bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Never read once

Posted in Academic Practices, Reading by bonaelitterae on 30 March, 2020

I have a morning when what I have published is unwriting itself. I am working on a long-overdue article which should be a simple write-up of a plenary lecture given two years ago. In challenging myself, however, to think deeper and go further, I am realising how superficial I have been in what I have already allowed to go out to the world. Reviewers to date have been very kind to The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain; I would be much harsher.

The first chapter of that book is entitled ‘The Eloquent Page’, which encapsulates a point central to my argument: the Quattrocento humanists in reforming how the page looked did so in the belief that the presentation of a text was not extrinsic to its meaning but essential to its expression. For words to be beautiful, they need not only to sound so (in the mind’s ear) but also to be pleasing to the eye. If, in other words, one wants to write with eloquence, it is not just about a phrase being well-turned; it must be also be well turned out on the page. In pursuit of this visual expression of eloquence, the humanists believe they had found their paradigm via a re-invention of an earlier style of script. Their assumption was that, just as a particular idiom of Latin was, for them, the best method of communication, so this new old bookhand, the littera antiqua, was not simply a good possibility but the best.

I stand by all these claims but what has struck me today is how much more persuasive I could have made them. The article I am writing touches on how humanist texts praise of the built environment. What I have come to appreciate and regret is that I missed a trick in Renaissance Reform in not drawing a parallel between ideas of a well-designed building and what we can call the architecture of the page. Fundamental to both of them is the sense of proportion, and it was clearly that perception of balance, through which comes harmony, that attracted the humanists to their littera antiqua.

I could say, in my defence, that making such an association would have been in danger of disrespecting chronology: in the development of the revived styles, the page came before the Palazzo Rucellai or the Pazzi Chapel. The humanists did not need to think — indeed, could not think — of architectural prototypes for their reforms, whereas later Brunelleschi or Ghiberti could not but have been conscious of the re-design of the page as setting an exemplar for their own innovations. I might also say that, perhaps partly in response to developments in the art of the built, a hyper-sensitivity to the proportions of the page appeared in the second half of the fifteenth century, when scribes like Bartolomeo Sanvito began to show a concern for the golden ratio. A perception of the importance of proportion, then, was integral to the early humanists’ reform, but turning that into a science came later than the main focus of my discussion.

Either of those defences, though, is weak when set against my obvious failure. The associations had been expressed with exquisite eloquence by Ernst Gombrich in his classic essay ‘From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of Arts’. When I say ‘classic’, I mean both in the public sense that it is often republished and highly regarded and also in a more private way: it is an essay which I read first early in my days of doctoral research and which was fundamental to my intellectual development. I remember cheering its anti-Hegelianism, being enthralled by its delineation of a human community, feeling the thirst to read as much Gombrich as possible. I have still on my wall a quotation from him, which I have written out in a tidy script which I stopped being able to achieve quarter of a century ago:

I learned what I should have always have known, that the past was not people by abstractions but by men and women

If I turn, though, to my recent monograph and check the bibliography, I find no mention of his name. It is true that you will also not found there a reference to Michel de Certeau, who is another (but more recent) strong influence of what I have written. Perhaps it is the case that the deepest debts are the ones that cannot be expressed. I still accuse myself, though, and find myself guilty of ingratitude. I take some comfort that I am alone in this specific oversight: there is an important recent doctorate on the humanist reform of script and one which we should hope soon appears in print, by Philippa Sissis, and she provides ample citation to Gombrich. At least my failing is peculiar to me but that does not exonerate me.

I also know how this failure occurred: I read as I live life — I savour and then I move on. I rarely return to re-read, and if I do re-read it is sometimes because I have forgotten I ever seen it in the first place. I know, in this instance, that I did return to Gombrich’s article several times, so it transfused itself into my mental apparatus, but I must to have come to assume that my recall would be perfect and I would have nothing to regain by revisiting it again. Perhaps, in privileging further reading, I have lived by the assumption that it is better to have read and lost of the memory of it than never to have read it at all. Today, in contrast, I have come to realise the truth of the famous passage in Seneca’s Letters:

Distringit librorum multitudo; itaque cum legere non possis quantum habueris, satis est habere quantum legas.

