bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

A previously unidentified manuscript from the collection of Christopher Urswick – and the need to catalogue maniculae

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 18 April, 2016

One of the benefits of the addiction with which, as I have described, we manuscript researchers are afflicted, is the afterglow that follows the high. It is a short span of time but one in which it seems that the luck – or self-made serendipity – continues to hold and further finds can be made. So it has happened with me today. It is unrelated with the subject of the high itself, the unidentified work of Thomas Candour, but is connected with other codices I saw on my American travels. Two of these were the work of Pieter Meghen, both made for the Dutchman’s first English patron, Christopher Urswick, dean of Windsor. In both, the same reader annotates the volume and he has been identified as Urswick himself. I have not before studied systematically his manuscripts – here operates the curse of excellent scholarship which wards of later travellers through the same regions: Urswick’s book collection received a seminal study by the late Joe Trapp in the first volume of that estimable journal Renaissance Studies (estimable – I explain in the spirit of full disclosure – because it published my first article). With such a work published, is there any need for further investigation? There is, of course, always more to be discovered. What happened in this case is that the annotations with their distinctive drooping manicula reminded me of a note I made some fourteen years ago about a manuscript in the Bodleian. This is the first day since my return that I have had the opportunity to check MS. Rawl. G. 28, a tiny, pocket-sized later fifteenth-century copy of Cicero’s De officiis in a hybrid gothic script with some humanist features, including the repeated use of a low-set ampersand as both conjunction and suffix. Having just turned over it leaves, I can nwo announce with full confidence that it includes, starting at fol. 10 and with the last appearing at fol. 102v, marginalia which are, indeed, by Urswick. This should be added to the list of volumes that passed through his hands.

We might also add that he was not the first owner: another reader also annotates the book – sometimes translating short passages of Latin into English – and, as at fol. 95v, Urswick’s notes are written around those of the other reader, the sequence of ownership can be established. I think we may be able to go further and say something more about that other reader, but I am not fully certain of that yet (confirming it may require a trip to Rouen, tant pis) and, anyway, one revelation is enough for one day.

A revelation, you say? This hardly registers on the Richter scale of codicological discoveries, you complain. I did say the find was small – and, indeed, that is why it is presented here in what I have called before the imaginary journal,  Aperçus & obiter dicta, rather than being hidden away in my notes waiting, like so much else, to be launched upon the world in print and with fanfares. I mention it, however, because it introduces a wider issue to which we should attend. Too often, in catalogues, the presence of a manicula or pointing hand is noted with no more description. I could not have made the link I have done if I had not copied out an example of it myself (remember, this was before the days of digital cameras) and written a record as an aide-memoire of its main features. What I am suggesting is that we need both a repository of images of maniculae and an agreed language (equally for hard-copy descriptions and for tagging of on-line images), designed to explain the salient elements of a pointing hand. We might start with the term itself: some catalogues talk of a maniculum or maniculus but these are simply mistakes (in Latin, the diminutive of a term takes that term’s gender and as manus is feminine…); should we, though, talk of a ‘manicula’ or use the new English coinage, ‘manicule’? I leave to an International Convention the debate and testy resolution of that issue. What, I think, matters more is that we should record features like its angle: is it upright or horizontal, or diagonal (rising or, as I have just said, drooping)? Does it show fingers as well as fore-finger? Does it have a cuff? Is it connected to a marginalising line and, if so, in what style?

These, I would suggest, are the key elements we need to record: perhaps you have more you would like to suggest (as long as we stop short of a counsel of impossible perfection). Maniculae can be a powerful tool for recognising a person’s annotations, particularly when verbal notes are rare or overly succinct – but we can only harness that power if we show them the respect of a clear and shared vocabulary.

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A novel graphic

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 14 February, 2013

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.

The Art of the Margin

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2011

A few weeks back, following the close of the Warburg conference in honour of Tilly de la Mare and waiting to meet the ever-vivacious Sue Russell (whose laughter lights so many lives), I had a moment to step into the National Gallery and commune — along with the thousands others there — with art. Instead of entering, as I usually do, through the Sainsbury Wing, I went up the main stairs and, in the first room, was struck by Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of Giovanni Agostino della Torre.

I have an interest — I might have mentioned — in the depiction of books in painting and, indeed, the abuses of those parchment or paper repositories of knowledge in art. A plentiful number of books are on display in this portrait, on the desk and, all the more prominently, in the sitter’s hand. It is this in particular that caught my attention. A sitter holding a book is not unusual, not even a book held upright, as here. Nor is it uncommon to have a binding meticulously presented with a lunette on the back cover, here giving the title Galen, to represent della Torre’s medical interests. But this book is not just held — it is held slightly open, sitting on the palm of Giovanni’s hand, in a position which appears ungainly. Why do this? Surely it is to allow the edge of the pages of the volume to be seen, and what we see there is not pristine white paper but, instead, frequent handwritten annotations (but, sadly, no maniculae) presumably by the sitter himself. In other words, della Torre’s learning is suggested not just by the book he holds but by the fact that we can glimpse — no more than, just a teasing taster — his erudition in the margins. The presentation might act as a metaphor for the relevatory nature of the portrait itself, which can hint but not fully encapsulate the person depicted. Equally, it can be a metaphor for marginalia which itself can hint but can rarely provide complete insight into their author.

