at least, that would seem to be where Steven Rendall produced this English translation of a French work. The book is shy about revealing his whereabouts. It is only by moving away from my book and checking on-line that I learn he was then based in Eugene, Oregon as Professor of Romance Languages (he now lives in France). So, the work must have been a dialogue between neighbouring states: the original author signs the preface ‘La Jolla California’. That is over 400 miles from where the publishers would have been sitting. The work was well-travelled even before it was printed. It first appeared in 1984, but the publication details record that the ‘first paperback printing’ was in 1988. In fact, I suspect my book of not being honest with me: it must be lying about its age. The same page records ‘the paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (R – 1997)’. I do not know what this means but another look on computer records that this industry standard for paper quality was released on 1st January 1992. So my book must date after that. And several years: the cover design, involving a photograph by Toshi Sasaki, was created by Victoria Kuskowski – ponder on the cosmopolitanism conjured up by those names – and Kuskowski, the internet says, left Wesleyan University in 1998 and was senior designer at the relevant press from 2001 to 2006. Despite what it claims, my book is not yet ten years old but, with the quality of paper, I should be reassured it can last for ‘several hundred years’ – if fire, or water, or simple neglect do not kill it first.
A book like this can be reluctant to reveal all about its origins; it misinforms and it simplifies its own history. We are complicit with that simplification. We hand over the money in the shop and leave with it, thinking little about how it came to be there in the first place. Leave aside the odyssey of the text from Paris to Oregon to California (and presumably back and forth) before it was typeset. My book – my unique copy, with its price sticker, ex libris and slight stain down the outer edges (was that there before today?) – had undergone its own journey: from computer screen to print run, and then via binding and warehouse to purchase order and coming to rest on a shelf in the Norrington Room, Oxford’s underground treasure-house of books. And, then, the next instalment of its story began when I purchased it. How many lives it must have touched on its travels, and none of those lives any more able than myself to conceive of all the others who had become in some small way associated with each other by this paper object. To what mundanity a book, however arcane the wisdom of its text, is witness; to what humanity a book is also testimony.