He is surely not talking of reading as the eye gliding over the page but the sort of intensive study which comes only with frequent re-acquaintance. Perhaps it is better than never to have read than to have read only once. Maybe this should be an article of faith for the virtuous pursuit of slow scholarship.

The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain — in one word

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2019


If you had to summarise your book in one word, what would it be? The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain has its official publication date on 2nd May 2019. I have, then, been giving some thought to what my response to the question would be and I think the answer is: cosmopolitanism.

I appreciate that some might me to justify my use of that word. I employ the term in its general sense of involving people from different countries but, the remit of my book, with its cast-list which ranges from St Andrews to Rome and from Majorca to Milan, is rather narrower than the word’s little sense. My use of the concept cannot have the worldwide reach that cosmopolitanism has in present-day philosophy. I could defend my profligate deployment of the term by noting that Diogenes the Cynic, the first person on record to claim he was a cosmopolite, envisaged a world that did not include the Americas or Australasia. I could also point out that The Renaissance Reform draws attention to how humanists saw the British Isles as at the very edge of the world — but I could not claim that those humanists’ vision was so myopic that it stopped at the Mediterranean or that it was oblivious to cultures beyond Western Christendom. Indeed, the interaction of ‘the West’ (as defined by obedience to the pope) with Eastern Christendom impinges on the book’s discussion. Moreover, a sense of the edges of a civilization is intentionally at the borders of its coverage. All that said, The Renaissance Reform cannot pretend to be a contribution to the global Middle Ages. Perhaps, if I had my time again, I might replace ‘cosmopolitan’ with ‘Europolitan’ — a citizen of Europe (with the inclarity of its definition being productive) — except that I see that term has already been appropriated by a Swedish mobile phone company, and I would not want to infringe their copyright.

The emphasis on cosmopolitan in the book is a challenge. The theme of the work is the re-design of the manuscript book, in script and layout, promoted by Florentine humanists at the very start of the fifteenth century and its success among the British. That statement in itself is a provocation, since it is usually assumed that humanism reached England, at its earliest, in the reign of Henry VII and only found glorious summer under the sun of York and Lancaster combined, Henry VIII. In contrast, I insist that there was a sustained tradition of interest from the 1430s which should qualify to be called ‘the English Quattrocento’. This is not to say that the tradition was the sole preserve of roast-beef-eating English-born, or that it grew solely in English soil. On the one hand, there were many immigrants who were central to the promotion of the humanist agenda in England — with the most significant being not Italians but Dutch scribes. On the other, there were Englishmen and Scots who were active in the humanist reforms in their heartland of Italy. These Britons were part of a wider pattern of engagement which, I claim, was integral to the success of the humanist aesthetic for the book. I would go further and say that some were significant not merely in its propagation but in its construction. That is to say, this Renaissance reform originated with a coterie of Florentines but it gained its popularity through international collaborators. The leitmotif was cosmopolitanism at not just the edges of Europe but what was to Italian eyes its epicentre.

Oxford: Balliol College, MS. 310 fol. 32v — Letters of Leonardi Bruni, written in England by the Dutch scribe, Theoderic Werken (1449).

This assertion, for which I give evidence in the monograph and other recent publications, raises a question: why would non-Florentines or non-Italians adopt a script designed to be a local reaction against ‘gothic’ (that is northern European) influence? We tend to see in the humanist bookhand as immersed in a particular set of cultural co-ordinates: the legacy of ancient Rome with its physical presence in Italy (though not much in Florence itself), the humanists’ attempts to revive eloquence both textually and visually. Yet this — I hypothesise — was not primarily what other Europeans saw on the page when viewing a book in the new ‘Roman’ hand. Here, I take cosmopolitan to mean ‘the world’ not in a simple synchronic sense of how it is now but also encompassing its shared inheritance. The humanists, in developing their reform they turned to prototypes of the eleventh and twelfth century — to late caroline minuscule or ‘protogothic’ bookhand. Such prototypes were not, of course, Italian patrimony alone: caroline minuscule, emanating from north-east France and beyond, had been successful across Europe, and ‘protogothic’ had thrived near the shores of the English Channel. That is to say, what non-Italians saw when they looked upon the ‘new’ script, created in its very particular local circumstances, was an acknowledgement of a tradition in which they could see themselves as full partners.