Are there — I ask you to tell me — other paintings that similarly play with the possibilities of marginalia?

Up for auction: new light on John Shirwood and English humanism

Posted in Auctions, Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 27 November, 2011

I have commented before on the excitement of previously little-known manuscripts coming up for sale. Lord knows that there is enough in our public repositories that has not been properly investigated and waiting to be discovered. But there is an extra frisson when an unique volume, from private hands, appears on the stage at an auction. This is the case with lot 45 of the Sotheby’s sale in London on 6th December: a manuscript that has been unknown to scholars because it has been in private hands since the Reformation and has never before appeared for sale. One of its selling points is that it adds to our knowledge of John Shirwood, described with little hyperbole in the sale catalogue as ‘one of the earliest English humanists’.

I have been long acquainted with Shirwood who, in his lifetime, became bishop of Durham and whose collection of manuscripts and incunables, via the successor to his see, Richard Fox, reached the latter’s new foundation in Oxford of Corpus Christi College. I have become used to seeing his ungainly large annotations and rapidly drawn manicula in his books. I remember seeing him get rather over-excited in the margins of one printed volume at a sententia of Cicero’s, saying that it was worth noting 10,000 times. Then, when preparing the appendix to the fourth edition of Weiss’s Humanism in England, I looked more closely at his one known work, De ludo arithmomachiae, a description of a chess-like mathematical game that, in a touching preface in attractive humanist Latin, he says he taught to his now-dead patron, George Neville, archbishop of York, then in exile in Calais for his disloyalty to the Yorkist regime that his family had helped make and had tried to break.

The manuscript now on sale takes us to an earlier stage of Shirwood’s career, before Neville was archbishop and was merely bishop of Exeter. The volume itself has the hallmarks, in its script and illumination, of being a product of the university town of Oxford in the early 1460s. The main part of it is occupied by works of Walter Hilton in Latin, followed by some prose and verse texts in English. They are followed by an epitaph, introduced by an image of a corpse, which, the title tells us was written by John Shirwood, chancellor of the cathedral of Exeter, in memory of John Southwell, seneschal to Neville. This information allows us to date the composition of the epitaph (but not necessarily, of course, the copying) to 1460 – 65. That Shirwood wrote verse as well as prose is itself a revelation. One might hope that he wrote in a Latin that demonstrated he had already mastered humanist Latin — but, actually, the manuscript is more interesting than that. The poem does have some classical references, but none of them highly unusual or outside the range of reference available before the feted ‘re-discovery’ of further texts in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The structure of the epitaph with each couplet opening and closing with the words ‘munde vale’ shows Shirwood working within a more established tradition of composition. In short, what we have here is Shirwood in ante-humanist mode.

This sheds interesting light on the development of the humanist learning of Shirwood and, indeed, of Neville himself, who was to become known as a friend of the Greek cardinal, Bessarion, and who employed Greek scribes in his household. Did the elevation of Neville to York open new vistas for him and his protege? Either certainly could have read humanist works earlier in Oxford, as some were available there, in large part thanks to the generosity of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. But that they were there did not mean they must have read them (or, it should be added, that the university town was the only place where they could have found that inspiration). Oxford’s mid-century intellectual interests were not, of course, confined to the humanist — and, indeed, I think this manuscript is a useful example of that. The sale catalogue strains to associate the manuscript closely with Shirwood himself, because of the presence of this previously unknown epitaph of his. But there is no sign of his script in the codex, and the inclusion of his verses — probably as an afterthought — may better reflect his master’s standing in Oxford: Neville was long-term chancellor to the University. It would be little surprise if the literary activities within his household were quickly available to the clerks of Oxenford; those clerks, for their part, showed themselves keen (here as elsewhere) to add to their reading with some small sign of their interest in the recent or what they might have seen as the up-to-date.