The humanist reform, however, was not a single moment. The bookhand itself developed — in part, thanks to the intervention of ultramontanes. Equally, there was also a ‘second wave’ when, in the north-east of Italy in the mid-quattrocento, what we know of ‘italic’ was invented. That very name, foisted on the script by French and English, suggests its Italian origins, and it worked on viewers in a very different way from the ‘Roman’ hand, since there was not for this any historic precedent to which it returned. While the humanist bookhand was archaising, italic was archaising by metaphor. The result was that this later script’s international success worked differently and was, in its first decades, more dominated by Italians. In The Renaissance Reform, this is presented as a shift in cosmopolitanism but it could be configured otherwise: as a move from Europolitan to Italophile.

Lot 951 - A rare letter to Da Vinci’s patron, with a full signature HENRY VII: (1457-1509) King of England

A royal letter of 1506, signed by Henry VII, written in italic by Pietro Carmeliano (private hands).

As will be clear from what all that I have said, the field of action for this cosmopolitanism is the page. In that sense, detecting it is akin to the sensitivity art historians show to the multiple cultural contacts that shape a Renaissance painting or miniature. In palaeographical terms, cosmopolitanism can stand as a conceit for digraphism or polygraphism. The Renaissance Reform discusses the movement between scripts, and the adoption of humanist elements in gothic scripts; it also muses on how far we can sense a conscious rejection of the reforms when a bookhand shows no humanist influence. I also invoke at one point the concepts of code-switching and code-mixing, but an implication of what I have just said is that, while these may be separate ‘codes’, they could announce, to some eyes, their shared origin, speaking of one graphic tradition that has ramified into many forms.

It could be legitimately said that the ‘some’ just mentioned are only ‘a few’. The Renaissance Reform is very clear that it is talking about a minority among a minority. Most of its characters stood out from the many who were born in the same village or town because these people were highly mobile across Europe. They also were the privileged because they were highly literate, in societies that were majority-illiterate. Cosmopolitanism — citizenship of this ‘world’ — was only for the select. At the same time, a theme that underlies this book is a sense that they themselves sensed their special status and that some were humbled by it. Some, I suggest, took it less as a badge of pride than as a spur to think on the poverty of their own literacy and, indeed, on the limits of their own cosmopolitanism.

Littera antiqua as a cosmopolitan enterprise

Posted in Humanism, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 January, 2018

One advantage of teaching palaeography at King’s College, London, this year — apart from the enthusiastic and inquisitive students, of course — is that it is a short hop to the Eurostar. So, having introduced the groups to the delights of textualis yesterday morning, I am now in Paris to speak at the conference. Its title is L’Humanisme à l’épreuve de l’Europe (XV e. -XVI e siècles) and my topic is ‘The Renaissance of littera antiqua: a cosmopolitan enterprise’. At the risk of forfeiting what suspense there might be to my paper, let me share with you one small part of what I will discuss.

Littera antiqua, otherwise known as Roman hand or humanist minuscule, is famously an invention of Florence, c. 1400. Poggio Bracciolini (my old friend) and his colleagues called their innovation ‘ancient letter’ because they saw themselves reviving a script older than what had recently been fashionable. They insulted that fashion by labelling it not just modern but also ‘gothic’. That term implied that the contemporary bookhands, with their compressed, uniform-looking script, were an imposition on Italy by barbarian foreigners who knew no better. Poggio and those who encouraged him wanted to liberate their countrymen from this tutelage, and looked back to the scripts that preceded gothic to find a style of writing they considered more legible and more elegant. In this way, the humanists’ campaign had an element of local pride, of asserting an Italian-born cultural identity against the invasion of northern European habits.

The humanists’ nomenclature has stuck, and with it also some of the assumptions that underlie it. In particular, littera antiqua, like the other forms of script that the humanist came to promote, has been seen as an Italian product which was sometimes exported in the years after its invention and then slowly adopted in countries beyond the Alps, by the barbarians themselves. Thus, it is considered a safe assumption that a manuscript in a fine humanist minuscule was manufactured by an Italian, unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. Sometimes there is, in fact, such contrary proof, for it is known that there were some non-Italians who adopted the humanist scribal habits, even in their homeland. So, for instance, Poggio tutored other copyists in the new style and these included one Frenchman, with whom his master was pleased — and his ability to emulate Poggio’s hand was so successful that it has sometimes proven difficult to distinguish one from another.

The ‘good French scribe’ is thought of as the exception, and in Florence, this has some truth. A. C. de la Mare’s seminal listing of seventy-two Florentine humanist scribes includes only eight who were non-Italian. That, though, does constitute a proportion of over one in ten. I have, previously in print, extrapolated from the data provided by Albert Derolez for a larger group of humanist scribes active across Italy and shown that the proportion there is one in six. It would, in other words, seem that in the city of littera antiqua’s birth, the engagement of foreigners in the humanist agenda was below the average.

There is one city which is certainly known to have been highly cosmopolitan and that is Rome. Elisabetta Caldelli, in a rich survey of scribes in the papal city, has drawn attention to the fact that about half of those whose identities we know were visitors, often long-term residents, from other countries. Caldelli’s figures, however, range across all scribes, not just those who adopted humanist practices. It would be plausible to assume that those who came from ‘gothic’ cultures would continue to deploy that style in which they were originally trained, and so that a lower proportion wrote in littera antiqua. In preparing my paper, I investigated her data further, organising those with a stated origin by geographical areas as they would have been contemporarily defined, and identifying the usual style employed by each of the copyists, both Italian and non-Italian. Of Caldelli’s 138 scribes, I find that 126 can be defined by national origin (my figures and designations differ slightly from hers; she organises them by modern countries). Of those, it becomes clear that only a minority — a third — of the total list were expert in littera antiqua, but that, of that minority, exactly half were non-Italian. Here is the information in detail:


All scribes

Scribes of littera antiqua


















TOTAL 65 out of 126 scribes (51.5%) 21 out of 42 scribes (50%)

[Data extrapolated from E. Caldelli, Copisti a Roma nel Quattrocento (Rome, 2006)]

Naturally, these figures need to be used with caution: they are based on named scribes, and not all were ostentatious enough to announce their identity. More did so in the Quattrocento than in previous centuries, but still only a small proportion of manuscripts have a revelatory colophon. It may be that scribes from afar were more likely to state their nationality, though I must say that I know of several non-Italian scribes active in Italy who did not feel the urge to do so. It is also the case that the figures make Rome exceptional, as Florence also was: nowhere else in the peninsula could claim to have a community of humanist scribes that was so cosmopolitan.

Even with those caveats, there is a very striking implication of these figures. The usual assumption, as I have said, is that a manuscript in littera antiqua should be taken to be by an Italian hand until proven otherwise. If, though, a volume hails from Rome, that assumption is patently not sound: it is equally likely that it was by a foreigner. That said, it is not always easy to localise a codex to a particular city and, that being the case, it raises further complications. In most places, only a minority of humanist scribes were non-Italian but the proportion was rarely negligible and, that being so, is it legitimate to continue to hold the traditional assumption? More broadly, is it not time to reconceptualise the history of the impressive pan-European success of littera antiqua?

This, as I have said, is only one small part of my talk and, in describing to you, I have glossed over some of the interesting features: I have not mentioned the split between nations; I have also left aside the issue of humanist cursive and of its most elegant sub-type, the italic bookhand (the proportions are strikingly different from the ones I have just outlined). There is more to say — but, then, I do need to leave some revelations fresh for the conference audience.