What I am hoping to emphasise is the obvious truth that, while Oxford may have been important to English humanism (and this is often overstated), humanism was not of overwhelming significance in Oxford. This is reflected in this manuscript:  for those few of us interested in the development of English humanism, this codex is of significant importance, but we should appreciate that in the context of the manuscript itself, English humanism is at best a minor element — a future perfect, as it were. The manuscript has interest enough beyond the couple of folios at the end where Shirwood’s poem is included. In fact, the main part of the book provides a striking example of a scribe regularly engaging with what he is copying: he regularly adds notes in the margin, cross-referring from Hilton to other authors, like Bonaventure and Bede. And, with my interests in maniculae, I cannot leave unmentioned his pointing hand, that curves out from the text and arches back towards it — a style that, in my experience, is not typical of fifteenth-century readers. It is, instead, old-fashioned or perhaps I should say archaising. Perhaps here, in this detail, rather than in Shirwood’s verse, there is sign of a desire to resurrect the scholarly style of long-lost generations — a parallel to (conscious or not), but not an imitation of, the humanist agenda.

More ways of making a point

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 15 February, 2011

I have already mentioned my interest in maniculae, those pointing hands that appear in printed books but also in manuscripts. When a history of manuscript annotation comes to be written — to stand alongsie Bill Sherman’s work on early-modern varieties — particular attention will be drawn to the manicula. It is not the only form of annotating symbol, a method of marking a passage of interest or significance; indeed, it is probably rather a late-comer, slapping out of the way the style of face-drawing that is more common in twelfth- or early-thirteeenth-century manuscripts. Sometimes those two forms stand side by side in late medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. I have before me at the moment an interesting specimen, as I sit in the Vatican Library (how things change — when I first came here sixteen years ago, the idea that in this sanctuary next to its roof-top cortile you could be in contact with a wider world was unimaginable. I hanker after those days).

The manuscript, a copy mainly of Pliny’s letters (in the 8 book tradition), has the shelfmark MS. Reg. lat. 1472. It is dated by its scribe to 1453; he signs himself ‘Val. Sal.’. Val not only writes the text, he adds frequent marginalia, in Greek and in Latin, in black and in red ink. He provides plentiful specimens of various maniculae but he does not confine his ‘nota marks’ to these — as I have said, he also includes several faces, one of them distinctive for the Cyrano-like size of his nose and a chin of stubble which is a few centuries ahead of fashion. But it does not stop there: he also provides an example of the annotating symbol which should be known as the ocululus: I know some examples in Leiden, but here the eye is weeping at the beauty of the text (without any water damage). There are also the familiar Greek symbols, and a few Nota monograms. There are other drawings as well: a flowering plant, for instance (presumably considered an appropriate sign to suggest the text should be put into a florilegium). More unusual and less explicable perhaps is the last intervention: the scribe also draws as a nota symbol a boar’s head, with tusks and an extended snout pointing to the text. The animal, I should add, is wearing an elegant collar.

As I have suggested, there is a history to be written of these symbols. You might think that mere antiquarianism but I hope my short description of the scribe’s playful activities in his book has persuaded you, if of nothing else, of the fact that this manuscript — if you pardon the expression — is no bore.

Hands off the manicule

Posted in Manuscripts, Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 24 November, 2010

Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, said e.e. cummings. He could have said such manicules, since in its Latin root, maniculae, the word means precisely ‘small hands’ — the diminutive of manus. It has come to mean something more specific to those of us who grub around in the margins of books: it is the nota-symbol drawn, sometimes rapidly, sometimes elegantly, as a pointing hand, a fashion that lasted several hundred years. Bill Sherman has discussed manicules with customary verve and insight; he has helped us consider their possible meanings. Except they do not, officially, have an English name; the manicule has no meaning. It does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I discovered this lacuna just now when I typed the term into the OED and was advised that the nearest English word is ‘manicure’. Few of the pointing hands I have seen require such care to their nails (if they have them at all). Bill Sherman similarly noticed in 2005, when entitling an article ‘Toward a History of the Manicule’ that the word – the concept he was championing – had no existence then. Five years on, and despite his work, it is still not recognised.

One wonders why this oversight: is it because it is rude to point? Is there a worry about touching the manicule because you don’t know where it’s been?

My immediate reaction was to call for a campaign, demonstrations with appropriately designed placards demanding dictionary space for the manicule — a truly Pythonesque occasion. But then it struck me that there is something of a badge of honour in being so underground that you have no meaning, something ironic that an image so well-defined can have no definition, and something fitting that a symbol from the margins is considered so marginal. The manicule is precisely beyond the text and, indeed, defines the text rather than being defined by it. So, what has the OED to offer to an extended forefinger that has travelled so widely? If a manicule was to appear, it should not dragooned into line alongside any quotidian term. Frankly, the manicule has no need of the OED. So, rather than campaigning to include it, let’s fight to keep it out of the dictionary. Anyone to join me? Put your manicule up.

And, lest I leave you without an image on which to feast, view a comely, if tiny, manicule, a maniculula if you will. It is by Pier Candido Decembrio, the translator of Plato’s Republic, in a manuscript he himself prepared for Humfrey, duke of Gloucester:

London: British Library, MS. Harl. 1705, fol. 41v.